Social media has meant a huge change in the nature of journalism. Local papers have struggled but local blogs have thrived. There are fewer professional journalists (in the sense of those who earn a living out of it). But there is a new army of unpaid journalists who blog away in their spare time – often with higher standards of accuracy than some of their “professional” counterparts. Similarly, design is flooded with (often talented) amateurs. Every day we see the photoshop talents of the Twitterati.
Where does this leave the scope for political advertising in a General Election campaign? It is harder for the traditional agencies. A political party is the client from Hell. Yet they will be tolerated by creative people who have a belief in the cause – and who see the potential to make their name in such a high profile activity.
The frantic pace of modern campaigning means that employing creative staff directly has an advantage for Party HQs over using agencies. This is explained in Sam Delaney’s book Mad Men & Bad Men: When British Politics Met Advertising (Faber & Faber £9.99). There is an updated addition of the volume which covers the General Election last year.
Tom Edmond, an ad agency copy writer, who worked directly for the Conservative Party says:
“No ad agency in their right mind would take on the sort of campaign we were running out of party headquarters. There were dozens of messages going out every day. This was quick turnaround stuff approved by Lynton Crosby across the desk at short notice before going up online. Ad agencies just aren’t set up to do that weight of work. They have other clients to service. Plus they like every piece of work they produce to be ten out of ten because their name depends on it. I’ve worked in agencies and sat through many three-hour meetings on what ampersand to use on a poster. There is just no time for that level of analysis in an election campaign. Sometimes we had to be just as happy with an eight-out-of-ten idea.”
Sir Lynton Crosby adds:
“In Australia, the Liberal Party has not used an advertising agency as such since the mid-nineties. It has tended to bring people together from advertising agencies, so people with creative or production experience, but it has not got an agency. It has effectively built a virtual agency, and in some way that is the direction things are going.”
“The defining theme of the 2015 Conservative campaign came as a surprise to some. Midway through, the Saatchi team would unveil a poster depicting Miliband tucked into the breast pocket of former SNP leader Alex Salmond. It was a classic Saatchi execution: simple, powerful, funny and brutal. It made a significant political point seem entirely self-evident with a minimum of fuss.”
Also there is more to political advertising than General Elections. It is true that the extraordinary level of targeting of particular types of voters in particular marginal seats is not suited to a billboard or a full page ad in a national paper. But in the election for Mayor of London the vote of every Londoner counts. When the in/out EU referendum is held we will be having the same debate across the UK and no voters can be ignored.
Despite the tensions and oddities I expect advertising agencies and political parties will continue to have a relationship for a few elections still to come. The instant social media hits will supplement rather than replace the classical approach.