Why were some 50 agencies so keen to offer their services to a
client who has made it clear that they would be paid much less than the
going commercial rates?
Because the client is the Labour Party and party political campaigns
have always been more about kudos than cash.
Saatchi & Saatchi, J. Walter Thompson, Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper and TBWA
GGT Simons Palmer, who have all been shortlisted by Labour (Campaign, 10
March), go into next week’s pitch with their eyes wide open. They know
that BMP DDB stood down as Labour’s agency because it had to subsidise
the party’s 1997 general election campaign to the tune of pounds 1
million and did not want to take a similar hit next time.
But for some agency bosses the lure of the Labour account is
’It’s been my lifelong dream,’ Tamara Ingram, the chief executive at
Saatchis, says. ’For me, it is all about personal commitment. I want
Labour to be the party of this century.’
She would head a team of equally committed Labour supporters if Saatchis
wins the account and is confident that the agency’s strong links with
the Tories - before the split with Maurice and Charles -will not count
Labour bosses are seeking a financial as well as a political commitment
and the four agencies seem happy to oblige.
’There would definitely be costs involved,’ Mark Robinson, JWT’s
marketing director, says. ’Labour has to have an agency that can afford
it. No agency will be in it to make money but it will not have to do it
for free. Labour, not the agency, will pay the full price of the poster
Robinson says JWT is excited by the prospect of working for Labour.
’People have different views about whether a party needs an agency that
supports it politically. We take the view that it does, which is
primarily why we’ve gone for it.’
Nor have the four agencies been deterred by a new pounds 20 million
limit on total campaign spending by each party in the 12 months before
polling day, which will result in a much smaller ad budget than the
pounds 7.6 million spent in 1997.
Of course, everyone loves a winner. Although the Government has suffered
a bout of the mid-term blues since the turn of the year, Labour’s 178-
strong majority means it would take a political earthquake to shift Tony
Blair from Downing Street.
Capturing the Labour prize would guarantee a high profile, especially
during the election. ’Being associated with a victory would more than
compensate for the financial side,’ one senior agency figure says.
However, most agency chiefs admit privately that the Labour account has
its downside too. General election campaigns require huge resources,
which can affect other clients, and working under great pressure for
political masters who are quick to blame the agency for an unsuccessful
ad can take its toll.
Nailing an agency’s colours to a party’s mast can also alienate other
clients. But Blair has wooed industry so assiduously that this is
unlikely to be a big problem for Labour’s new shop.
Indeed, the number of big agencies prepared to work for Labour is a
testament to the party’s new-found respectability. It has reversed roles
with the Conservatives since the early 80s when most agencies would not
have touched Labour with a barge pole.
On the face of it, the Labour account could boost an agency’s prospects
of landing government business.
It would guarantee access to the New Labour hierarchy - the election
campaign will be run by Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. However,
government pitches are supervised by civil servants and the Central
Office of Information is scrupulous about getting the best agency for
the job regardless of political affiliations.
Some agencies believe that party accounts can actually make it harder to
win government business.
After sticking loyally with Labour during its 18 years in the
wilderness, BMP’s reward after Labour’s 1997 victory was to lose its
role as lead agency for the Department of Social Security.
BMP bosses were frustrated by their failure to make the shortlist for
some Whitehall pitches. Labour is sensitive to Tory allegations of
sleaze and so ministers might think twice about giving government work
to the party’s agency.
Indeed, the absence of St Luke’s from the Labour shortlist is believed
to be partly due to its success in winning government work.
’Agencies should be free to work for both a government and party and I
don’t think a party account would either help or hinder them,’ a senior
Whitehall official insists. He said there would have to be Chinese walls
at an agency running campaigns for both at the same time. ’The only
problem would be a campaign on the same issue.’
Another potential minus is that getting into bed with one party will
hardly help an agency when its rival returns to power. Both Labour and
Tory ministers are believed to have ordered that shops linked to their
opponents be left off government shortlists.
Although Blair admits that the Tories are ’not dead, only sleeping’,
agencies know that Labour should be in office for at least another five
years, so the threat of Tory reprisals is muted. As Saatchis’ surprise
place on the Labour shortlist shows, in politics, yesterday’s enemy can
easily become today’s friend.