Jeremy Bullmore – age cannot wither him

I wonder what Jeremy Bullmore will say when he steps up to receive his Mackintosh Medal at the Advertising Association President’s dinner on June 15th?

My guess is the address will be Gettysberg-like in its brevity and fluency. It will contain a modest disavowal of his personal achievement, followed by a number of wry observations on the industry he has served with distinction since 1954.

It would be presumptuous to second-guess what these might be, but one theme which readily presents itself for a bit of gentle ribbing is the medal itself. If there have been 37 awards in total since the scheme was instituted in 1951, why is it that only 8 of them have been bestowed in the last 30 years? It’s possible that there was a restrictive rule change that happened about 1980, of which I am unaware. This was certainly the case with the most distinguished service award of them all, the Victoria Cross. At the time of its inception, during the Crimean War, medals were handed out with a gusto never matched in subsequent generations. For good reason: the Queen’s advisors, worried by incipient medal inflation, decided to make the selection criteria much more rigorous.

Let’s hope that’s the case with the Mackintosh Medal as well. Because the alternative is almost unthinkable. Is the advertising industry of the past 30 years only one quarter as talented as the generation which preceded it? Although there have been a number of deserving recent recipients (Archie Pitcher, David Bernstein and Ron Miller among them), a few of us would certainly warm to that suggestion. The industry is simply less entrepreneurial, lively – in a word, fun – than it was 30 years ago. Instead of personalities, we have procurement and other buttoned-down business processes; instead of instinct and intuition, we have the great god ROI. Worryingly, it’s a less attractive place for talented graduates; it’s a less remunerative one, too – compared at least to the siren attractions of management consultancy.

But wait a minute, you say. Isn’t the current Bullmore award living contradiction of that argument? In an age of dull specialists, Bullmore surely approximates to Renaissance man? (He’s certainly got the gentlemanly “sprezzatura”; I’m not so sure about the archery, the singing and the dancing, but do know that he qualified for his pilot’s licence when he was about 60.)

Well, yes indeed. Yet I’m not alone in wondering why Bullmore has had to wait until he is 82 to receive this long-merited award. Conceivably, a part of it may be personal reluctance to accept the honour: becoming a formal industry “treasure” can be tiresome and perhaps a little uncomfortable. Bullmore, for all his establishment credentials – creative director and chairman of JWT, co-founder of account planning, chairman of the AA – retains an inscrutable air of ironic detachment. It’s best illustrated by his sense of humour: lapidary in print, lateral and quick-witted in action. There must be plenty who remember his bravura performance as after-dinner speaker at the annual Marketing Society conference bash a while ago, during which – with the aid of a pair of oversized dice, all 12 sides of which bore a single, differentiated word –  he graphically illustrated the severe mental limitations of those who aspire to name conferences. However, my favourite Bullmore anecdote dates to a few years beforehand, when he was still chairman of JWT. A speech coach, who was hoping to peddle her wares to the agency, had managed to engineer an interview with him. Finding herself on the wrong side of his famous verbal dexterity, and being an actress by training, she decided to wrongfoot him with the melodramatic ruse of throwing herself to the floor and crawling under his desk while he was still seated there. Without a moment’s hesitation, Bullmore crawled under the desk to join her: “Have you lost something?” he asked.

Anyway, back to the point. “Industry sage” is an overworked epiphet, but in Bullmore’s case it’s entirely deserved. If you still don’t believe me have a look at this essay, written as a foreword to a WPP annual report and entitled: “If We Choose to Believe What Emerson Didn’t Say, Then We’re All Doomed.”  It’s on the uses and abuses of marketing. They don’t make them like that any more.

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