POWELL ON POLITICS: Chris Powell, the chairman of BMP DDB - Labour’s advertising agency from 1972 to 1997 - has written a book describing the turbulent relationship between the Left and the ’low-level, tedious’ world of advertising

Chris Powell’s involvement in the Labour Party’s advertising goes back to 1972, when chaotic strategy meetings were held at Tony Benn’s Holland Park house over endless mugs of Benn’s trademark tea.

Chris Powell’s involvement in the Labour Party’s advertising goes

back to 1972, when chaotic strategy meetings were held at Tony Benn’s

Holland Park house over endless mugs of Benn’s trademark tea.

Boase Massimi Pollitt was a team of 20 people, most of whom were

committed to Labour, based in Goodge Street. The feeling was not mutual:

the party was hostile towards the dark, capitalist art of advertising

and had accused the Tories of introducing something ’alien to our

British democracy’ when it appointed Colman Prentis Varley in 1959.

’Working with Labour in those days was a weird concept. It was nothing

like a normal client relationship,’ Powell recalls. There was badly

organised chaos: on the eve of a general election, party officials

summoned all the volunteers who had offered their services to St

Ermine’s Hotel at St James’s Park. So 25 people who had never met would

try to agree an election slogan.

It was all very different to the slick New Labour machine that won a

landslide victory in 1997, Powell’s fifth and last election, after which

BMP DDB stood down as the party’s agency.

Now Powell, adopting a lower profile at BMP since moving from chief

executive to chairman, has mapped out his 30-year journey in a book, How

the Left learned to love Advertising, to record BMP’s best ads for

Labour, trade unions and pressure groups such as Amnesty International

and War on Want. The book is dedicated to Keith Sands, BMP’s former head

of production, who died recently. It includes a testimonial from Tony

Blair, who says that an important part of Labour’s modernisation has

been learning to communicate effectively with the public.

BMP’s work, he says, ’did much to bring about that change’.

Some things haven’t changed since the old days. Politicians were quick

to take the credit for a good ad but quick to blame the admen for one

that backfired.

Paltry ad budgets were halved in case the election was drawn and there

was a replay. It was believed that all advertising had to stop once an

election was called, so Benn’s Holland Park soirees were often about

leaflets and car stickers. When the popular leaflets sold out, Labour

officials ordered party workers to ’get rid of the other ones first’ and

refused to have the effective ones reprinted.

At strategy meetings with senior Labour politicians such as James

Callaghan, Denis Healey and Benn, Powell recalls, ’all the argument was

about whose turn it was to be in a party political broadcast. They all

got incredibly cross. It wasn’t very edifying.’

Admen were viewed with suspicion. ’We were regarded as skivvies, and

advertising as some low-level, tedious thing.’ Yet there were important

differences inside the party. ’In my experience, the real objection to

advertising in the Labour Party has been from the (Labour) right. There

is an aesthetic, anti-commercial feeling that we shouldn’t get involved

in salesmanship.

’The left knew what propaganda was and embraced it,’ Powell says, citing

Communist propaganda in the Spanish civil war and the agit-prop art of

the French students in 1968.

These roots perhaps explain the ’Benn and Ken’ factor in the story of

how Labour embraced advertising. It was Benn who modernised Labour’s

radio and TV broadcasts in the 50s - and often starred in them. Yet it

was Livingstone who ran the highest-profile advertising ever used by the

British left, during his campaign as leader of the Greater London

Council in 1984, when it was threatened with abolition by Margaret


Powell has no doubt that the GLC campaign was one of two seminal moments

in recent political advertising, the other being the Saatchi brothers’

arrival on the scene in 1978. ’The GLC campaign showed that advertising

could work for the left.’ he says. But was it really Ken?

Some former GLC colleagues recall that the real driving force behind the

campaign was John McDonnell, then Livingstone’s deputy and now a Labour

MP. ’Ken was wary and kept out of it until it was a success,’ one ex-GLC

man says. ’By the end he was turning up for leaving parties for junior

people at BMP.’

Livingstone jokes now that his use of advertising was ’hijacked by the

Labour right for evil purposes’ and blames Peter Mandelson, who took

over as the party’s director of communications in 1985.

Mandelson set up the Shadow Communications Agency (SCA), a team of

volunteers from the ad industry, which was little more than a front

organisation for BMP. As well as giving the Tories as good as they got,

the admen converted Labour to the benefits of research and focus groups,

which helped to persuade a reluctant party to swallow Neil Kinnock’s

policy U-turns.

Although Livingstone’s campaign changed attitudes, Powell says the man

who really converted Labour to advertising was Mandelson. But Mandelson

says that three others should share the credit - Powell, Philip Gould,

the former adman who co-ordinated the SCA, and Barry Delaney, then

creative director of Delaney Fletcher Delaney, who worked on the party’s

broadcasts. ’Chris Powell is the thinking man’s advertising executive,’

Mandelson says. ’He made advertising respectable on the left.’

