Brand cameron in the cold

As a General Election looms, the Conservatives are in such dire straits that even advertising agencies are snubbing leader David Cameron. Sonoo Singh discovers the Tory brand is regarded as a lost cause because the party remains unclear about exactly what it stands for

David Cameron is getting desperate. The Tory leader got Arnold Schwarzenegger to appear via video link at the party’s conference in Blackpool at the weekend in the hope that the actor-turned-politician would bring some much-needed box office sparkle to the ailing Conservatives. But if the latest opinion polls are anything to go by, the Governor of California does not have the appeal he used to in his film days.

The Tories still trail Labour in the polls by 11 points, and many experts predict Prime Minister Gordon Brown is about to call an election to capitalise on Conservative woes. And, as if being shunned by the public was not enough, advertising agencies are also giving Cameron the cold shoulder.

It emerged last week that despite writing to several big London agencies, the Tories were met with an underwhelming response. Sources claim most agencies failed to respond, while the few shops on the so-called shortlist have been at pains to distance themselves from Cameron.

Even the fact that the Conservatives pay a fee to its advertising agencies, as opposed to the Labour Party, was not enough to seduce a single agency. Instead, senior figures from M&C Saatchi, including Jeremy Sinclair who came up with the iconic Tony Blair “demon eyes”, are thought to be working informally for the party (MW last week). However, M&C Saatchi UK chairman Moray MacLennan is keen to point out that the agency has not been appointed by the party.

A similar claim is being made by Robin Wight, a Tory loyalist, who also insists that his agency WCRS is not involved with the Conservatives. Sources have suggested that both WCRS and Karmarama, which handles work for the Tories on a project basis, snubbed the party’s approach.

By contrast, Labour drew up a shortlist that included the likes of Beattie McGuinness Bungay (BMB), CHI & Partners, Profero and Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO. The account was eventually won by Saatchi & Saatchi, which was for so long associated with Margaret Thatcher. The agency came up with a campaign based around the strapline “Not Flash, Just Gordon” for Brown, and senior Saatchi executives were seen supporting the PM at Labour’s conference in Bournemouth.

The agency’s chief executive, Robert Senior, describes the brief as a “clarion call” to the agency to produce potent advertising work.

Managing director of brand strategy at GfK NOP Chris Davis adds: “It is not surprising that the Tory brand is being looked at as a lost cause by advertising agencies, when compared to the Labour brand.” He says that a successful brand needs a unifying vision and substance – both qualities which, he believes, the Tories lack. “The party does not even know what colour it wants to be – the traditional blue or green,” he adds.

Red Brick Road founder Paul Hammersley agrees, saying brands need a clear sense of what they stand for to succeed. “Brands have to be all about truth,” he adds. “We all buy into brands that are relevant to us. For instance, Apple stands for creativity in a sometimes dull world and Tesco stands for customers’ needs. The Tory brand does not stand for anything.”

It is, of course, easy to see the downside of being allied to Brand Cameron as opposed to the Brown brand, but chairman of Delaney Lund Knox Warren Greg Delaney – a Labour supporter – believes it is “too simplistic” to compare politicians to brands. He does not think advertising has ever been the answer to the woes of political parties. “I believe it is all about communication and telling people what you stand for and the decisions you would take when representing their day-to-day interests,” adds Delaney.

Observers point out that there are other problems when it comes to political advertising, including agencies having to lend their names to a particular political cause. Agencies such as Leo Burnett and DLKW do not work for political parties as a matter of course. Bruce Haines, group chief executive of Leo Burnett – who personally supports the Labour Party – says: “Saatchi did really well out of supporting the Conservatives, but if the commercial rate is not being paid by the party, that means existing clients are in effect subsidising the political party.”

Lowe chief executive Amanda Walsh reveals that her agency was asked to pitch for the Tory party and also Ken Livingstone’s forthcoming election campaign but declined. She says: “To do political advertising you have to be passionate about it, and also you cannot pitch for a business knowing that the competition has the advantage of getting that business because of its past affiliations.” She adds that for her, political advertising is about changing people’s behaviour and perceptions and is therefore not that different from working with service brands.

Some, such as former Conservative party marketing director Will Harris, wonder whether the rebuff from agencies is a reflection of the state of advertising. He asks whether agencies are brave enough to try to create a winning campaign for the Tories.

But Wight at WCRS says: “Advertising campaigns for political parties are not about creating an artifice but revealing the convictions of that party or the politician to the public.”

So while Cameron continues his search for the formula, or even an agency, that might work for him, many believe the Saatchi ad for Brown succeeds in projecting the right image of the new Prime Minister.

Long-term Labour enthusiast Andrew McGuinness, partner at BMB, points to the successful campaign featuring William Hague in a Mrs Thatcher wig – created by Trevor Beattie – which conveyed the idea of a minor politician filling a big woman’s shoes. He adds: “It has to be all about commitment to the ideologies of the party you choose to support or the leader you believe in.”

In Wight’s words, what Cameron needs to do now is to translate everything he believe into policies. “He must make clear how life would be different if he were in Number 10. The winning slogan for him could be that character or conviction starts with the C in Cameron.”

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