A: In his excellent book, The Tyranny Of Numbers, David Boyle quotes the American economist Robert Chambers.
"Quantification brings credibility. But figures and tables can deceive, and numbers construct their own realities. What can be measured and manipulated statistically is then not only seen as real; it comes to be seen as the only or the whole reality."
And Chambers sums it all up in a neat little verse:
"Economists have come to feel
What can't be measured isn't real.
The truth is always an amount.
Count numbers; only numbers count."
So if things that can't be measured aren't thought to be real, people who make their living from selling immeasurable things have no choice but to find ways of seeming to measure them.
How good is a film? A relatively easy one, this: the industry ranks its output by box-office takings. So a $500 million movie is better than a $400 million movie. Everybody knows that there's only a tenuous relationship between something called quality and commercial success. No critics' or audiences' list of the 100 Best Films Ever will coincide with the 100 top-grossing films. But never mind. Box-office takings give us that wonderful security blanket: a number. "Speaking subjectively, chairman, I have to agree with you. But the second pilot commercial did enjoy a seven-point advantage over the first."
Beauty continues to trouble us. 34.24.36 is a touching attempt to quantify the glory of the female form but it somehow doesn't stir the loins, does it?
And then there's creativity. Oh, blimey. Clients know they want it; agencies know they've got to deliver it; but nobody knows what it is, let alone how to measure it. This calls for desperate measures. Thank God for awards schemes.
Awards schemes allow us to scuttle from the purely subjective to the apparently objective under the cover of darkness. Things that win creative awards are by definition creative. All you've got to do now is allocate a number to the awards, add up the points won by each entry - and then the aggregate number of points won by each agency. And suddenly, miraculously (don't look too closely), we know that agency M is 34.6 per cent more creative that Agency F.
And, of course, we won't look too closely because we need numbers and these are undoubtedly the least worse numbers available to us. They have huge, and growing, commercial significance. Even financial analysts study those numbers. Financial analysts know that 235 is better than 146 and so do potential clients when they compile their longlists of agencies to review. Finally we've cracked it. We still don't know what it is, but creativity must be real because we're worked out how to measure it.
When you took on your new ECD, how did you brief him, I wonder? Did you set him a quantifiable target? Did you challenge him to increase your Gunn ranking by a minimum of ten places? And offer him a bonus of 50 per cent of gross salary if he achieved it? In other words, did your brief consist entirely of numbers? If so, what he's up to is entirely predictable. It's deeply dodgy and has nothing whatever to do with the responsible function of an ad agency, but if he succeeds (and until you're publicly rumbled) he'll probably earn his money. At what longer-term cost is another question.
If, on the other hand, you charged him with the production of inventive advertising that made your clients more profitable, then you should fire him before he brings your agency into terminal disrepute.
Q: I'm a puzzled new-business director. I see the respective marketing bodies for mushrooms and potatoes are looking to appoint ad agencies ahead of an awareness drive. Would it be a conflict to pitch for and win both accounts?
A: You may believe experience in category advertising is of value to both mushrooms and potatoes. They may feel you can't be best friends with both. Conflict, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. And it's not your eye that matters, it's the clients'.
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Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via email@example.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP