On the Campaign couch
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch

Do you think political parties would be better off if they consulted ad agencies on their campaigns, or do you think we should just leave well alone?

"Leave well alone"? You flatter them. But I’m not sure that ad agencies have that much to offer political parties because what the best agencies are best at is precisely what political parties never seem to want.

Agencies more than earn their money when they help companies build and maintain the value of their brands. They understand the nature of those brands – and the nature of their consumers. Painstakingly and consistently, hint by hint, clue by clue, usually working more through association than by claim or proposition, the advertising – in all media, including packaging – keeps the reputation of brands alive and well; and, above all, positive. Most of these brands are repeat-purchase brands and their owners are aware that their consumers choose them (or not) perhaps 20 times or more in the course of a year. The need for communication is constant.

If political parties ever attempt to do anything similar, they don’t do it through paid-for communications. They do it through their manifestos, their speeches, their party political broadcasts and, above all and increasingly, through the photo-op presidential presentation of their leaders. (The brief Cameron hug-a-husky period was a deliberate attempt to detoxify the nasty party.) Furthermore, consistency is non-existent. Speeches and "initiatives" are cobbled together overnight in uncoordinated response to the latest news event, opinion poll or focus group. The only time that parties feel the urgent need to advertise is general election time: the first opportunity that most voters have had for several years to make a choice.

And because it’s far too late to embark on a painstaking, hint by hint, clue by clue brand-building campaign, it’s widely believed that their limited resources – over a strictly limited time period – are most effectively deployed in trying to terrify the electorate about the alternatives. And, given the circumstances, that’s probably true.

If you regret having chosen a particular breakfast cereal, you won’t buy it next week. If you regret having chosen a particular political party, you’re stuck with it for the next five years: the potential consequences are severe.

So positive advertising and negative advertising are not equivalent ends of the same scale. They are asymmetrical. Positive advertising takes time and patience. Negative advertising can stop people, there and then, from taking what they’re invited to see as a serious, irrevocable risk. Back in 1960, "Would you buy a used car from this man?" as a caption to the shifty-looking Richard Nixon may well have won John F Kennedy his presidency. Everybody mentions "Labour isn’t working". No wholly positive campaign, no vision of the sunny uplands, has been credited with a political victory. Even the favourite strategy of an incumbent, "Let us finish the job", is backed by threat: "Don’t let them ruin it."

So if I were running a political party’s election campaign, I wouldn’t hire an agency. There’d just be endless meetings with planners telling me that I should have started four years ago. But I might run a competition, open to all agencies, for the best killer poster.

The client we are working with is annoyed that I am pregnant and will be off for maternity leave soon. I have assured her that I will leave them in good hands. What else can I do?

Cue outrage. What an unfeeling, self-obsessed, materialistic, cold-blooded disgrace of a creature this client must be! And what’s more, a woman! She should be ashamed of herself!

Now take a deep breath and count to 20. Your crime is not to have conceived a child. Your crime is to have served your client impeccably; to have ironed out wrinkles before they became visible; to have provided her with work to show and words to say that have raised her high in the eyes of her management. You have become indispensable – and the thought of having to face that quarterly review without you at her side has induced in her a fear so paralysing that it’s driven out all else.

Take her annoyance for the compliment it is; and give her the confidence to go it alone.

‘Ask Jeremy’, a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE