Fear and advertising on the campaign trail

Over the past four decades, the relationship between political parties and advertising agencies has swung from disdain to bosom buddies. As the general election approaches, Sam Delaney, the author of Mad Men & Bad Men, looks at past partnerships between adland and Westminster and asks what place agencies have in the executive sell.

  • Labour’s ‘the uncredible shrinking man’ (2014) by Lucky Generals

    Labour’s ‘the uncredible shrinking man’ (2014) by Lucky Generals

  • The Conservatives’ ‘New Labour, new danger’ (1997) by
M&C Saatchi. Credit: Getty Images

    The Conservatives’ ‘New Labour, new danger’ (1997) by M&C Saatchi. Credit: Getty Images

  • The Conservatives’ ‘Labour isn’t working’ (1979) by Saatchi & Saatchi.

    The Conservatives’ ‘Labour isn’t working’ (1979) by Saatchi & Saatchi.

  • Tim Bell

    Tim Bell

  • The much-mocked 2010 campaign poster, by Euro RSCG,  that led to the Conservatives appointing M&C Saatchi

    The much-mocked 2010 campaign poster, by Euro RSCG, that led to the Conservatives appointing M&C Saatchi


If you have a good thing to sell, use every single capacity you have to sell it," Margaret Thatcher once said. "It is no earthly use having a good thing and no-one hearing about it."

This was the attitude that heralded a new enthusiasm for modern advertising techniques among a political class that had, until the late 70s, always been a bit sniffy towards the whole business. A few years before it won the Conservative account, Saatchi & Saatchi had made advances towards the Labour Party but was rebuffed by its director of publicity, Percy Clarke, who later remarked haughtily: "We had to explain… that our principles were that we did not use agencies to project our image."

That all changed after the iconic interventions of Saatchi & Saatchi in Thatcher’s 1979 election victory. The 80s and 90s were a golden era for political advertising, when both parties gladly collaborated with agencies, valuing not just the creativity but also the insight and strategy that were on offer. But, since 1997, when Tony Blair stormed to victory aided by a trio of consiglieri – Peter Mandelson, Philip Gould and Alastair Campbell – with their own cast-iron views on communications, things started to change.

Slowly, the role of agencies was reduced to executing concepts that are devised behind closed doors in Westminster by their nervous clients. "When we first worked with Labour, they were happy to take our advice on everything," BMP’s former chairman Chris Powell says. "But, by 1997, Mandelson and Campbell thought they knew better than us and we had very little input to strategy." Campbell concurs: "We must have been the clients from hell."

The 80s and 90s were a golden era for political advertising, when both parties gladly collaborated with agencies

What is more, politicians simply can’t afford to advertise as much as they used to. Membership is dwindling across both main parties. Only last month, it was reported that the UK’s biggest union, Unite, was pledging just £1.5 million of a £10 million political fund to Labour’s campaign. The party has hired Lucky Generals as its agency but has vowed to focus its efforts on door-step conversations with four million voters. The traditional unveiling of election-campaign posters is a thing of the past, especially for
Labour. It has admitted that it simply cannot afford the media space any more.

All of which begs the question: do the parties need to hire ad agencies at all? Might it not be better for them to take care of campaigning themselves, drafting in marketing and creative experts on an ad-hoc basis when specific needs require? It would certainly be a cheaper option. There are lessons to be learnt from recent election history about how the dynamic between politicians and ad agencies should work.

Since Saatchi & Saatchi first made its name during the 1979 election campaign, there have been just as many disasters as triumphs for political advertisers. In 1987, conflicts behind the scenes between the Saatchi & Saatchi team and a rogue communications unit ran by Tim Bell nearly tore the entire Conservative campaign apart. When the party chairman, Norman Tebbit, discovered that No10 had been secretly briefing Bell and Frank Lowe behind his back, he came to blows with fellow cabinet minister David Young outside Thatcher’s office.

Every political advertising failure is played out against a backdrop of sceptical politicians who let nerves get the better of them and choose to treat their agencies as semi-detached players. This is a waste of an agency’s managerial, strategic and creative expertise and an altogether great way for politicians to waste money they haven’t got.

In the early days, Saatchi & Saatchi was held on an extremely loose leash by the Conservatives, thanks largely to the close relationship that its chairman, Bell, shared with Thatcher. "You don’t tell me how to make policy and I won’t tell you how to make ads," she informed him from the outset.

But not all her colleagues were as enthusiastic. In 1983, Cecil Parkinson was the party chairman and he cancelled Bell’s plans to run a series of expensive double-page spreads across the national press in the campaign’s final week. With the Conservatives already 20 points ahead in the polls, Parkinson told Bell that it would appear to the electorate that it was "trying to buy victory". When Bell objected, Parkinson snapped: "Look, Tim. You are not Michelangelo and this is not the Sistine Chapel!" He was suspicious of the agency’s motives: Saatchi & Saatchi still bought its own media and would have received a huge commission on the proposed £1.5 million spend. "They would have got a lot of plaudits from within their industry for the advertising scoop of the year," Parkinson says. "But it would have cost us a lot of money and the fact is we got a 146-seat majority without it… For me, that blew the idea that advertising does the trick out of the water once and for all."

