It was late at night in Dover in mid-January and Ben Stewart and Oliver Knowles found their wallpaper paste was getting "diluted with dog shit" as they stood on a muddy, B&Q stepladder and struggled to post a quote from arch-Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg onto an advertising billboard.
Just a few hours later, Stewart and Knowles watched in dismay as a local newspaper website in Kent posted a video of the landlord, Clear Channel, ripping down the illicit poster and destroying their handiwork – although not before they had snapped a photo of the billboard and tweeted it.
And that was the moment when the pair knew the early romance of their guerilla, anti-Brexit poster campaign – hatched between Stewart, Knowles and their pro-Remain friends, James Sadri and Will Rose, over Christmas drinks in a north London pub just weeks earlier – had worn off and they realised they should probably go legal.
Led By Donkeys, who took their name from the First World War German line about the British infantry being lions led by incompetent generals, had already seen how their idea of taking the past "Brexit pronouncements of our leaders", "rendering them as tweets" and then "putting them on massive billboards" had struck a chord with Remainers.
They put up their first, illegal poster in Stoke Newington, north London, at the start of January this year with a David Cameron quote from before the 2015 general election: "Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband." The image got an instant response on Twitter and the newly launched @ByDonkeys Twitter account picked up 3,000 followers in a day.
But their focus was to expose the Brexiters such as Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab and Rees-Mogg as "liars, exaggerators and populists" and to push for a second referendum.
Stewart and Knowles, who both have day jobs as Greenpeace activists, knew from the start of what they call "their project" that they wanted to create "political street theatre". Their belief was that Led By Donkeys could bring a sense of "participation" back into the dejected Remain side of British politics and hold Brexiter politicians to account.
As soon as they put up the Cameron poster with the simple, tweet design, Stewart felt they had come up with something special. "At Greenpeace, we talk about mind bombs, which are communications interventions that immediately make you stop and rethink your assumptions in just one product – it can be a quote or a picture. I thought, we’ve got a mind bomb here," he says.
Since going legal at the end of January, Led By Donkeys has raised more than £500,000 through online crowdfunding, with the majority of donations being between £5 and £20. They have put up more than 400 posters by buying ad space legally around the country and staged more than 20 outdoor projections onto buildings, including during the Conservative Party conference in Manchester. The images have garnered more than 250 million impressions on Twitter alone, according to Stewart.
Along the way, they have had to dodge what they call the "sharks" in the outdoor industry who wanted to "rip us off". They have also retained a guerilla mindset, most recently by subverting the government’s "Get ready for Brexit" campaign with a competition inviting people to design alternative posters, which they have been running on billboards. In a sign that the campaigning group’s work has "cut through", the team has just published a book, Led By Donkeys: How Four Dads with a Ladder Took on Brexit, in a deal with Atlantic Books.
Led By Donkeys’ work has been provocative. One outdoor industry leader suggests it has led to a revival of the art of the political poster, after a decade when such messaging has shifted to social media and targeted, online messaging. Another person, who is involved in the UK government’s ad campaign, is dismissive, calling Led By Donkeys’ efforts "random" and "an annoyance". This person struggles to understand the group’s strategy, asking: "What do they want?"
But William Eccleshare, worldwide chief executive of Clear Channel, which has allowed Led By Donkeys to advertise since going legal, believes the group has had a genuine impact. "They have really captured the way out of home can deliver a very strong, public message and start a conversation," he says. "Whether one supports the campaign or not, they’ve done a fantastic job."
Nils Leonard, co-founder of Uncommon Creative Studio, is also a fan. "I love them. They’re an example of a group of people who want to make a statement and don’t need to be dependent on anyone else," he says. Too many people working in the ad industry, he adds, "usually ask permission from someone else to pay to put our opinions across", rather than raise the money themselves and take a stand.
Richard Huntington, chairman and chief strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi, says, only half in jest that Led By Donkeys would be a "contender for agency of the year".
And it is good for robust political debate to take place in public media, according to Eccleshare, who says: "I worry for elections where so much has been micro-targeted and doesn’t generate much conversation. In the 2017 UK election, apart from the occasional one-off stunt poster, there wasn’t much public debate. I think that was bad for democracy."
