Charles Wigley
Jan 17, 2020

Is 'demonic' Dominic Cummings currently the best adman in the UK?

Even if you don't care about UK politics, the way Brexit was sold to the public underscores important but oft-forgotten advertising advice, according to BBH's Asia chairman.

Activists depict Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a puppet operated by his advisor Dominic Cummings during a London protest in October. (Photo by Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images)
Activists depict Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a puppet operated by his advisor Dominic Cummings during a London protest in October. (Photo by Isabel Infantes/AFP via Getty Images)

While the London ad scene is well known around the world to people in the business, Dominic Cummings as a practitioner probably isn't.

This isn't entirely surprising, as he doesn't actually work in advertising, and has never done so (he is Prime Minister Boris Johnson's chief special adviser).

But if you look at two of the most successful real-world campaigns of the recent past in the UK—the 'leave' campaign prior to the Brexit referendum and the Conservative party's recent election campaign—he was at the heart of both of them.

If you can divorce your political beliefs from an analysis of these victories (and personally I can't say I am exactly a fan of Brexit) then it's clear how they were based on many of the fundamental principles that our industry has developed over time. In recent years the industry too often seems to forget these principles in its rush to embrace the latest communications 'thinking'—thinking that at one stage or another has suggested both the death of the big idea and the end of mass marketing.

At the heart of each campaign was a brutally short, but highly emotive campaign line that was repeated again and again (and often again...just for good measure).

For Brexit it was "TAKE BACK CONTROL"—the line Cummings wrote after having considered numerous different ways to best frame the argument.

Direct and almost visceral in its emotional appeal, it spoke directly to a patriotic heartland that was inherently distrustful of distant (and foreign) bureaucrats making decisions on their behalf in Brussels. Likewise with regard to a perceived liberal London elite doing the same from Westminster.

In its face, a 'remain' campaign based on numerous rational messages about the economic advantages of staying in the EU stood little chance.

Emotion and absolute focus trumped rationality and multiple messages—as they typically do. A lot of people felt an instinctive need to TAKE BACK CONTROL, therby giving clear warning to their distant lords and masters, rather than carefully analyse and personally weigh up the economic pros and cons of the debate.

Cut to several years later and in December's election the same Conservative Party that was responsible for getting the country into the Brexit morass, ironically, won re-election by a significant margin with another blunt, emotive line: "GET BREXIT DONE".

Apparently this one came directly out of a research group in Rotherham and was immediately seized upon by Cummings, who insisted it become the (very frequently repeated) core message of the campaign. The argument to the electorate was that once Brexit was—finally—done, then the country could get on with its life again and focus on the important issues that needed to be solved. This approach cleverly unified both hardcore leavers and folk who just wanted the whole damn thing over with.

Against this, the Labour party came up with numerous policy proposals but no really powerful core message from which to hang them all. Indeed, Labour's manifesto was hugely detailed. But again, clarity, simplicity and emotion triumphed. Not to mention core-message repetition.

Note also how both lines are three words long, conforming to Paul Arden's poster rule—"three words please, five max"—and are also phrases that normal people would use. In this they echo Saatchi's "LABOUR ISN'T WORKING" line for Margaret Thatcher over 30 years ago.

These are classic, mass-market, big-idea campaigns. Ideas that are able to provide a platform for secondary messages and have the ability to speak to very diverse audiences (from Rotherham man to retired home-counties army majors).

Whatever your politics, these basic principles continue to build brands and, evidently, win elections.

We forget them at our peril.


Charles Wigley is the Asia chairman at BBH.

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