Only it didn’t, with both parties continuing to put their faith in agencies for the next two decades. When Tebbit succeeded Parkinson as the chairman, he showed more enthusiasm for Saatchi & Saatchi, briefing it to run the entire party conference in 1986. The agency drew up a succinct and powerful list of policy themes for every minister. As each speech ended, posters advertising the themes were stuck up immediately around the conference hall, spoon-feeding journalists their stories for the following day.

Tebbit was impressed by what sort of impact the agency would have when given the opportunity. "It was clear and focused and it worked brilliantly," he says. Another former party chairman, Chris Patten, agreed that an agency is best used for campaign strategy as much as creativity. "Politicians have a tendency to follow the issues," he says. "Admen keep us on course."

When Patten oversaw the 1992 election, it was the Saatchi & Saatchi team, led by Jeremy Sinclair, that identified tax as the single issue on which to fight an ascendant Labour in the knife-edge campaign. He rallied the entire team behind a relentless and focused attack strategy, putting a framed motto on the wall of the campaign nerve centre that read: "Hold fast to the main idea. Do not give in to the pressure of the moment."

Powell ran Labour’s campaigns for many years before stepping down after Blair’s 1997 victory. Like his Conservative counterparts, Powell insists that the biggest thing an agency can offer is strategic discipline: "Advertising has tried to show politicians that you usually only get the chance to talk about one thing because, after that, people get bored. Ad people run around boasting about the impact of particular posters or slogans, but they don’t work unless politicians have something decent to sell."

With dwindling budgets, stakes that are higher than ever and an electoral race that is perhaps the closest since the war, fully engaged agencies might just offer the main parties the edge they require to win. But who can really tell? Powell uses an old French proverb as an analogy for political advertising: it’s about an old man who dusts the streets of his village every morning before dawn. One day, some passers-by ask him what the powder is. "It’s powder to keep the elephants away," he tells them. "But there are no elephants around here," the passers-by say. "Well, then," the man replies. "It must be working."

Sam Delaney is the editor-in-chief of Comedy Central UK and Ireland

M&C Saatchi’s Tory coup

Like many Tory leaders before him, David Cameron had been keen to break ties with the admen who had become synonymous with the Thatcher era and find his own agency. But the 2010 campaign got off to a disastrous start: Euro RSCG’s poster featuring a seemingly airbrushed Cameron insisting ‘We can’t go on like this’ was spoofed online more than a quarter-of-a-million times. Realising a change in tone was required, the communications chief, Steve Hilton, made a frantic last-minute call to the M&C Saatchi veterans who had aided the Conservatives to victory so many times before.

Within hours of the call, Bill Muirhead and Jeremy Sinclair had strolled to Soho House to meet Hilton. It was mid-February, with the election set for May. Time was short. "Luckily, Jeremy seemed to have had a bunch of ideas tucked away in his sock drawer just in case," Muirhead says. "He immediately produced one for Steve, which blew him away. It was right up there with ‘Labour isn’t working’." Hilton asked them about their availability. Muirhead explained that they had already agreed to drop their lucrative Transport for London government account in case it presented a conflict of interest. The meeting was over within half-an-hour, Muirhead leaving Hilton with the words: "You know where we are whenever you need us."

By the following day, M&C Saatchi had been reappointed by the Conservative Party. While central office insisted publicly that Euro RSCG remained its "lead agency", it was Muirhead and Sinclair who would now lead the charge. It was clear to them both where the campaign was going wrong. "Strategically, they were jumping around too much from the NHS to the debt to Cameron," Muirhead says. "We had just a short period to build one core message in the public’s mind and we had to be consistent with it. Tonally, Jeremy said it was time to drop the nice stuff and go on the attack."

The team pulled their gloves back on and had one target in their sights: Gordon Brown. Within weeks, 850 posters sprung up around the country with typically brutal execution: Gordon Brown’s face, locked in his trademark awkward smile, beside a range of headlines that varied between "I let 80,000 criminals out early. Vote for me" and "I doubled the national debt. Vote for me". Underneath, the tagline read: "Or vote for change. Vote Conservative."

While Hilton had previously favoured a more positive message, he was a Saatchis alumnus who had implicit belief in Sinclair’s ideas. "Jeremy is a genius," he says. In the final throes of such a closely fought campaign, he realised that a strategy of attack was the only option.

"My feeling was that Andy Coulson [the then communications director] was responsible for switching the campaign message so often," Muirhead says. "He had been a tabloid editor, where the job is to follow the different stories. One week, you might have a front page about lesbian porn; the next week, it’s about dogs being eaten. Our style is to keep consistent and keep banging away on a single message."

Muirhead and Sinclair have been dishing body blows out to their opponents for years. "A simple thing that I learnt from doing this work was that you never win an election by doing what I call positive campaigning," Muirhead says. "You only win by attacking your opponent, because that’s what people remember.

"It’s interesting, people say these days: ‘Oh, we don’t know what David Cameron stands for.’ But I don’t know whether that’s a bad thing or a good thing. Because, instead, I find myself thinking: ‘OK, what are the weapons you’d use against Ed Miliband in an election campaign?’ Well, he stabbed his brother in the back. And, you know, anybody that does that to his brother… I mean, bloody hell. Imagine what he’d do to the country?"

It almost sounds like the makings of a campaign slogan.

This is an extract from Mad Men & Bad Men