Election campaign moves to online arena

As the Labour Party fires the opening shots of the General Election campaign, observers are predicting the political marketing battle between the major parties will move to a new level.

It will be the first election to use the range of Web 2.0 media, with online community sites and user-generated content expected to play a key part in communicating with younger voters. So the parties will need to depart from the usual negative approach and start building online relationships. That said, there will still be room for traditional posters launching personal attacks on opposition politicians and other negative campaigning.

Labour’s election co-ordinator Douglas Alexander, minister for international development, has already contacted Beattie McGuinness Bungay, Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO, CHI & Partners and online agency Profero about its advertising account. BMB’s Trevor Beattie produced Labour ads for previous election campaigns.

Through-the-line abilities
One source says the media spend is likely to be divided by “task” rather than medium. These tasks will be focused on constituencies rather than demographically. So Labour will look for an agency with through-the-line abilities. There will be lots of leafleting and other direct communications. “It’s not all glamour,” says the source.

But it is too early to say how much positive and negative campaigning there will be as an election date has yet.

BMB partner Andrew McGuinness says political advertising is usually done out of a sense of commitment since there is little money changing hands. “It is a win or lose scenario, which is different to most other brands,” he says.

Charles Vallance, founding partner of Chime-owned Vallance Carruthers Coleman Priest, who has worked on the Conservative Party account, thinks Labour is pursuing a more traditional client/agency relationship than usual. He is surprised by the pitch, saying parties tend to appoint people who support them from various agencies. But he explains: “This is going to be the first fully blown online election. There is a danger of disintegration if they don’t focus it around one agency.”

He says research by fellow Chime-owned company Opinion Leader Research – headed by Gordon Brown’s pollster Deborah Mattinson – during the 2006 party conference showed that Labour lagged behind online.

Last week’s news that Labour is contacting advertising agencies is not the only sign suggesting a possible early election. Labour last week also appointed lobbyist Jon Mendelsohn, husband of Grey deputy chairman Nicola Mendelsohn, as director of General Election resources. Party election spending will be limited to £30,000 per constituency per party or a total below £20m.

On the Conservative side, party leader David Cameron’s long run of PR coups has drawn to an end, culminating in his disastrous visit to Rwanda while his constituency was hit by flooding. Some believe this has already led to the party’s right-wing regaining influence, with announcements this week on cutting red tape by senior Tory John Redwood.

This could diminish the influence of Cameron’s communications adviser Steve Hilton, the former M&C Saatchi executive who has masterminded Cameron’s media strategy. Last year he hired Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R executive Anna-Maren Ashford as brand manager. Recently, the party has used Karmarama to produce non-political advertising.

Immature advertising
According to Karmarama founder Dave Buonaguidi, Labour’s election advertising has tended to be somewhat immature: “It never says anything of any substance, it is slightly school boyish, there is no depth to it. It all feels a bit one dimensional. Trevor (Beattie) is good at that sort of stuff.”

Meanwhile, Andy Bennett, creative director of Head London, which produced the Web Cameron online campaign focusing on the Tory leader, says: “Because the Web is so transparent, you’ve got to be seen to be honest. It is very different to what the political parties have been used to.”

The parties may end up pursuing a dual strategy, being positive and upbeat online but reserving their opposition-bashing malice for poster campaigns.

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