Mark Ritson: Calling all marketers – it’s up to you to prove if Vote Leave’s overspend swung Brexit

Only marketers have the behavioural understanding and analytical training to determine if the extra money illegally spent on the Vote Leave campaign swayed the Brexit result. Now is the time to do just that.

BrexitYou 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?

READ MORE: Two-thirds of EU marketers considering leaving the UK because of 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.

READ MORE: ‘Nagging uncertainty’ over Brexit puts consumers in a ‘volatile’ mood

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.

Chart: The Economist, ‘Support for Britain’s exit from the EU is waning’

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

Hide Comments10 Show Comments
  • George Gloyn 8 Aug 2018 at 1:36 pm

    From an Econometrics perspective, if we purely look at benchmarks rather than actual modelling, I don’t think the overspend would have been the deciding factor.
    Across the brands I’ve looked at, the amount of sales driven by media can range from 5 – 40% dependent on the category – for the sake of stress testing, lets assume that voting is even more sensitive and that 50% of the votes for leave were driven by the spend. So 8.7m votes were media driven. If we reduce this by the % of overspend, we would see a reduction of approx 500k votes.
    Lets be generous and assume that all these votes would still have existed and gone across to Remain rather than not happened, this would leave us with 16.9m votes for Leave and 16.6m for Remain, a split of 50.4% to 49.6%, a knife edge vote to leave.
    So even with a number of assumptions that definitely look favorably on the impact of media and not even taking into account any impact of diminishing returns (a reduction in spend of 6.4% wouldn’t necessarily lead to a reduction in impact of 6.4%), its potentially far more down to the effectiveness of the Leave campaign and lack of effectiveness of Remain activity as you discussed, than anything to do with 6.4% more spend
    A fair challenge would be that we would obviously have a very different results if media contributed more than 50% of the vote, but given the stability of voting intention in 2015 and the beginning of 2016, I believe this would be unlikely.
    I know this is an simplistic calculation, but its been something that has been on my mind over the last couple of weeks as well so wanted to share.

  • Michael Bulman 9 Aug 2018 at 8:30 am

    A good article. The last section would be interesting to work out.

    I would, however, be reluctant to place any real value in the outcome given the inherent (openly stated) bias of the Electoral Commission and the UK government spending around £9m on a leaflet that contained pro remain messaging. That’s before we take into account that Remain had all of the instruments of state and big business at their disposal. Ah, and extending the registration deadline to allow more young people to register and vote remain. You can go on and on in this vein but ultimately it’s a pretty unhealthy approach to anything that doesn’t go the way you want it to.

    That aside, the Leave campaign had some very impressive moments, the idea of taking back control and empowering the electorate was a stroke of genius. Even the bus was clever in that it wasn’t an outright lie but it demanded continuous debate about the difference between net and gross. Remain then tackled it horribly by getting upset about the number rather than explaining why they thought it was worth it. Free marketing.

    Anyway, I digress, a lot to learn and a fascinating case study in years to come.

  • Derek Rocholl 9 Aug 2018 at 9:25 am

    It’s a huge failure of marketing. The resut is the equivalent of havinh a massive cue of custimers waiting for a beef burger they have paid for whom you can only supply a portion of salad. There is nothing smart or clever about lying or over promising in marketing. This also applies to the Remain campaign because it was based on the deceit of politicians pursuing the interests of their party over the country. Cameron deserves to go down in history as one of the worst British Prime mInisters of all time. The criminal justice system has its hands full withthe other lot. Maybe the best lesson for marketeers and sales people is that without ethics your efforts are bound to result in failure.

  • Billy Ryan 9 Aug 2018 at 9:30 am

    To approach this from another angle to George, it’s worth looking at diminishing returns vs. the campaign limit of £7m.

    If the Leave Campaign’s Target Group was (for argument’s sake), 2/3rds of the voting population – and 80% of this group could be found on Facebook – Leave would have been bidding for an audience of 25m.

    Taking the campaign’s ‘one billion impressions’ number quoted in parliament, they would already have reached 100% of this group at an average frequency of 40 prior to any overspend by BeLeave. This is notwithstanding the significant exposure of this group to owned and earned touchpoints.

    Granted there will be some wastage here (how many adults do Facebook believe live in the UK), but the point remains that the £449k of overspend is unlikely to have tipped the scales.

    It’s a simple case of ‘better’ pound for pound effectiveness at the Leave campaign unfortunately. And any second referendum Remain campaign needs to focus on messaging, not spend.

  • Al King 10 Aug 2018 at 8:45 am

    Yes. Yes it did.

  • Patrick Milne 10 Aug 2018 at 4:19 pm

    Another good marketing question would be:

    Since only 37% of the voting population chose leave and 63% of the voting population didn’t – is it legal decent, honest and truthful to call brexit ‘the will of the people’?

  • Marlene Greenhalgh 12 Aug 2018 at 12:53 pm

    Statistics are boring …


    Persuasion is indeed an art
    Data added sets it apart
    The wheat from the chaff
    Or the facts from the faff?

    Euro change was simply coined
    A con to join and a con conjoined
    A waste of money and tight control
    Sovereignty despoiled by Euro toll

    The Leavers’ message was short and sweet
    Coated in sugar with mince and meat
    Flour and fat spread by rolling pin
    A pastry crust to keep the filling in

    Cummings’ outgoings might have been too high
    But he offered a ready to eat shrink wrapped pie
    They made it look delicious and smell real good
    The proof will be in the eating of their Brexit pud…

    Time will tell
    Heaven scent or rancid as Hell?


  • Ken Jones 13 Aug 2018 at 11:21 am

    I’m not criticising this article – it’s another good one from Ritson, and raises some very good points – but I do think some people (again, not saying this is Ritson) find it hard to accept that the public did think about the issue and simply decided they wanted out of the EU, plain and simple.

  • Chris Bates 14 Aug 2018 at 4:26 pm

    Political marketing and communications is unique as it is not subject to the controls and regulation that characterises most marketing and communications. Politicians can make huge claims and promises, scaremonger and sell ideas without any sort of plan or grounding in reason or truth.
    They are free to lie. The fact that they can make shit up and lie further accentuates the effect of not adhering to their scant campaigning rules and over-spending.
    The bigger better liars won the argument.

  • Richard Fullerton 15 Aug 2018 at 2:13 pm

    What about the £9m the govt spent on printing a 16-page leaflet, “Why the Government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best decision for the UK”? This was distributed to every household in the UK – 27m homes .I’d call that ‘overspend’ and far more likely to have had a greater impact than a mere £450K. A study by Sheffield University confirmed that it did impact voting intentions. However not by enough and it came early in the campaign – timing is key in marketing.

    Surely the point is this – the UK voted to leave DESPITE everything being weighted in favour of Remain. The Govt, most political parties, the Civil Service, the media (largely and certainly the key media – TV) – all worked to promote staying in the EU. It was not a level playing field. If the referendum was unbalanced, the advantage was with Remain – and yet it still lost.

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