It is doubtful whether advertising even comes near being a critical factor in a political party’s electability. The Saatchis (original version) got closest to it, with “Labour isn’t working”. Never before – or since for that matter – has the ethos of an industry and a political ideology been so congruent. Yet the chemistry between Tim Bell and Margaret Thatcher, extraordinarily valuable though it may have been to the Saatchi brothers’ fortunes, does surprisingly little to explain her three successive election victories.
So, what’s Dave got to worry about? All right, no one wants to handle the account of the party he leads (or at least, won’t admit to helping it in public). But, if advertising isn’t mission-critical to success, so what? As it happens it does matter, if only because this is a case of “the dog that didn’t bark”.
Of course, advertising agencies would like to think they are backing a lucrative winner in taking on a political account. Yet rarely are money or likely electoral success (and therefore subsequent influence) material factors in the decision. Political accounts, by and large, are a bit of a nuisance. They don’t make a profit, but they are a distraction, which commercial clients can find intensely irritating and, perhaps, ideologically repugnant. Even so, plenty of agencies have lined up over the years to support the Liberal Democrats. And an agency as high profile as Boase Massimi Pollitt was in the 1980s proved quite prepared (unofficially at least, Martin Boase himself being a dyed-in-the-wool Tory) to support the Labour Party through its wilderness years under Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock.
The key criterion for taking on a political account, in fact, seems to be an idealistic commitment, informally sanctioned by someone with real clout in the agency’s senior management (in the case of BMP, Chris Powell).
Which makes the current silence among the Tory party faithful in agency circles all the more deafening. After all, it’s not as if a general election can be far away. Yet WCRS (leading political devotee, Robin Wight – once a candidate Conservative MP) professes not to have been approached; Kamarama, which was doing project work for the Conservatives, apparently has no appetite for the main account; and M&C Saatchi (the Tories’ spiritual home as it were) vigorously denies the “agency” is involved (while carefully eschewing comment on what certain senior executives may be up to on a personal basis).
This coyness on the part of the professional communicators speaks volumes. Arguably, it’s not so much they won’t speak up on behalf of the Conservative cause as that they can’t. As Wight puts it: “Advertising campaigns for political parties are not about creating an artifice but revealing the convictions of that party or the politician to the public.” Exactly. And what if he, and it, don’t appear to have any convictions? It’s a little bit late for Cameron and George Osborne to be minting them now, on the conference platform, having bluffed and procrastinated so long for fear that Labour might “steal their clothes”.
Stuart Smith, Editor