Chris Powell’s involvement in the Labour Party’s advertising goes
back to 1972, when chaotic strategy meetings were held at Tony Benn’s
Holland Park house over endless mugs of Benn’s trademark tea.
Boase Massimi Pollitt was a team of 20 people, most of whom were
committed to Labour, based in Goodge Street. The feeling was not mutual:
the party was hostile towards the dark, capitalist art of advertising
and had accused the Tories of introducing something ’alien to our
British democracy’ when it appointed Colman Prentis Varley in 1959.
’Working with Labour in those days was a weird concept. It was nothing
like a normal client relationship,’ Powell recalls. There was badly
organised chaos: on the eve of a general election, party officials
summoned all the volunteers who had offered their services to St
Ermine’s Hotel at St James’s Park. So 25 people who had never met would
try to agree an election slogan.
It was all very different to the slick New Labour machine that won a
landslide victory in 1997, Powell’s fifth and last election, after which
BMP DDB stood down as the party’s agency.
Now Powell, adopting a lower profile at BMP since moving from chief
executive to chairman, has mapped out his 30-year journey in a book, How
the Left learned to love Advertising, to record BMP’s best ads for
Labour, trade unions and pressure groups such as Amnesty International
and War on Want. The book is dedicated to Keith Sands, BMP’s former head
of production, who died recently. It includes a testimonial from Tony
Blair, who says that an important part of Labour’s modernisation has
been learning to communicate effectively with the public.
BMP’s work, he says, ’did much to bring about that change’.
Some things haven’t changed since the old days. Politicians were quick
to take the credit for a good ad but quick to blame the admen for one
Paltry ad budgets were halved in case the election was drawn and there
was a replay. It was believed that all advertising had to stop once an
election was called, so Benn’s Holland Park soirees were often about
leaflets and car stickers. When the popular leaflets sold out, Labour
officials ordered party workers to ’get rid of the other ones first’ and
refused to have the effective ones reprinted.
At strategy meetings with senior Labour politicians such as James
Callaghan, Denis Healey and Benn, Powell recalls, ’all the argument was
about whose turn it was to be in a party political broadcast. They all
got incredibly cross. It wasn’t very edifying.’
Admen were viewed with suspicion. ’We were regarded as skivvies, and
advertising as some low-level, tedious thing.’ Yet there were important
differences inside the party. ’In my experience, the real objection to
advertising in the Labour Party has been from the (Labour) right. There
is an aesthetic, anti-commercial feeling that we shouldn’t get involved
’The left knew what propaganda was and embraced it,’ Powell says, citing
Communist propaganda in the Spanish civil war and the agit-prop art of
the French students in 1968.
These roots perhaps explain the ’Benn and Ken’ factor in the story of
how Labour embraced advertising. It was Benn who modernised Labour’s
radio and TV broadcasts in the 50s - and often starred in them. Yet it
was Livingstone who ran the highest-profile advertising ever used by the
British left, during his campaign as leader of the Greater London
Council in 1984, when it was threatened with abolition by Margaret
Powell has no doubt that the GLC campaign was one of two seminal moments
in recent political advertising, the other being the Saatchi brothers’
arrival on the scene in 1978. ’The GLC campaign showed that advertising
could work for the left.’ he says. But was it really Ken?
Some former GLC colleagues recall that the real driving force behind the
campaign was John McDonnell, then Livingstone’s deputy and now a Labour
MP. ’Ken was wary and kept out of it until it was a success,’ one ex-GLC
man says. ’By the end he was turning up for leaving parties for junior
people at BMP.’
Livingstone jokes now that his use of advertising was ’hijacked by the
Labour right for evil purposes’ and blames Peter Mandelson, who took
over as the party’s director of communications in 1985.
Mandelson set up the Shadow Communications Agency (SCA), a team of
volunteers from the ad industry, which was little more than a front
organisation for BMP. As well as giving the Tories as good as they got,
the admen converted Labour to the benefits of research and focus groups,
which helped to persuade a reluctant party to swallow Neil Kinnock’s
Although Livingstone’s campaign changed attitudes, Powell says the man
who really converted Labour to advertising was Mandelson. But Mandelson
says that three others should share the credit - Powell, Philip Gould,
the former adman who co-ordinated the SCA, and Barry Delaney, then
creative director of Delaney Fletcher Delaney, who worked on the party’s
broadcasts. ’Chris Powell is the thinking man’s advertising executive,’
Mandelson says. ’He made advertising respectable on the left.’
