You can feel it in the morning. An auburn tinge in the sunrise, an impatience in the leaves above, and a distinct nip in the air before you close the door at night. Autumn is on the way. Perhaps not down south, where summer bumbles on. But it was 17 degrees yesterday in Carlisle. Summer is winding down.
Soon it will be autumn, then winter and before you know it, March will usher in spring 2019. And spring won’t be the only thing happening in a few months. At the end of March, between the quarter finals of the FA Cup and the Grand National a few weeks later, the UK will leave the European Union.
The official date is 29 March 2019. Just over 30 weeks away. That’s when the UK will enter the ‘transition period’, which starts an exit process that will conclude at the end of 2020. Whether it’s going to be hard or soft, we are only a few months away from it happening.
I am not sure of your own personal proclivities and how you regard Brexit. As someone married to a foreigner, who spent much of his European working life on Eurostar, you can probably guess the way I voted. Many years ago when someone asked me at my London Business School leaving party what I would miss most about London, I answered “Italy”. Enough said.
But as marketers, how should we feel about Brexit?
In many ways, the marketing part of our DNA should support the move. We are, after all, market-orientated. We believe in finding out what customers want and then delivering that to them. And in a rare and rather egalitarian move, the British Government did just that in 2016. More than 30 million people voted and 52% of them wanted to leave the EU. No matter what your personal take on the matter, the marketer inside should accept and even embrace the outcome and the way we reached it.
Then there is the way that the vote for Brexit was secured. If you look at the data prior to 2016 it’s clear that British people were critical of EU membership but also committed to remaining within the Union for the coming decade. And yet somehow the Leave campaign triumphed on that dramatic day in 2016.
The brilliance of Leave’s strategy and execution
The reason for the triumph should be apparent: from the outset of the referendum, the team behind Vote Leave were simply better at marketing. They ran rings around the Remain campaign in terms of research, strategy and tactical execution.
In terms of research, one of the biggest disadvantages that the Vote Leave team faced was that all the major political parties sided with Remain. That meant not only facing significant political opposition but also an abject lack of data compared to a Remain team that enjoyed access to all the political parties and their treasure trove of electoral research.
But what started as a weakness became a strength, as Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings and operations director Victoria Woodcock built a completely new segmentation map of the British electorate from hybrid data that included social media, direct mail data, the electoral roll and a host of other third-party inputs. The marketer with the best map invariably makes it to the finish line first, and Vote Leave built a segmentation model that was not only more accurate and specific to the Brexit cause, but one that could zoom in to street level and identify what kind of voters were likely to live there and what approach would ensure the right response.
In terms of strategy, Vote Leave was again streets ahead. Its superior segmentation model enabled the campaign to target voters very specifically, with micro-messages built around clear psychographic drivers.
We’ve known for decades that psychographics represent a brilliant source for meaningful positioning. If you know the inherent motivations of a target consumer you are in the driving seat of persuasion. But we’ve also acknowledged that delivering specific messages to the right psychographic targets was all but impossible.
Did the illegal 6.4% overspend enable Vote Leave to win the day? Only marketers can work this out.
We might know 12% of the population are ‘conservative, status quo-driven technocrats’ and the message we want to send to them, but we could not identify them out there in the market. Granular segmentation and digital media finally enabled psychographics to match its meaningfulness with newly found actionability, and the world changed as a result.
In addition to the micro-targeted communications, the overall Leave message, which centered on the threat from foreign immigration and the loss of British sovereignty, might not have appealed to most of the tolerant, liberal citizens that make up marketing departments. But that is not the point. We were never the target. That message did resonate with those who wanted to vote Leave or who were considering it.
More importantly, in a referendum where turnout was always going to be pivotal, immigration was far more motivating on the day than Remain’s tepid message of economic prosperity. Put more simply, Leave had a better, more powerful and significantly more emotional position than Remain. And they could bolster that overall message with micro-targeted campaigns in a 10-week tactical campaign that was timed to perfection.
The impact of Facebook targeting
Vote Leave was also brilliant at tactical execution. It served one billion targeted digital ads, mostly via Facebook, which proved an essential and influential medium for the Leave campaign. Regular readers of this column might raise an eyebrow at my salutary praise for Facebook in this instance given my rabid insistence that Facebook’s impact, and that of digital marketing in general, is often wildly overstated by marketers.
While that remains true, it turns out that if you started from scratch you would struggle to create a better communications medium for elections than Facebook. It’s granular, hyper-targeted audience data allows you to break down the voting population into very precise sub-groups. Its reach ensures you can deliver messages at a remarkable scale only bettered by TV. What’s more you can then target those sub-groups with very different messages based on their psychographic drivers.
Those messages are also hidden from the view of rivals and regulators because, unlike traditional above-the-line media, which is extraordinarily regulated during elections, Facebook messages can be delivered entirely legally with very little limitation or oversight. It’s perfect for election campaigns.
