February 5, 2023

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JWT’s Jeremy Bullmore: a 1960s intellectual at a key turning point for adland


Tributes are still rolling in for Jeremy Bullmore, former JWT creative director (in the days when big agencies had just one), chairman, WPP board director and eminence grise and the wittiest of business agony aunts.

Martin Sorrell in Campaign called him “probably” the best writer of his or any other generation. I doubt that Bullmore, never one to overclaim, would have agreed with this in so far as it refers to copywriters. He did, after all, precede the likes of CDP’s Tony Brignull and Abbott Mead’s David Abbott.

Sorrell also mentions, intriguingly, that Maurice Saatchi tried to lure him to Saatchi & Saatchi in the the 1970s. At the time Saatchis, intent on world domination, was collecting stray senior ad executives like trophies. If there wasn’t a job to do they’d invent one.

The Saatchi brothers in their early days defined themselves against Bullmore’s JWT. JWT in the 1970s was a bit like the later Roman empire, glossy and impressive on the surface, creaking somewhat underneath. The Saatchis were to emperor Bullmore like Attila the Hun to the unfortunate Romans.

Back then the agency trade body the IPA had an unspoken rule that agencies were not to solicit other agencies’ clients. As far as Charles and Maurice was concerned, this was like leaving a prime rib on the doorstep of a hungry wolf. Sorrell too joined the pack in his early career.

JWT was the biggest agency by billings when they really mattered, creative agencies charged between 10 and 15 per cent commission on TV and press billings, more on posters (administered by the in-house media department – JWT’s was substantial.) This made them hugely profitable, far more so than now when they charge by the hour and media is handled elsewhere.

To be the biggest you had to look the biggest and this the Saatchi’s did by renting a building at the Piccadilly end of Berkeley Square in Mayfair overlooking JWT HQ on the adjoining side. There was nobody much in the Saatchi office apart from the brothers (the serfs remained in Charlotte Street) but the Saatchi & Saatchi sign on the building was enormous.

In a relatively short time JWT was overtaken and Bullmore’s actual reign as a manager was not that successful. Before, at JWT in the 1960s and early 1970s, he had a researcher called John Treasure as boss and the two cerebral admen worked brilliantly together. Planning pioneer Stephen King was a key member of this brainy team.

Later under Bullmore JWT had a number of what we would call now CEOs, double-barrelled suits (they seemed to be reared on the Rowntree’s (now Nestle) chocolate business, who were doubtless in their element on a shoot in Scotland but not up to competing with the likes of Saatchi and high-flying, hungry creative agencies including CDP and BMP.

Bullmore is credited with inventing the Mr Kipling brand with its line ‘Exceedingly Good Cakes.” That’s very Bullmore and JWT. Saatchi hit the big time in the UK when it won British Airways with the line “The world’s favourite airline.” That preposterous claim would never have escaped JWT, founded then on its large research operation handily called the British Market Research Bureau.

Bullmore obviously resisted Maurice Saatchi’s offer, declining to be a trophy on the Saatchi wall. He went on to become a genuine polymath at WPP, with his tomes on what advertising was really about and agony aunt columns for Campaign and the Guardian truly in a class of their own (some of the Guardian ones are here.) Many years ago I politely suggested some changes to his copy for a JWT brochure I had become embroiled in. Icy probably describes the response.

But he will be remembered for his intellectual brilliance (and quite often kindness) long after more “successful” ad executives have been long forgotten.



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