Labour’s Ed Miliband badly needs a smart ad agency – but it doesn’t looks as though he’ll get one

Ads, and the efforts of admen, will play a role in May’s General Election but, probably, a lesser role than the admen would hope.

So far there’s been one well-aimed punch, M&C Saatchi’s poster for the Conservatives featuring Labour leader Ed Miliband under the control of likely Scottish Nationalist leader in the House of Commons Alex Salmond.
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If Miliband needs to form a coalition government or rely on one party to support him vote-by-vote, then the SNP looks the likeliest candidate. The fact that the 40 or so Westminster seats that the SNP may win will come from Labour makes this scenario all the more uncomfortable for Miliband.

So M&C was aiming at an open goal and it hit the back of the net.

Or it did with the politicos. Whether or not the public was impressed – or even saw the poster – is much more debatable.

If Labour had ignored it, saying, when asked, that the election result was far from determined and it hoped to win an outright majority, then it would have done better.

But in an era of 24/7 media, with party leaders surrounded by so-called media experts (most of whom have never worked in the media) such sang froid is almost impossible.

That’s Miliband’s problem. He’s the boy at the back of the class raising his hand to make his point and nobody in the media is listening.

As it is, Miliband faces another TV debate against SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, among other rather competent female politicians, and it will be hard for him to appear prime minister material. It will be a ‘likeability’ contest.

This is where Miliband needs the advice of a good ad agency. Any decent agency knows that, when you’re promoting a brand, you concentrate on the positives and ignore (if you can) the negatives.

Australian spinmeister Lynton Crosby is doing this for the Tories: he knew Cameron would get flack for refusing to debate head-to-head with Miliband but calculated that the risks didn’t justify the potential rewards. Miliband doesn’t appear to have such seasoned advisers in his camp.

Finding such has always been a problem for Labour, with the exception of the early Tony Blair years when he and Peter Mandelson – the famed ‘Prince of Darkness’ – sweet-talked business leaders and therefore made it acceptable for communications wizards to line up behind Labour. Such people love a winner, after all.

Labour has produced two hard-hitting party political broadcasts through the offices of up-and-coming London agency Lucky Generals but, as far as I know, the agency hasn’t been signed up as the official election agency.

Lucky Generals is getting on some big commercial pitch lists now and handling Labour would be time-consuming, unprofitable and hardly likely to endear it to some of these potential clients.

Labour will probably end up with a group of adland ‘supporters,’ which is a recipe for disaster.

The only reliable guide to what’s likely to happen on May 6 are the opinion polls. And these show that Labour and the Tories are neck and neck, with Labour likely to have the biggest number of seats – although not an overall majority.

The polls don’t usually move that much in the course of an election campaign, although this time they might. There are signs that UKIP has peaked too soon and David Cameron’s famous description of them as ‘fruitcakes and loonies’ might be gaining some traction.

When it’s this tight a smart, committed ad agency can, indeed, make the difference but that requires a smart, committed client who’s willing to take advice and the consequent risks.

It doesn’t look as though Miliband and his ‘react-to everything-even-if you-shouldn’t’ team are likely to get one.

This article was first published in International Business Times.

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About Stephen Foster

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Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.