Fanning pays tribute to Jeremy Bullmore

John Fanning remembers the remarkable English copywriter, media commentator and Jeremy Bullmore who died recently

Jeremy Bullmore died in January. I suspect not many readers noticed his passing, which is a shame as he was widely regarded as ‘advertising’s greatest philosopher’. Bullmore was 93 when he died and had just retired after a long career as a copywriter, creative director and a contributor to trade and national press publications, including a regular column for the Guardian.

He joined J Walter Thompson (JWT) as a copywriter in 1954, when it was the biggest and most prestigious advertising agency. The agency’s Berkeley Square headquarters in the heart of the West End attracted the enviable sobriquet: ‘University of Advertising’. The nickname was well-deserved as the building was home to some of the finest minds that our discipline has ever seen.

Together they enhanced our understanding of how advertising works, dispelling many myths prevalent at the time, especially the old chestnut that ad recall was tied in with effectiveness. They wrote some of the most important academic papers on how advertising works and developed account planning; they invented that eminently practical tool – the account planning cycle.

‘Successful brands, as every bit of evidence shows,

needs both activation and brand-building – Jeremy Bullmore

                                                                              Photo: Keith McMillan

JWT was also a very posh agency. Account executives and marketing personnel, who often acted as the client’s marketing department, were recruited directly from Oxford or Cambridge and wore double-breasted suits (the secretaries were reputed to have triple-barreled names!). There was even an agency choir. Bullmore became creative director in the 1960’s before retiring in 1987.

By then, JWT was part of the global WPP group and he was invited to join the board where he wrote a series of long essays for their annual reports, by far the most interesting part of the said documents. He was often invited to present papers at industry conferences, workshops and seminars where his characteristically wry, witty and charming style was always appreciated.

Many of Bullmore’s articles are collected in two books; Behind the Scenes in Advertising and More Bull More. It would be both impossible and unwise in a short article to do justice to the extraordinary range of his writing, but two consistent themes are worth a mention. Although an instinctive creative talent, he was also knowledgeable about the philosophy behind the craft.

He regularly quoted from academic writings on the subject of creativity, in particular Arthur Koestler, Karl Popper and Peter Medawar. A critical lesson he absorbed from them was the importance of implicit, as opposed to explicit, communication and the role of humour in achieving this goal. Communication is far more effective when the recipient itself makes the final connection.

Bullmore offered a number of examples but the best is the famous ad for the Democrats in the 1960 US presidential election showing a picture of Republican candidate Richard Nixon, not for nothing known as ‘Tricky Dicky’, with the simple headline; ‘Would you buy a used car from this man?’ Enough said. Orlando Wood’s writings can be seen as a development of this thinking.

The second recurring theme in Bullmore’s writing was his dismay at the comparative lack of curiosity in adland about the latest academic writing on the subject. He began one piece by asking readers to imagine having to undergo an operation when the anesthetist lets slip that the surgeon about to apply the knife has not read any of the academic literature on the subject for the last ten years.

You wouldn’t be amused but many of the people who are about to invest large sums of client money in marketing communications campaigns are blithely unaware of the latest thinking on the subject. Bullmore’s advice about how to succeed was to have the broadest possible range of interests.

He wrote “every good person in advertising that I have known have always had two main characteristics… there was no subject under the sun that they could not easily get interested, and they were extensive browsers in all sorts of fields. Much of today’s advertising appears to have been produced in total isolation from and total ignorance of the real world outside”. How prescient.

He coined a typically apposite line for what characterises a good adman; their mind should be like “a well-stocked pantry”. When summing up Bullmore, I can think of no better way to conclude than a quote from Hamlet: “He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not see his like again.” WPP have launched a Bullmore archive containing his collected writing.

It’s well worth a visit.

John Fanning lectures on branding and marketing communications at the UCD Smurfit Graduate Business School;



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