The government’s patronising Brexit campaign should have been handled much better

With its reported £100m cost, is the Brexit ad campaign really the best Britain can come up with?

brexit£100m buys you a lot of real estate in media land, as the British government has discovered with its current ‘no deal readiness’ ad campaign.

A 2018 Nielsen report on UK advertising budgets suggests that prime minister Boris Johnson’s bulging purse would have made Brexit the fifth most profligate client in the UK’s spending ranks after Procter & Gamble, Sky, McDonald’s and BT – the latter spending £109.3m on its UK advertising in 2018.

Next on the money train came programmatic monster Amazon with £87.5m, Unilever, with a brand family that would make the benefit office wince at £82.8m and in eighth spot, meerkat-toting insurance aggregators Compare the Market at £62.2m.

But these tallies are annual spend figures. Brexit, in a spree reminiscent of a Kardashian with a tax rebate at the Harrods sale, is blowing its frankly unbelievable wad in a two-month period before the deadline on 31 October.

Pro-rated through the whole of 2019, Brexit’s annual spend would have been £600m – enough for our illegitimately proroguing PM to ‘sponsor’ another 60,000 of his resplendent chums.

Who in ad land would want to work on the no-deal campaign?

According to the 2018 Advertising Association/Warc Expenditure Report (which collects data from the entire media landscape), UK ad spend totalled £23.6bn in 2018 – just under £65m per day. The Brexit campaign budget could, theoretically, have block-booked all the UK’s advertising and media space, above and below the line, for a little over a day and a half.

All of it. Down to the last pixel, door drop and tweet. Then at least this mad melee of Machiavellian mediocrity would’ve been over quickly.

According to Michael Gove, the minister in charge of Brexit contingency planning, “ensuring an orderly Brexit is not only a matter of national importance, but a shared responsibility”.

Presumably by “shared responsibility” he was referring to the cost.

Gove referenced data suggesting only 50% of the population believed it was likely the UK would actually leave the EU on 31 October, thus necessitating the inordinate levels of panic spending on popular education via sub-par advertising.

It’s so lightweight and prescribed you could almost hear the sound of a thousand palms hitting foreheads at creative agencies from Brighton to Belfast.

The government backed his conviction that an exit was inevitable, deal or otherwise, by briefing a number of the great and the good in advertising to come up with an authoritative campaign to persuade the public that yes, this was happening. Get in shape and get on board or… or… well, just get on board. There’s a good chap.

It should come as no surprise that although Alex Aiken, executive director of government communications, is managing the campaign, the impetus and direction came from Gove, Johnson and his resident Iago Dominic Cummings, the puppeteer-in-chief behind the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign.

After a few abstentions, the Brexit campaign pitch was eventually won by New York-headquartered Engine Group, while media planning and buying, the lion’s share of the cash pot, was pinched by Manning Gottlieb OMD, a subordinate brand of New York-based OMD.

Missing the mark

With all this talent and, one assumes at this price, every single creative resource at their disposal allocated to the brief, the client – the British public in this instance – deservedly expected a magnum opus of advertising genius to fill their flat screen TVs, laptops, tablets, mobiles, billboards, letter boxes and coffee mugs for the eight weeks up to November.

Perhaps an emotive, impactful and effective masterpiece, redolent of Apple’s epic 1984-inspired Superbowl commercial?

But no, not us unassuming, understated, placid, polite, ever-forgiving Brits. Those Mad Men decided that what we needed to spend our hard-earned £100m on was a patronising, simplistic Ronseal ad, art directed in PowerPoint, copywritten in fridge magnets and painted in ironically patriotic red, white and blue.

It’s so lightweight and prescribed you could almost hear the sound of a thousand palms hitting foreheads at creative agencies from Brighton to Belfast.

The campaign, currently rolling out on every possible media outlet 24/7, was initiated back in July with the government’s syndicated brief entitled ‘Prepare for Brexit’.

Cleverly, New York’s finest (with help from their London siblings, no doubt) decided they didn’t need to reinvent the wheel so apparently visited, selecting literally the first recommended alternative. Missing an obvious and rather more descriptive opportunity by rejecting ‘Brace for Brexit’ in what was presumably their one single, solitary and all-too brief brainstorm.

The ads look like a National Express coach tipped on its bumper thus transcribed from landscape to portrait. Subsequently, it’s just not very good.

But then again, it is entirely on-message. Simplistic, to the point, no sugar coating: what’s the point in pretending this is anything it’s not? As the saying goes, ‘there’s no way to polish a turd’, and in this respect the agency is bang on message – its turd of a campaign remains unpolished.

Even if the billboards are naïve in their execution, you can’t argue with their brevity. Eleven words, three colours, two numbers, an abbreviation and a link to the website that leads confused Brits through an even more confusing questionnaire that supposedly fills in the gaps on what they should do if, as many suspect will be the case, no reasonable and feasible deal has been agreed by the end of next month.

Sadly, the most pragmatic suggestion “Run to Dover, wave goodbye to France, put your head between your legs and kiss your arse goodbye” appears to have been lost somewhere in the bowels of the website.

In such confusing times we should perhaps appreciate the direct nature of this creative approach and, given the significance of coming events, the blanket media coverage is a necessary, if ludicrously frivolous evil.

However, the enduring sentiment is one of continued disappointment, not that Brexit is happening – that’s something inevitable decreed by formal and correct democratic process – just that our retreat out of the EU is being managed and communicated with all the panache, efficiency and potential longevity of a drunken Tinder hook up.

It doesn’t bode well, does it?

We’re in this together and the ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ campaign with its associated spend could and should have been handled much, much better.

Harry Lang is a strategic brand and marketing consultant and founder of Brand Architects. You can get in touch with him at or via LinkedIn.



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