Vote Leave was also smart enough to engage a good agency to help it in its tactical campaigning. The campaign invested almost 40% of its £6.8m electoral budget on a small digital company based in Canada called AggregateIQ. “Without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of AggregateIQ,” Dominic Cummings concluded in 2017. “We couldn’t have done it without them.” AggregateIQ brought the digital smarts to the campaign refining the segmentation and testing, and retesting messaging with logarithmic obsession.
Yes, there may well be links between AggregateIQ and the infamous and now disbanded research firm Cambridge Analytica. Yes, there is also still a significant possibility that a long red dotted line can be drawn between Brexit and Russian interference and investment. Both these issues are still the subject of investigation and speculation, but I believe them to be distractions.
As marketers, irrespective of our personal leanings and the ongoing mystery that surrounds the Leave campaign, we must step back and admire what Cummings and his team achieved in the heady summer days of 2016. There is no doubt – no doubt at all – that this is the greatest British communication campaign of the last 50 years.
Look at the snaking lines of public opinion many months before or after the Brexit campaign and it is clear most British people wanted to remain. But in the all-important months – weeks, even – around the referendum date, the Vote Leave team did what we marketers are supposed to do. They changed attitudes and behaviour to the advantage of their organisation. And Britain will be changed forever as a result.
Rail against the result, but step back and admire the incredible marketing that enabled it to occur. Better research, better segmentation, better targeting, better positioning, better tactical execution all combined to win the day. Ignore rumours of Russians, fumbling apologies from Facebook and even the posh but perverted fingerprints of Cambridge Analytica. None of this is any excuse to question the will of the British people or the manner in which it was achieved.
What difference did money make?
But there is one issue that marketers should object to. In fact, it is an area where they might yet have a significant impact on whether a second referendum is ultimately required. Vote Leave was not the only operation working toward an EU exit back in 2016. Another campaign group, called BeLeave, was also working directly with AggregateIQ and was also spending large sums to persuade the British population to vote for an exit from the European Union.
Last month the Electoral Commission found “clear and substantial evidence” that, rather than being a separate and independent entity, BeLeave was essentially a direct extension of the Vote Leave campaign working under a common plan and, crucially, from the same funding sources. BeLeave spent £675,000 on digital marketing during the campaign. Most of that money, according to the Electoral Commission, was essentially sourced from Vote Leave and spent on a “common plan” and not a separate organisational agenda.
Simply put, Vote Leave was limited to a £7m campaign budget by election law in this country. Thanks to covert arrangements with BeLeave, the Electoral Commission says they were actually able to spend a total of £7,449,079.34 on their campaign. That finding is now official and representatives from both Vote Leave and BeLeave have been fined and referred to the Metropolitan Police as a result.
We know that Vote Leave broke the rules. We also know that they did it by funnelling extra resources through an associated political organisation. We know that this enabled the Leave campaign to add an almost half a million pounds or 6.4% to their ultimate marketing spend on their campaign. But the big question, the one that I would argue only marketers can answer, is whether that illegal additional investment was enough to swing the vote in their favour two years ago?
At first sight a 6.4% overspend would appear to be a minor issue. That is until you look at the margin of victory that Vote Leave enjoyed: it was less than 4%.
Two years ago, on 23 June, 17.4 million people voted Leave and 16.1 million people voted Remain. The difference was 3.8% of the total vote. If we take away that illegal additional spend would Vote Leave have triumphed? It’s not as simple as pointing to a larger overspend of 6.4% and a smaller differential of 3.8% of the vote and saying yes. Political marketing, no matter how well done, does not have a direct and total influence over all voters. But from my long and contradictory experiences of blowing marketing budgets on big campaigns, I think it could well have made the difference.
Did the illegal 6.4% overspend enable Vote Leave to win the day? What marketers – or rather, what a particular marketer with advanced analytics training and nothing better to do for the next few days – need to do urgently is answer this question. Use econometrics. Use regression Use stochastic modelling with a Bayesian trumpet chart. But work it out. Only marketers can do this. We might save the day.
I ask not because I am against Brexit in principle or because I do not admire the way that Vote Leave ran its campaign. I ask because I think everyone is missing the point. In all the investigations into Russia and accusations aimed at Zuckerberg the real issue is much more straightforward. According to the Election Commission, there were “serious breaches of the laws put in place by Parliament to ensure fairness and transparency at elections and referendums”. The responsible parties have been fined but what about the ultimate impact of the offences on the future of this country?
We must respect the will of the British people. But we must first respect the requirements of a fair and transparent referendum. Dominic Cummings, who is in my opinion a genius, has been clear on the pivotal role that advanced analytics and electoral strategy played in securing Brexit. Surely a marketer or media planner out there can use those same components to settle, once and for all, the real Brexit question.
Did an overspend of £449,079.34 result in the UK voting to leave the UK?
If you have a response to Mark’s challenge and can show your working, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.