But whatever MPs finally decide on Brexit, the four fortysomethings behind Led By Donkeys need to prove whether their group will be remembered ultimately as an irrelevance – or might become an enduring vehicle beyond Brexit to hold politicians to account, not just in the UK but around the world.
The power of print
Led By Donkeys’ work flies in the face of some of the trends in modern media. The campaigning group uses traditional, "paper and paste" billboards, not fast-turnaround, digital screens, and it relies mainly on old quotes from Brexiter politicians to highlight their inconsistencies.
There’s a "psychological effect" that comes from putting a quote on a print billboard, rather than a digital screen, Stewart explains, sitting alongside Knowles in a vegetarian café in Bethnal Green to talk to Campaign. "These quotes have done the rounds on Facebook and Twitter for months beforehand but by putting them up on a plywood-clip billboard – 100-year-old technology – suddenly they became real," Stewart, the more passionate of the duo, says.
And by feeding the image of the billboard back into the digital space, the quote becomes "undeniable" and "the politician has to own it", he says. "If you put it up on a digital screen, it just wouldn’t have that effect."
Nonetheless, generating digital buzz on social media remains key. Rose, one of the quartet, is a freelance photographer. He helped to create what Stewart calls "incredibly shareable" images of the billboards to go online. However, Rose lives in Sweden, so the group now hires photographers and videographers to produce visuals with the same feel. When Led By Donkeys have experimented with digital-only imagery, it has not achieved the same response on social media, they say.
Knowles, who is more measured than Stewart, suggests the print posters work because in an "information-overloaded age where you are bombarded through your phone, radio, podcasts, TV and print media", the act of "putting information up in the public space on a billboard" gives people "headspace to appraise it and reach their own conclusion".
What’s more, there can be a benefit in looking in retrospect at what politicians have said on the record, because it is hard for a broadcaster or journalist to examine every word in the heat of the 24-hour news cycle. "Putting politicians’ quotes back into the fray and giving them a second airing" has real value, according to Knowles, who talks about "pulling it back" to shine a light on a particular claim or "assertion" by a Brexiter.
"One of the things that we’re doing that is different is putting these quotes back into the public realm without commentary," Knowles continues. "We’re not actually saying: ‘Here’s what you should think about this quote.’ We’re simply putting politicians’ quotes back into the public space, where you’re essentially inviting the public to reappraise them against the reality that they see unfolding. That’s the real strength of them."
Putting it back to the politicians
Led By Donkeys say there is a "trinity" of outdoor imagery, online sharing and public interaction in local communities that is at the heart of their "theory of change".
Stewart says: "We don’t necessarily think putting a poster in a town centre and having 7,000 people see it is the end of the story for us. With our posters, we’re creating political street theatre up and down the country that allows us to hack the local and regional media and to get a conversation going on local community Facebook groups about how Brexit is going in the context of what we were promised during the referendum."
Getting the images of the billboards onto Twitter is important because the social-media platform plays an important role in driving the "national conversation" among journalists and politicians, even though "we’re not naïve enough to think everyone is on Twitter".
The proof is that some of "the quotes that we took from obscurity to fame have been played back at the people who said them" at Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons or on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Stewart says.
"We’re trying to change the national conversation back from questions of arcane parliamentary procedure to: ‘What were we promised before June 2016 and is it being delivered?’ And there aren’t many people doing that and saying: ‘What are the supposed benefits of Brexit and can we check what you promised against reality?’"
Asked whether Led By Donkeys have succeeded, Stewart says, "anecdotally, yes," but concedes, "I can’t show you data," beyond social-media impressions. Knowles says, "I definitely think we played a small part in galvanising the Remain movement," by rallying the myriad organisations and individuals on that side.
Wrongs of the remain campaign
None of the Led By Donkeys quartet campaigned for Remain before the referendum in June 2016 despite being opposed to Brexit.
Stewart, who lives in London, first thought Britain might vote to leave the EU when he happened to visit a market town in the shires where a Vote Leave demonstration was taking place and the car park was full of vehicles sporting pro-Brexit stickers.
He recalls how one of the Leave supporters asked the crowd who was in favour of staying in the EU and cried out triumphantly: "See. Nobody is, nobody is." Stewart shouted back: "Actually, I am." At which point, "about 30 people just pointed at me and booed", he recalls.
