What a year it’s been for political communications. First we had a 25-year-old content creator beating some of the most established minds in adland and then the might of Madison Avenue was unable to upend an ego with a Twitter account. I guess it shouldn’t be any wonder that campaigns that proudly reject economic and political experts can live without marketing professionals too.
So what to make of the news this week that Labour has hired Krow Communications as its advertising agency? The party that has spent much of the past year baffled by the attentions of the media – pushing cameras out of the way and hiding by lifts – has seen fit to appoint comms professionals despite there not necessarily being an immediate electoral need.
Labour, which appointed Krow after a pitch, is said to have been impressed with the independent shop’s work for Team GB. No doubt co-founder Malcolm White’s experience as strategy director for Labour’s landslide victory in 1997 while at BMP played a part too.
One of the many things that Labour’s 2015 general election campaign and Britain Stronger In Europe had in common was an ad strategy made impotent by indecision. Labour figures – whose scars from last year’s campaign run deeper than its promises were etched in stone – are believed to want to know what they can learn from Brexit and Donald Trump. But they are also looking for help with more immediate issues including soundbites for shadow chancellor John McDonnell and how to crystallise their messaging on the NHS.
But I can’t help thinking about Labour’s appointment of Johnny Wright & Partners in 1983, as described by Sam Delaney in his excellent book Mad Men & Bad Men. With Labour HQ distrustful and disorganised, Johnny Wright & Partners unable to control the overall message and Michael Foot’s reputation battered by the tabloids, Labour got just 700,000 more votes than the upstart SDP-Liberal Alliance.
It’s clear that Labour does have a brand problem. Last month, a YouGov poll commissioned by the Media Reform Coalition found that Labour’s policies on the economy, the NHS and the railways are more popular than the Conservatives’, but only when they are not linked to the party.
The ad industry should be cheered by the supposedly anti-business Labour Party’s confidence in it. Voters are often told to hold their nose and opt for the least bad candidate. Some people in Labour might see hiring an ad agency to shape their strategy as an equally uncomfortable move. But, even if the 1983, 2015 and 2016 elections cannot be attributed to indecision, they suggest it’s worth giving decisiveness a go.