Matt Rhodes, Head of Digital Strategy at WCRS shares his main takeaways from Alastair Campbell’s talk at June’s APG Noisy Thinking event.
One of my major takeaways from events like SXSW is the benefit that those of us in advertising can gain from listening to and learning from those in other, aligned, disciplines. June’s APG Noisy Thinking event brought Alastair Campbell to do just that – to talk about strategy and brands through the lens of politics and political parties in the UK, USA and Europe.
In his discussion on “post-truth politics and post-truth politicians”, one thing was clear to the audience – we’d never be able to make the sort of claims in advertising that are being made by politicians across the world at the moment across all political persuasions. As one attendee said: “the ASA would string us up.” This comment on regulation is important, especially given the rise of digital and targeted political advertising, where only a few people will see individual ads and so the idea that the crowd will call out and correct erroneous advertising is no longer the case.
But, aside from the debate about regulation in political advertising, for me there are three main takeaways from Alastair Campbell’s talk that are relevant to those of us working in advertising.
- Strategy trumps tactics
One that those of us in strategy hold dear, but one that is not always followed. Campbell’s analysis of the current political party brands is that they “lurch from reactive tactic to tactic” – that the focus is on overcoming the next problem or to win the next debate on social media. He fears that in a world of fragmented media and where an issue can seemingly gain significant prominence very quickly the need for a clear strategy is always taking second place to tactics.
And a consequence of this is the stalemate we are seeing in many countries – with none of the major political brands able to grow their share of market. A lack of strategy, and a focus on tactics, is limiting growth of political party brands.
- The proliferation of media means a proliferation of messages
For Campbell, the proliferation of media, and the rise of social media, makes it easier for political brands to say different things to different people; and makes it easier for the things they say to go unchecked. There are, he says, benefits to this for political parties – as they can say one thing to one set of people and, potentially, something very different to a different set. This is why, he said, that it is easier for Trump to say things that might not be true than it was for Nixon.
However, the proliferation of media also reinforces the need for a strong, central message that different groups of people can relate to and around which they can rally. For Campbell the best messages in politics at the moment are simple, active and are ones that people would struggle to disagree with – he compares the active simplicity of “Make America Great Again” with the potential to debate that there can be in “Better Together”.
With many different media, and the ability to speak to smaller groups with more targeted messaging, the need remains for a core central idea that unites these and a message that all of these groups can get behind.
- The danger of talking only to your fans
A final observation from Campbell was the trend, across political brands, to prioritise social media over broadcast interviews. This can be seen as a way of getting your message out directly to people rather than being framed by others. But the challenge is that you move from a broadcast environment, where you are talking to a wide audience of people who agree with you and don’t, and instead talk only to people who are already your fans.
Political brands need to win market share (taking votes from their competitors) or need to grow the market (bring people who don’t vote to vote for them). To do this they need to speak not just to people who are currently fans of them. They need their message to go beyond the people they can reach through their social media channels and influencers who are currently highly aligned with their political viewpoint. They need to find ways of speaking outside of this group as well as to their fans; of taking their political brand to people as well as people coming to them.