The EU referendum outcome marks the death of the experts
A view from Charles Vallance

The EU referendum outcome marks the death of the experts

Like other seismic events, we'll remember where we were when Brexit happened.

I was at the Cannes Lions, albeit on the fringes given how it is now dominated by the megacorps of this world. The shock of the result was, however, deep and palpable. Cannes felt like it was in mourning. Ad folk up and down La Croisette moaned into their macchiatos and bristled over their brioches. Before the Fancy Dans of the big networks popped up to Saint-Paul-de-Vence or on to an adjacent superyacht, they were going to spare themselves no hardship. From the pages of Campaign, the verdict was brutal: there had been a "catastrophic failure of the communications industry to mount a coherent and powerful pro-EU message".

It was impossible for me to dispute this verdict, painful though it was to digest alongside yesterday’s baguette that stared up at me reproachfully from the kitchen table of my Airbnb. I wandered down Boulevard Montfleury to the Old Town, where the cafes were packed with agency luminaries and global power brokers. How, I wondered to myself, to the sounds of wine buckets being filled, had the industry managed to get so far out of step with the common man? As the bottles nestled into their beds of ice, I racked my brain as to how such a divide could have possibly opened up between the citadels of Shoreditch and the terraces of Tamworth. It was when I passed the packed piano bar of the Martinez that the answer suddenly dawned on me. Could it be that our industry is in danger of disappearing up its own backside? Moreover, I realised that it wasn’t only our industry in this precarious position but the whole category of expert opinion – the premise that authority can be delivered down to the masses by people who know better.

Most of us would find this observation unremarkable. We have all written or sat through presentations about the shift from deference to reference, how the old structures of influence have broken down and how people now trust sideways rather than upwards. But, in the case of the referendum, there is a massive caveat. Normally, it is the young, ad-literate generation who wear the reference boot. It is usually the cosmopolitan classes who are the iconoclasts, subverting norms, finding new ways to break down old business models, leading the debate in social media and setting the agenda socially and culturally. This time, the iconoclastic boot was on the other foot. And that foot is nothing like ours. It’s northern, or Welsh, or coastal. It has never sipped Minuty on the Carlton terrace. It’s more provincial than us, it’s older than us, it’s more traditional than us. And it’s called democracy.

Persuasion needs understanding

The abject failure of the Remain campaign lies in its abject failure to show the faintest understanding for its target audience. And if you don’t understand, you will never persuade. Any post-mortem of what went wrong therefore has to start and end with an apparent paradox: the more experts, celebrities and business leaders who rallied to the cause, the more the cause was lost. This may not seem logical. That’s because it isn’t. The brain seldom is, as Leon Festinger demonstrated in his theory of cognitive dissonance more than 50 years ago. What he showed is that the human mind holds on to its existing belief systems, its cognitions, with extreme tenacity. We will go out of our way to reinforce and defend these cognitions from dissonant views. This means we will reprocess conflicting information so that it echoes what we already think.

Clearly, what the public thinks is not something to which the Remain campaign paid much attention. If it had, it would have found that the majority of people feel disenfranchised, patronised and marginalised from those in authority. Getting Barack Obama, Christine Lagarde, Angela Merkel and the usual celebrity suspects to lecture them wasn’t going to change their minds. It was going to do the opposite. The rules of cognitive dissonance dictate that such an approach would merely confirm their sense of otherness from the elite and their determination to get one over on them. 

If the Remain campaign had the chance to start again, it would do far better not to use a single authority figure. It should have believed in the power of trusting sideways and enlisted the shop workers, lorry drivers, binmen and lollipop ladies of Doncaster, Merthyr Tydfil, Thanet and Sunderland to carry the cause. There was one glorious moment when it did this, recruiting Bobby George for the campaign. If it had recruited 50 more like him, things may well have been different.

Sadly, it didn’t. But guess who did? The wily old foxes of the Leave campaign. They understood the laws of cognitive dissonance. Their campaign was led from the pub up, conspicuously unencumbered by experts. They understood that their electorate felt left out and disempowered, and their campaign line played to this feeling. "Take control" sums up what a disenfranchised electorate wants to hear, as opposed to being hectored, lectured and threatened by a remote, expert elite. Looking back, it seems so obvious what went wrong – but that only makes the recollection more painful.

As Festinger observed: "You seldom win an argument by being right." The referendum campaign will be remembered as the moment that the experts imploded. And if the advertising industry doesn’t heed this lesson, then the death of the experts could be followed by the death of the salesmen.

Charles Vallance is a founding partner at VCCP