Opinion: On the Campaign Couch ... with JB

Q: The AAR has recently reported a significant decline in the number of agency pitches during 2009 - is this a good thing?

A: I don't suppose you've ever been the marketing director of a huge and famous company for which communication has always been critically important? No, neither have I. But the thought of being ultimately responsible for the appointment of a new ad agency absolutely terrifies me.

Case histories seldom chronicle advertising disasters. We all know instances of great campaigns that have rocketed brands and marketing directors into stratospheric levels of fame and fortune. But in the dark recesses of our trade, there are other stories: nightmare stories, in which agencies determined to break some non-existent mould have challenged stage-struck clients to show what they're made of. The outrageous campaign bombs in research, ultimate proof of its brilliance. And £50 million later, the client board meets, the marketing director decides to spend more time with his family and the responsible agency quietly turns its attention to other matters.

The decline in the number of pitches is neither good nor bad. But it may reflect a rather more mature (some would say, craven) approach to agency appointments.

Just maybe, steady-as-you-go is a more prudent way of conducting business than cash-or-bust.

Q: In one of Malcolm Gladwell's essays in his new book, called What The Dog Saw, he raises questions about our obsession with intellectual property, having suffered from the experience of being plagiarised himself. He quotes Thomas Jefferson saying: "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me."

But surely someone who copies someone else does diminish them, by creating a competing source of "light" and thus in relative terms "darkening" the original source in the eyes of others?

A: I'm reminded of that hoary old college debating society motion: "In the Opinion of this House, the Great Scientist is at Least as Great as the Great Artist" - or words to that effect. And the proposer of that motion invariably loses because the opposer of the motion makes the following knock-out point.

Copernicus, Newton, Darwin and Einstein all made astonishing discoveries that changed the way the world thought. But what they discovered already existed; and it seems utterly inevitable that, sooner rather than later, somebody else would have worked out that the earth went round the sun and that the world was as it was as a result of natural selection over millions of years.

By contrast, Michelangelo and Rembrandt and William Shakespeare not only created things that had never before existed; but, critically, had Michelangelo and Rembrandt and Shakespeare not created them, they would have remained forever uncreated.

The lightbulb would certainly have been invented but never Hamlet. It therefore follows that the artist is greater than the scientist. Boom boom.

People like Malcolm Gladwell (who write bestselling books with monosyllabic titles such as Nudge! Blink! Think! and Wink!) are more scientist than artist. They uncover existing truths and articulate them so that others can understand and apply them.

It's valuable work and deliberately invites adoption. Indeed, one measure of this kind of scientist's success is the degree to which new understanding is fed into mainstream thinking.

So I suppose Jefferson is right in believing that he himself is undiminished when others receive and employ his ideas; indeed, the more his ideas are received and adopted, the greater his standing. Darwin didn't need to patent the idea of natural selection in order to benefit from it. But what about the Rev. W Awdry?

Had the Rev. W Awdry not invented Thomas the Tank Engine, Thomas would have remained forever uninvented. On the desirability of such an outcome, opinion may be divided; but there can be no doubt that anyone appropriating Thomas for their own use, as if he were a revelation rather than an invention, would have seriously diminished the Rev. W Awdry: in both reputation and income.

When trying to disentangle the complicated questions of intellectual property, plagiarism and open-source knowledge, the fundamental difference between the Rev. W Awdry and Charles Darwin may be worth bearing in mind.

- "Ask Jeremy", a collection of Jeremy Bullmore's Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10. Telephone (020) 8267 4919.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Rd, London W6 7JP.