Brian Carruthers look back on a week that began with news of a major government advertising campaign around Brexit.
The Daily Telegraph – the Boris Johnson paper of record – revealed at the start of this week that the new prime minister is ready to spend £100 million on “the biggest advertising campaign since the Second World War” as part of the government’s efforts to prepare the country for the event it leaves the EU without a deal.
The intent, if not the sum, was confirmed next day by his spokeswoman: “You can expect to see an ambitious, active public awareness campaign, backed by necessary funding, and that is to ensure that businesses and citizens have the information that they need to adequately prepare [for a no deal Brexit].”
By the middle of the week, the scope of the exercise extended beyond the UK as Politico reported officials are now looking at taking out ads in European newspapers and targeting online ads at UK citizens living in Europe.
The sort of sums being bandied about are equivalent to the global marketing spend behind a major blockbuster film, according to Eugenio Triana of Birmingham City University. So who wouldn’t want a slice of that?
Trouble is, Brexit and everything associated with it is divisive. A couple of weeks ago there was outrage across London’s adland when Campaign ran a cover with a smirking Nigel Farage on the front pondering the possibility of another career shift, into advertising this time. The negative reaction suggested there aren’t that many people in the industry who are vocally on the right of the political spectrum and publicly backing Brexit.
But agencies have always taken on political advertising, most famously Saatchi & Saatchi with its ‘Labour isn’t working’ poster back in 1979. OOH doesn’t play the same role in politics in 2019; parties no longer book hundreds of sites (one indicator an election was coming) but still produce posters that can be disseminated through social media.
More and more effort is going into digital. Within days of taking office hundreds of subtly different ads featuring Johnson were run on Facebook to test different messages, a strategy in which it’s not hard to discern the influence of Dominic Cummings, the man behind the Vote Leave campaign.
But the planned public information campaign will, we’re told, focus on mainstream media, with a blitz of ads on TV, radio and OOH – and, possibly, a leaflet drop to every household in the UK – over the next three months. What to do then, when there’s suddenly a lot of cash available to promote a policy to which many people are opposed?
In the past, agencies were happy to take on accounts from tobacco companies and today they’re working with food and beverage brands and fast food chains that some would argue are just as bad for the nation’s health as cigarettes.
And even if the brands themselves are acceptable in terms of politics and ethics, an organisation like Hope Against Hate regularly highlights the use of certain media outlets that it maintains tarnish a brand’s image.
Those agencies on the government roster are, to use a Johnsonian analogy, attempting to chart a passage between Scylla and Charybdis. Take on a decent-sized contract and maybe lose staff – and credibility within the wider industry. Decline to engage, on the other hand and you may feel morally superior, but that doesn’t pay the wage bills (or leave you best placed to pitch for future government business).
Engine has stepped forward to grasp the nettle and the reaction has been occasionally vitriolic. “Have we finally found the agency with the least morals, who do anything for money?” asked Iris’s Mark Hadfield on Twitter, adding that he’d left the agency rather than work for clients like The Sun or the British Army.
Feelings are running high and in an era of staff empowerment – agencies should know something about that from their work with clients – those can’t be ignored. Just look at what’s happened in the US where Edelman has had to end its contract with the Geo Group, an operator of private prison facilities for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Ogilvy is facing similar internal pressures, a Buzzfeed report revealed.
Trump in the US, Johnson in the UK. Trump, a man who has been likened to a mafia don, and ‘Britain Trump’, a man more Fredo than Vito. Are agencies being made an offer they can’t refuse? Should they respond with an offer that can’t be accepted? The fallout from this could be around for some time to come.