The Remain campaign itself was woeful, argues Stewart, who says: "I can’t remember a single memorable image or media product for our side – nothing stays with me. I remember ‘Breaking point’, a red bus, ‘Turkey’, ‘Take back control’" – all references to UKIP and Vote Leave messages during the referendum campaign.
With the Campaign audience in mind, he continues: "They say the creative industry is 96% Remain, but where the fuck were you?"
Too many people in the Remain campaign were part of a "south-east bubble" and lacked "passion" or even a clear "proposition", whereas Leave "felt disruptive" and offered "the big, red, change button", Stewart and Knowles reflect.
Hence Led By Donkeys has adopted an adversarial approach to taking on the Brexiters. "We’re campaigners, so we developed objectives and a critical pathway and a strategy to meet those objectives," Stewart says. "One thing that was important to us was that we injected some passion and some edge into the Remain side."
After they launched as a guerilla outfit – the quartet was initially anonymous – they thought hard about going legal when "there is so much at stake and no-one is so much as sitting in the road". Even now they retain a "direct action ethos", Stewart says.
Eccleshare says: "What I think Led By Donkeys have done is put the contrary view to the populist approach of the Brexit side and the Leave campaign. In a way they have maybe not beaten them at their own game but taken them on in their own territory."
Led By Donkeys have taken some flak from the Brexit camp, including the political blogger Guido Fawkes, and there have been some "abusive" messages and comments. However, they have been "pleasantly surprised" that it has been limited, given the general level of political hostilities, Knowles says.
Circled by sharks
Getting started in outdoor was easy. Stewart ordered five posters, including the Cameron image, for £250 from a website. Putting up that first poster next to the A10 in Stoke Newington was "very amateur" – "the viscosity of our wallpaper paste was way off, Stewart jokes – as they looked out for "the cops" while passing drivers were "quizzically craning their necks to watch".
Starting to buy billboard sites legally brought new challenges as Led By Donkeys entered what Stewart calls the "cut-throat world of outdoor advertising" and "didn’t have a clue what we were doing".
He says: "It was like being at a symposium for estate agents. There were so many arseholes." They were "trying to rip us off" in many ways – on pricing, on sites, on whether to use digital advertising, on booking early, Knowles elaborates.
Led By Donkeys found some small independent media owners, including Airoutdoor and Build, "who got the project", and some friendly ad industry folk also got in touch on a pro bono basis.
Lydia Mulkeen, client team lead at the7stars, says the media agency has helped "in a small way, by using our media planning capabilities to target specific areas and source sites" to carry Led By Donkeys’ artwork.
"The campaign is challenging, thought-provoking and holding our government to account for their own words in a way that other media are struggling to do at the moment, while also showing the strength of OOH and the impact one small campaign can have," she says.
Clear Channel has been one of the only major billboard owners to accept Led By Donkeys’ posters – a key step because it gave the campaign geographical reach outside the south-east and better access to inventory such as giant, 96-sheet poster sites.
Creatively, a 96-sheet worked well for "compare and contrast tweets" as Led By Donkeys could put up two quotes, side by side, on a single site. "It got right to the heart of the project. This is what you promised then, this is what they are delivering now," Stewart says.
It was possible to use two quotes on adjacent 48-sheets but "there might be a three-metre gap between them" and "the paster might put them up the wrong way round", he explains.
"You have a coherent design on a 96. You can put the citation [for both quotes] in the bottom left corner – you don’t need two citations. We found amazing engagement from our 96s."
Stewart’s favourite was a 96-sheet in Newcastle with a Leave.EU quote on the left, stating that innovative companies like Dyson were going to invest in Britain, and a BBC news alert on the right, reporting Dyson was relocating its head office to Singapore. "It just said Aaron Banks – you thermo-nuclear dickhead, look at what you said," Stewart says with venom about the Leave.EU donor.
Led By Donkeys use two WhatsApp groups – one to share ideas, called Donkey Brainwaves, and the other, Poster Chat, to co-ordinate logistics. They often plan only a week or so ahead in order to stay topical.
Speed is of the essence
Apart from a short break when Stewart’s partner gave birth in April, "we have been on deadline every single day," he says, noting that speed is vital to get the imagery to go viral online.
