Fifty-one days isn’t a long time in the business of campaign creation, particularly when the campaign in question involves running the country. Yet this is what the UK’s political parties and their agencies are doing ahead of 8 June’s snap election, and the results have been mixed to say the least.
“While we'd always argue that the creative process benefits from time, sometimes – just sometimes – it's quite fun to have 24 hours to come up with as many ideas as you can,” said Dan Shute, chief executive of the Green Party’s agency Creature of London. “It's like a training exercise, just with the political future of the UK at stake.”
He recalled: “The first steps were to get on the tube to Portcullis House to sit down with [co-leaders] Caroline Lucas, Jonathan Bartley and their comms team to work out what the hell we were going to say about an election that nobody was expecting, and nobody really wanted.
“Fortunately, they're fucking brilliant, so we left Westminster an hour later with a brief starting to take shape in our heads, which was good, because it was looking like we were only going to have a fortnight to make a Party Election Broadcast.”
The resulting spot for the Green Party was #ChangeTheGame, a 90s board game ad spoof that was revealed last Friday (12 May). Following on from 2016’s revered ‘The not so secret life of five-year-old politicians’, it is arguably one of the only truly creative pieces of work that has been produced over the last four weeks.
Labour’s broadcast offering featured a celebrity name in the form of Maxine Peake, yet this nevertheless took on the traditional trope of a somber piece to camera. UKIP and the Liberal Democrats, who haven’t hired an agency for the campaign, followed suit (although Paul Nuttall’s version still manage to provide fodder for satirists).
But for Alastair Allday, a freelance creative and political commentator who deems the election marketing collateral as “very dull” so far, there is more than one way to be creative in political advertising. “You just have to look at the strategy and the media buy,” he said. “For instance, targeted digital banners were extremely effective in reaching the right people in the Vote Leave campaign last year.
“Creatives won't like me saying it, but we're living in an era of smart digital tactics driven by big data. That’s where the ‘creative’ stuff is happening these days. Making a clever ad is one way of achieving cut through; shouting is another one. And it’s much easier to get a shouty ad made fast than something that’s truly smart.”
As for campaign strategy, Allday believes the Conservatives are "off to a flying start”.
“I’m sure they had a set of plans ready to go – you know, ‘in case of snap election, break glass’,” he said. “Labour don’t know what’s hit them. They seem to be spending more money convincing people to register to vote rather than promoting their policies, which says they’re really a long way behind."
Saying that, Allday judges that the Tories' 'Tax Bombshell' ad to be "bloody awful.”
That poster – a double assault on Corbyn’s pacifist views and tax hike plans produced one of the very few PR gaffes of the election so far when David Davis was in inadvertently framed by “hell for your family” at the press call – ala Nicola Murray in The Thick of It, as Twitter was quick to point out.
One for any "In the thick if it" fans - David Davis has a Nicola Murray moment! pic.twitter.com/jP91Ro0tGj — Ian Cawsey (@iancawsey) May 3, 2017
But compared to 2015’s memorable moments – Ed Miliband’s pledges carved in stone, the Tories’ women-luring, Barbie-pink minivan – all earned media strategies been rather tame to date. Did the Leave campaign’s much maligned NHS bus kill the PR stunt completely?
“These could be famous last words, but I don’t think we’ll see anything quite like the pink bus this election,” said Rich Leigh, founder of Radioactive PR. “With Theresa May and her team doing everything in their power to hide away – a carefully-managed trip here or there aside – knowing that they have this election all but wrapped up, it’s unlikely we’ll see anything too flashy from the Tories.
“Across the way, between running journalists over and Dianne Abbot’s repeated mathematical gaffes, Labour will – or at least should – be doing everything it can to mount as serious and manifesto-orientated an attack as possible. Added to that, the Milistone will still be casting a shadow across the nightmares of the people that had to smilingly unveil it, as well it should.”
May vs. Corbyn
This time around, the two main parties’ strategies have been all about their respective leaders. When not dramatically warning voters away from Corbyn, the Tories’ campaign contnet prominently features Theresa May looking as strong and steady as possible. Her photo also features heavily on the Conservatives’ social media sites, and while the party doesn’t have an official presence outside of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, it has been investing in Instagram advertising for the ‘Theresa May’ account.
“It's the same tactic Le Pen took in France, where it was 'Vote Marine' not vote 'Front National',” said Allday. “It’s a very smart move in places where the Tories are toxic but Theresa is not.”