The SCA’s ads won widespread praise but Labour lost the election. ’We
all expected more,’ Powell admits. ’It was heady stuff because we were
all receiving piles of adulation. It was a salutary lesson: doing
advertising and general campaigning that is professional, catches the
eye and causes a stir doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere if you
haven’t got a message that is salient to the electorate. We never really
had that until 1997.’
In 1992, Labour again won the campaign but lost the election. ’We have
had enough brilliant defeats,’ Powell told friends. Saatchis launched
its ’tax bombshell’, which Powell rates as the best political ad of the
past 30 years.
During Labour’s inquest, the SCA was set up as a scapegoat by some
Labour figures who complained that leading figures such as Gould and
Patricia Hewitt, then Kinnock’s press secretary, were not accountable to
Labour appointed Butterfield Day Devito Hockney, but the sudden death of
John Smith in 1994 brought Blair to the leadership and Powell back to
the front line, with BMP working officially for the party this time.
In 1997, BMP played a different, but crucial, role in securing Blair’s
landslide by helping to persuade two million Tory voters to stay at home
by fuelling their resentment about the Major regime.
’It was pretty boring stuff but we had to pin it relentlessly on them,’
Powell says. He concedes that it was Saatchi & Saatchi - by then minus
Maurice and Charles - rather than BMP that suggested Labour’s ’enough is
enough’ theme, even though he includes it in his book. In fact, he says,
the slogan was first used by the Australian Labor Party.
Was it difficult for BMP that Labour was sounding out other
Powell says Labour bosses were seeking an ad to rival Saatchis’ 1979
’Labour isn’t working’ picture of a dole queue. ’You come up with a
poster with that impact once in a generation: Labour, quite rightly,
wanted one. When we hadn’t provided it, they started talking to all
sorts of people.’ The episode highlighted a constant dilemma during his
long relationship with Labour: should the party rely on volunteers or
employ a single agency?
During the 1997 campaign, the party tried to ride both horses at
’The whole point of the SCA was to bring in all the talents available in
advertising. Labour insisted that we do it commercially in 1997, so it
was difficult to try to do it both ways at once,’ Powell says.
Which system is best? Powell believes that it is better to employ all
the talents as long as one agency will guarantee to deliver the work, as
BMP did for the SCA.
The long, painful march back to power finally completed, Powell, too,
decided that enough was enough. He did not want BMP to have to shoulder
the heavy financial and work pressure of another campaign. Labour wanted
an agency rather than volunteers and opted for TBWA GGT Simons Palmer.
But some things don’t change and Powell is happy that Labour will be in
the hands of Trevor Beattie, one of the team put together by Mandelson
Powell will probably miss it come the next election, but he believes in
allowing the next generation to get on with it - as he does at BMP.
He is also busy as the chairman of Ealing, Hammersmith and Hounslow
Health Authority. As he departs the stage of political advertising, he
fears the genre may be in decline. ’The trick in advertising is to have
a powerful message and put it across powerfully. The emphasis has become
almost overwhelmingly on putting it across powerfully and losing sight
of the need for the right message.’
This trend reached a pinnacle, he says, with M&C Saatchi’s 1997 campaign
for the Tories, epitomised by its ’demon eyes’ ad. Powell detects ’a
conspiracy between the media and some politicians that a good ad equals
Commercial people don’t see the world that way. Everyone wants their ads
to be talked about but the most important thing is to find the nerve end
which, if you jump up and down on it, will get people to behave in the
way you want them to. In politics, people have perhaps lost sight of
that over the years.’
Today’s politicians are doing it by themselves. ’They have learned the
tricks of the advertising trade - focus groups, the need to make it
brief and catchy, for continuity and repetition. So the role of an
agency is to come up with some bright wheezes to fit their strategies.’
But there are dangers in such an approach.
’The absolute best advertising is a well- thought out strategy, executed
powerfully and I think agencies have more to contribute than they are
asked to do,’ Powell says. He is convinced Labour will never again
declare ideological war on advertising. But he suspects the parties will
be spending less, partly as a result of new legal spending limits, and
will turn their backs on advertising if they feel, as the Tories did in
1997, that it is a waste of money.
Powell fears that the short-term focus of most politicians may result in
less impressive political ads. Perhaps it is no coincidence that some
Labour MPs are now accusing Blair of being more interested in spin than
’The world is defined by how the media reacts to something, not how the
audience reacts. For politicians and their advisers, it can be about the
next day’s newspapers,’ Powell says.
How the Left learned to love Advertising is published by BMP DDB.