Knowles says they have found the intimate, creative process "eye-opening" in a good way. In some previous roles, they have had to deal with "multiple committee stages or large numbers of people where ideas tend to get rounded down" for the sake of compromise. Instead, having a small group has led to their creative ideas being "only rounded up" as they get "sharpened or improved".
It has also been a fun experience. "We just laugh so much," Stewart says, and satirical humour is an important element of the creative work, which has a flavour of Private Eye on billboards.
However, Led By Donkeys is not primarily a "humorous project", Knowles stresses. "It is first and foremost a serious project about accountability and responsibility for words. It’s a device to hold politicians to account."
They keep looking for new creative ideas and targets such as Dominic Cummings, who was appointed chief adviser to Johnson when he became prime minister in the summer.
Johnson’s decision to spend up to £100m on a "Get ready for Brexit" campaign, which, significantly, used a lot of digital out of home (and little paper and paste), infuriated Led By Donkeys who say the money could have been used for schools and hospitals. It sparked their decision to run the competition to subvert the ad campaign – with comedy writers Armando Iannucci and David Schneider picking the winners.
One featured the quote "People have had enough of exports" in the style of the government ad with a picture of Gove – a twist on his notorious comment, that people "have had enough of experts", before the 2016 vote.
There will be a general election in December, and Led By Donkeys would like a result that "is going to give us the best chance of keeping a second referendum alive" – that means "probably not a Boris Johnson majority", Knowles says. "As far as we have a strategy, that’s what we’re working towards."
Led By Donkeys as a group have registered with the Electoral Commission and will be subject to regulation during any election.
The four feel they have done well in communicating with Remainers and now want to shift the focus to what Knowles calls "the shiftable fifth – people who maybe voted Leave but wanted an orderly Brexit, that wanted a continued close relationship with Europe".
Led By Donkeys have also experimented beyond billboards. They made a film last month that featured a tractor ploughing a field with a giant, aerial message, "Britain now wants to Remain", and an interview with a regretful Leave voter who has changed her mind. Using imagery of the English countryside, overlaid with a rousing Elgar composition, was all part of an effort "to reclaim patriotism from the Faragists", Stewart explains, adding he knows "a lot of MPs" watched it because they follow Led By Donkeys on Twitter and exchange direct messages.
He believes the stakes are rising for British democracy and says: "What has surprised us is the speed and the enthusiasm with which Boris Johnson has embraced the Trump political rulebook."
Knowles has an international role at Greenpeace and says that Led By Donkeys know their work has resonated outside the UK. He thinks there is a role for the campaigning group "beyond Brexit" as "a vehicle for continuing to hold politicians to account in an age of rising national populism" in "other countries and other political systems".
Led By Donkeys have eschewed the civil disobedience-style approach of Extinction Rebellion but believe strongly in the value of participation in politics to counter apathy and dejection.
During a big march in favour of a second referendum in March in Westminster, Led By Donkeys created a huge, fabric banner that the crowd held up for an aerial shot – with a quote from David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary, saying: "If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy."
They hired a helicopter to capture the moment but Knowles also liked the way that "we got some lovely images" afterwards of "people underneath the banner, actually participating, physically involved in the art work".
Similarly, they created a billboard with a quote from Jeremy Corbyn with no words to illustrate the Labour leader’s lack of a clear position on Brexit. They left three cans of spray paint and a step ladder by the poster as an encouragement for passers-by to write their own comments. "You’ve got people participating in politics and political discourse," Knowles says approvingly.
All of the Led By Donkeys founders have links to Greenpeace and, as Stewart admits: "We’re not natural fans of the billboard industry." He adds: "To a certain extent, we have regarded billboards as a form of visual pollution in our towns and cites. My daughter doesn’t get to choose whether she gets to see a McDonald’s ad on her way to nursery. We’ve gained some satisfaction from playing with the concept. At least, we’re doing something a little interesting with these sites, rather than just trying to flog burgers to kids."
Such views are mainstream, not radical, given the decision this year by Transport for London, the biggest owner of OOH real estate in the UK, to ban ads for food and drink that are high in fat, salt or sugar.
As Knowles reflects on what Led By Donkeys have done so far, he says: "We all feel good about having got off our sofas and stopped reading about Brexit and instead are finding a way to do something about Brexit. If more of us participated, maybe we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now."