£100m no-deal ad blitz: 'the brief for our vexatious century'

Engine leads marketing blitz to convince nation of virtues of no-deal Brexit.

Boris Johnson: spearheading a reported £100m three-month marketing blitz. Credit: Getty Images
Boris Johnson: spearheading a reported £100m three-month marketing blitz. Credit: Getty Images

Back in 2016, David Cameron’s government spent around £9m to leaflet UK homes and convince the public to back Remain. At the same time, Boris Johnson was instrumental in Vote Leave’s infamous (and cheap) bus-side message: "We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead." The public bought the latter.

Today Johnson is prime minister and overseeing a reported £100m three-month marketing blitz led by Engine to convince the nation of the virtues of a no-deal Brexit.

While the government does not need to "sell" Brexit to Leavers, and Johnson has made it clear he’s not interested in appeasing strident Remainers, Uncommon co-founder Lucy Jameson suspects the thrust of the campaign will target a wavering section of the population.

"Those people who are a bit more agnostic about it, maybe not particularly onboard but hovering, who think any more delay and messing around will cause pain," she says.

The government’s own "Prepare for Brexit" online hub, which government ads have driven traffic to since January, is a clue that much of the communications will hinge on pragmatism.

While Jameson is emphatic that she would never willingly work on such a brief, if she were forced to, her focus would be on "risk mitigation, making sure people understand the legal and trade implications".

"But I think there will be quite a bit of propaganda in it still, a lot around how Britain is going to be great again and taking back control," she says. "‘We’ve been listening to you, and now we’re actually doing it.’"

David Bain, co-founder and chief strategy officer of BMB, is in full-on sarcasm mode, describing Engine’s remit as "the brief our vexatious century has been waiting for".

Conjuring an image of Johnson astride a unicorn, he says: "Let’s convince a nation that poorer is richer, that uncertain is sovereign and that no deal is the real deal, the only deal we ever wanted all along."

But Tammy Einav, joint chief executive at Adam & Eve/DDB, describes the scale of the budget as "a major vote of confidence in our industry and its ability to influence and shape public opinion at a pivotal time".

Like Jameson, she reckons communications need to address the concerns of the waverers, and to "instil confidence in a government that – while one hopes is busy working on the best possible outcome – is preparing the nation for the ‘worst case’ of a no deal".

Johnson reportedly took inspiration from Margaret Thatcher’s 1988 "Europe open for business" drive. Commentators have noted the irony given the campaign was about entering the single market, not leaving it.

But Einav sees a parallel: "It will be interesting to see if this campaign can create a bigger, more optimistic narrative beyond 31 October, one which celebrates Britain’s place in the world and looks firmly to the future."

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