The SCA’s ads won widespread praise but Labour lost the election. ’We

all expected more,’ Powell admits. ’It was heady stuff because we were

all receiving piles of adulation. It was a salutary lesson: doing

advertising and general campaigning that is professional, catches the

eye and causes a stir doesn’t necessarily get you anywhere if you

haven’t got a message that is salient to the electorate. We never really

had that until 1997.’

In 1992, Labour again won the campaign but lost the election. ’We have

had enough brilliant defeats,’ Powell told friends. Saatchis launched

its ’tax bombshell’, which Powell rates as the best political ad of the

past 30 years.

During Labour’s inquest, the SCA was set up as a scapegoat by some

Labour figures who complained that leading figures such as Gould and

Patricia Hewitt, then Kinnock’s press secretary, were not accountable to

elected politicians.

Labour appointed Butterfield Day Devito Hockney, but the sudden death of

John Smith in 1994 brought Blair to the leadership and Powell back to

the front line, with BMP working officially for the party this time.

In 1997, BMP played a different, but crucial, role in securing Blair’s

landslide by helping to persuade two million Tory voters to stay at home

by fuelling their resentment about the Major regime.

’It was pretty boring stuff but we had to pin it relentlessly on them,’

Powell says. He concedes that it was Saatchi & Saatchi - by then minus

Maurice and Charles - rather than BMP that suggested Labour’s ’enough is

enough’ theme, even though he includes it in his book. In fact, he says,

the slogan was first used by the Australian Labor Party.

Was it difficult for BMP that Labour was sounding out other


Powell says Labour bosses were seeking an ad to rival Saatchis’ 1979

’Labour isn’t working’ picture of a dole queue. ’You come up with a

poster with that impact once in a generation: Labour, quite rightly,

wanted one. When we hadn’t provided it, they started talking to all

sorts of people.’ The episode highlighted a constant dilemma during his

long relationship with Labour: should the party rely on volunteers or

employ a single agency?

During the 1997 campaign, the party tried to ride both horses at


’The whole point of the SCA was to bring in all the talents available in

advertising. Labour insisted that we do it commercially in 1997, so it

was difficult to try to do it both ways at once,’ Powell says.

Which system is best? Powell believes that it is better to employ all

the talents as long as one agency will guarantee to deliver the work, as

BMP did for the SCA.

The long, painful march back to power finally completed, Powell, too,

decided that enough was enough. He did not want BMP to have to shoulder

the heavy financial and work pressure of another campaign. Labour wanted

an agency rather than volunteers and opted for TBWA GGT Simons Palmer.

But some things don’t change and Powell is happy that Labour will be in

the hands of Trevor Beattie, one of the team put together by Mandelson

in 1985.

Powell will probably miss it come the next election, but he believes in

allowing the next generation to get on with it - as he does at BMP.

He is also busy as the chairman of Ealing, Hammersmith and Hounslow

Health Authority. As he departs the stage of political advertising, he

fears the genre may be in decline. ’The trick in advertising is to have

a powerful message and put it across powerfully. The emphasis has become

almost overwhelmingly on putting it across powerfully and losing sight

of the need for the right message.’

This trend reached a pinnacle, he says, with M&C Saatchi’s 1997 campaign

for the Tories, epitomised by its ’demon eyes’ ad. Powell detects ’a

conspiracy between the media and some politicians that a good ad equals

a headline.

Commercial people don’t see the world that way. Everyone wants their ads

to be talked about but the most important thing is to find the nerve end

which, if you jump up and down on it, will get people to behave in the

way you want them to. In politics, people have perhaps lost sight of

that over the years.’

Today’s politicians are doing it by themselves. ’They have learned the

tricks of the advertising trade - focus groups, the need to make it

brief and catchy, for continuity and repetition. So the role of an

agency is to come up with some bright wheezes to fit their strategies.’

But there are dangers in such an approach.

’The absolute best advertising is a well- thought out strategy, executed

powerfully and I think agencies have more to contribute than they are

asked to do,’ Powell says. He is convinced Labour will never again

declare ideological war on advertising. But he suspects the parties will

be spending less, partly as a result of new legal spending limits, and

will turn their backs on advertising if they feel, as the Tories did in

1997, that it is a waste of money.

Powell fears that the short-term focus of most politicians may result in

less impressive political ads. Perhaps it is no coincidence that some

Labour MPs are now accusing Blair of being more interested in spin than


’The world is defined by how the media reacts to something, not how the

audience reacts. For politicians and their advisers, it can be about the

next day’s newspapers,’ Powell says.

How the Left learned to love Advertising is published by BMP DDB.


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