In a close political contest and especially one conducted across the whole nation, campaign tactics and execution matter. Which makes this report on the 'Stronger In' advertising and messaging in Campaign very important:
But, without doubt, one of the key problems was that the Remain camp was determined to take a negative stance. MacLennan says his agency was clear on the need for a positive message. "We said don’t try to cower people into submission – encourage them to see the positives," he insists. "We came up with a strategy based around ‘Don’t leave it, lead it’ but they didn’t run with it."
James Murphy, chief executive of Adam & Eve/DDB, says his agency had also wanted to focus on positive messaging, presenting Remain as offering the best of both worlds (inside the EU but with special status): "But that didn’t fit with the prevailing feeling in the camp that the Scottish referendum and the general election had been won by emphasising risk."
So counter to the agencies’ recommendations, Project Fear became the linchpin of what was a confused and disparate strategy. While the Leave campaigners were able to talk up all the good things about quitting the EU, Stronger In’s agenda was almost unrelentingly negative and undynamic.
Now there's a disconnect here between our understanding of what works in political advertising and how we frame more regular brand communications. In simple terms we think negative political messaging - Project Fear - works whereas we believe negatively founded messaging causes long-term brand damage in regular consumer advertising. From an outsider's perspective the 'Stronger In' campaign had a simple (and fundamentally strong) strategy - secure endorsement for 'remain' from respected experts, commenters and celebrities and stress the value we get from EU membership. What seems to have happened is that this strategy was run from 10 Downing Street while the 'Stronger In' campaign team floundered about essentially directionless:
"We were simply called upon to provide creative window-dressing, not political strategy. And because Stronger In had no political strategy, we had nothing to say. Of course we struggled to get our message across, because the real art is working out the message in the first place and we weren’t allowed to help with that."
The Campaign report talks of divisions, suspicions and an inability to collaborate - coupled with the lack of focus that led to 24 people round the table deciding on the execution of strategy. 'Stronger In' had no message besides 'stronger in' itself - there was no effort to try and provide a context or rationale to that positioning, to explain in language people would understand just how we might be 'stronger in'. Instead 'stronger in' was defined in terms of us being 'weaker out' - in other words negatively. And people - or rather the people who mattered, the undecided voters - didn't believe that message or trust those proffering ever more shrill reasons why leaving the EU was bad.
In contrast (and for all its failings of strategy) Vote Leave - perhaps more by luck than judgement - hit upon a message that was both positive and also flexible enough to accommodate the range of views and expectations of people considering a leave vote. "Take Control" they said - positive, telling people they have power and agency, and hard for 'Stronger In' to refute or challenge. Alongside this, the media (and 'Stronger In' who should have known better) embraced the term 'Brexit' meaning that leaving became a thing, had a brand people could use.
There were other mistakes - once Vote Leave had adopted a red and white livery it was pretty dumb of Labour In to produce material in red and white. In the fleeting moment between picking the leaflet from the mat and putting it into the bin or the glimpse of a poster as we drive past, you need to capture attention - it seems that Labour couldn't bring themselves to use Stronger In's blue and white with the result that, at best, a confused message was presented to the voters it targeted.
As the disappointed 'remain' voters emerge blinking into England's watery sunshine, they're beginning - too late, way too late - to construct a positive message about the EU. One about personal links, shared history, economic co-operation and our voice in the world. It might have been a different result if that had been the message prior to 23 June. Instead we got a parade of the great and good spreading doom and gloom and a persistent sub-text that anyone voting leave - or thinking of voting leave - was a narrow-minded, xenophobic, racist bigot. It's really no surprise given this barrage that people took advantage of the polling booth's calm to stick two fingers up at those elites who painted such a negative picture of English voters.
I am, of course, pleased. But it could have been a very different result if 'Stronger In' had actually tried to explain why we would actually be 'stronger in'. And as a former Ad agency Account Planning Director and a pretty experienced political campaigner, it's clear to me that 'Stronger In' had every advantage in this campaign but failed entirely in using that advantage. Whatever the politics of this, 'Stronger In' - perhaps from complacency, maybe from lack of direction, or even arrogance - threw the referendum win away.