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James Appleby of Isobel: why important elections need agencies

Advertising is a world full of bullshit, which is why I love elections. Because elections are a moment where reality rocks up and coldly mutilates everyone’s precious hypotheticals.

Perhaps this is why so much of adland prefers to leave political marketing to specialist consultancies? In half a century of elections we’ve had maybe five good posters – pretty much all from one and a half agencies and almost entirely in the previous century. Ignoring the punditry and looking at who’s doing any work, it’s only the oddballs who seem to think that adland should have anything to say on something as grubby as the running of the country – as if we thought it far beneath us..

But if an agency doesn’t seriously believe that it could improve the fortunes of any given political party, then they may as well admit to every client on their roster that they’re not fit for purpose.

Because politics today has been reduced almost entirely down to the advertising and PR battle. Not to echo Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ or diminish the seriousness of the small number of issues that really are at stake, but the electorate isn’t making a choice between two radically opposed ideologies. This is Coke vs. Pepsi, not Churchill vs. Attlee.

Instead, on most issues the two parties occupy a very similar political space. The ease with which MPs from across the Conservative spectrum have moved to Labour, and Labour’s reluctance to share a manifesto too far in advance – for fear that it would find its policies being adopted by the government – both neatly illustrate this. Which means the choice facing voters is largely shaped by personal idiosyncrasy and branding preference.

And if this is going to be an election where branding matters more than anything else – both party branding, and personal branding for the leaders – then this adds to the awkwardness for the advertising world, which arguably has neglected its core competency of brand building in pursuit of shiny short-term fads and awards from inside the bubble.

It is therefore for our own sakes that agencies should be proactively participating in the democratic scrap. Pick a party, an issue, or an individual – and volunteer your services. The eventual outcome of July’s UK vote is probably not going to change, but it’s about as pure a brief as you’re going to get. If you’re worried about appearing partisan then don’t PR it. Instead, take it as a chance to experiment with process, try out new teams, tinker with new production techniques.

The campaign period is going to be frantic and most of the effort expended by door-knockers and leaflet droppers will be wasted. But the real winner at the end of it all could be the agency which manages to produce the image, video, line, meme, or god-knows-what that manages to capture and crystallise a rare moment where nearly everyone is paying attention to a contest between brands. And if you don’t think you have anything to contribute to that, then I honestly don’t know what you’re doing in this business.

James Appleby is strategy director at creative advertising agency Isobel.

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