Labour has, perhaps understandably, erred away from shining a similar spotlight on Corbyn. However this has meant its creative has been substantially more diverse than that of its biggest rival, particularly on social – the battleground that most prophesised would be key in the snap election war.
“When it comes to content, it’s Labour that creates the most diverse formats, with gifs, video, animation and stills dominating – possibly playing into younger demographic preferences” noted Katy Howell, chief executive of Immediate Future. “Labour are more experimental, for example using the Instagram grid to create bigger collage pictures.
“May is seen in various poses ‘in office’ and at ‘official ceremonies’, giving the impression of someone capable of managing power. Conversely, Corbyn is seen with voters, at the park, on the doorstep: a man of the people. And vanity metrics seem to matter most to Labour: they are clearly targeting their social paid ads at driving followers (not the smartest of approaches). The Tories are focused on targeting specific messages to various segments rather than gaining followers.”
Facebook is no doubt the most crucial platform in this election. This year, Labour is reportedly seeking to match the Conservatives’ 2015 Facebook ad spending of £1.2m; comparably Corbyn’s party only spent £160,000 two years ago with Zuckerburg’s advertising machine, and according to the Financial Times, sources in the Labour camp believe the mistaking of “lots of likes as an effective [digital] campaign” played a crucial part in Labour’s loss.
These reports have been qualified by Who Targets Me, a crowd-sourced project that tracks political advertising on Facebook. The organisation has so far traced 70% of general election ads logged on Facebook back to Labour. A source told The Drum earlier in the campaign that the party was unlikely to spend anywhere near what the Electoral Commission allows it to due to the campaign time constraint, but with the ease in which space can be bought on Facebook – notwithstanding its key role in Trump’s success – it’s not surprising that Labour has chosen to allocate a much higher proportion of its spend to the social platform.
'Overnight and at weekends'
For the parties’ agencies, 8 June is still very far away. But while they may privately groan at the workload now sitting on their desks, most shops seem positive about the position they found themselves in on 18 April.
Krow was hired by Labour back in November in anticipation of this very situation. John Quarrey, the agency’s founder, said: “We’ve got a load of young people who have a strong affinity for the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn in particular, who would work every hour of the day on it if they could.
“We just balance that with the other stuff we’re doing. It’s good fun and really interesting. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, so we’re really enjoying it.”
Similarly there's a “really positive atmosphere” at the Women’s Equality Party’s (WEP) lead agency Now, with “everyone excited by the challenge and keen to help out,” according to co-founder and chief strategy officer Kate Waters.
“We've had to change some of our normal processes, squeeze timings and streamline sign-offs for example, but it's created a really strong and involved team, where everyone is writing lines, checking facts and copy and generally 'leaning in' to do what they can to help," she continued. "We're learning a lot about how to produce a lot of work in a very short time - so some practices, like twice-daily team meetings to brainstorm ideas, we might well transfer to other projects.”
Shute was a little more frank when asked how his agency Creature of London is coping with the unexpected critical workload.
“There's a truism in advertising: you're never too busy for a fucking brilliant brief, and that's definitively what a Green Party party election broadcast brief is,” he said. “The fundamental essence of that brief is always 'How can we do political comms as differently as the Green Party does politics?', which is a hell of a fun place for a team to start from.
“Or, to put it another way, we squeezed it in overnight and at weekends.”
So what’s to come? Disregarding the manifesto leak and cameraman injuring incident, The Drum understands Labour still has a number of key set pieces up its sleeve. The Lib Dems ( “….Tim who?” said Michael Moszynski, chief executive of London Advertising) have yet to show us anything but an innocuous battle bus, and WEP promises a campaign that “will make you smile and then make you think”.
When it comes to the Tories – who are still neither confirming nor denying whether they've again hired M&C Saatchi – it’s safe to assume we won’t be seeing anything too madcap: just like their leader, their campaign is certainly strong and steady.
“I think there is time for some memorable ads as the messaging, especially for the Conservatives, is in such a rich territory,” said Moszynski. “So I expect we will see some great ads equivalent of the Ed Miliband in Alex Salmon’s pocket or Nicola Sturgeon as the puppet master.”
But, he added, the expectation of iconic creative could be misplaced.
“Winning elections is not about winning a Cannes Lion,” he said. “It is about getting your vote out whilst suppressing that of your opponent.”