Let’s get ready to rumble
Despite its reported £100 million cost, is the Brexit ad campaign the best Britain can come up with?
Originally written for Marketing Week, September 2019
One hundred million pounds buys you a lot of real estate in media land, as the British government has found with its current ‘no deal readiness’ campaign. In 2018, Nielsen reported, this bulging purse would have placed Brexit as the fourth most profligate client in the UK’s spending ranks after P&G, Sky and BT, the latter of which spent £109.3 million on marketing in 2018.
Next on the money train came programmatic monster Amazon with £87.5 million, Unilever, with a brand family that would make the benefit office wince, at £82.8 million and in seventh sport, meerkat-toting insurance aggregators Compare the Market at £62.2 million.
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 wad in a frankly unbelievable two-month period before the deadline on the 31st October. Pro-rated through the whole of 2019, Brexit’s annual spend would have been £600 million – enough for our bumbling PM to ‘sponsor’ sixty thousand of his resplendent chums.
According to the 2018 Advertising Association/ WARC Expenditure Report (which collects data from the entire media landscape) UK ad spend totalled £23.6 billion in 2018 - just over £64,657,534 per day - so 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 turncoat Ewok (sorry, cabinet minister) in charge of Brexit contingency planning “…ensuring an orderly Brexit is not only a matter of national importance, but a shared responsibility”. He referenced data that suggested only 50% of the population believed it was likely the UK would leave the EU on 31st October, thus necessitating the inordinate levels of panic-spending.
He 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 on board or… or… well, just get on board. There’s a good chap.
It should come as no surprise that although Alex Aitken, 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.
The Brexit campaign pitch was eventually won by New York headquartered Engine Group (whose parent organisations are Opinion Research Corporation of the New Jersey parish and Lake Capital out of Chicago). 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. With all this talent and (one assumes at this price) every single creative resource at their disposal the client - the British public in this instance - would’ve deservedly expected a magnum opus of creative genius to fill their flat screen TVs, laptops, tablets, mobiles, billboards, letter boxes and coffee mugs for the eight weeks up to November. An emotive, impactful and effective masterpiece redolent of Apple’s epic 1984 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 hundred million on was a patronising, simplistic Ronseal ad, art directed in PowerPoint 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 syndicated in every possible media outlet 24/7, was initiated back in July with the Government’s 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 by apparently visiting Thesaurus.com and 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 transcribed from landscape to portrait, but then again, it’s 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.
Even if the billboards are naïve in their execution, you can’t argue with their brevity. Eleven words, two numbers, an abbreviation and a link to the https://www.gov.uk/brexit 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 realistic 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 necessity. 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 and efficiency of a Dad’s
Army night exercise.
We’re in this together, and the ‘Get Ready for Brexit’ campaign and associated spend could and should have been handled much, much better.