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Sun 17 November 2019
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Former Saatchi & Saatchi marketing director Stephen Colegrave continues to dig into how political advertising has gone rogue.


After several months, the Government’s £100 million Get Ready for Brexit advertising campaign was reported to have been abruptly pulled by iNews yesterday. But, intriguingly, the article itself was then pulled by this morning. Yet, according to Business Insider today, the “campaign is still live”. What is going on?

The Government’s independent watchdog, the National Audit Office, published a report last week, which found that Boris Johnson’s expensive campaign had had “limited impact” because it was attempting to deal with issues that were not “manageable or resolvable”.

By my reckoning, the campaign was at least 75% spent by the time it was pulled. If one of my Saatchi & Saatchi clients had only had “limited impact” from a £75 million campaign, I and the agency would have been fired and most probably the client as well.

Some estimates put the cost of the Government’s campaign as high as £140 million. For context, even at the lowest estimate, this was the largest government advertising campaign since the Tell Sid nationalisation of British Gas in 1986.

If this was a normal public information campaign this would be bad enough, but this campaign has pushed the definition of public interest advertising to its limits. Promoting preparation for a hard Brexit had obvious political benefits for both Johnson and his Chief of Staff Dominic Cummings. The campaign was also intertwined with a Conservative Party campaign that spent £4,000 a day on Facebook, bolstering Johnson as Prime Minister.

As Kevin Marsh, former editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, commented on Twitter: “Given that this was, in reality, an exercise in party propaganda rather than government information… shouldn’t CCO [Conservative Central Office] be picking up the bill?”

This really does matter. With three-quarters of the campaign’s time limit completed, at least £75 million has likely been spent by the Government on it. We could be weeks away from a general election and this is, in effect, an advertising campaign with political benefits for the Conservative Party. The total spending limits for a political party during an election campaign is £30,000 per constituency or £19.5 million in total. If this £75 million had been spent during a general election period, it would have breached electoral spending limits by more than three times.

Lord Malloch–Brown, chairman of the pro-European campaign group Best for Britain, was so worried about this that he has written to the Cabinet Secretary. “The argument that the Government is ready for Brexit may be one of the defining issues for a general election campaign,” he said. “Government advertising that makes the claim will effectively be supporting the governing party’s re-selection campaign.”

This all looked even murkier when I went tried to access the iNews article about the Government pulling the £100 million campaign this morning. It is now not available and the page which contained the article online simply states: ” This post has been removed as it did not meet our editorial standards”.

My experience of dealing with government press offices is that they will go to great lengths to get articles which show them in a bad light removed. The classic tactic is to trade an alternative exclusive. Of course, there are plenty of instances where governments have had cosy relationships with the media. The question is: why was this article pulled?

Coincidentally, the press component of the £100 million advertising campaign was concentrated in newspaper titles that are most loyal to the Government. It’s no surprise then that The Telegraph was keen to interview Michael Gove about the virtues of the campaign.

Political parties don’t have much money, but governments do. This creates the temptation for advertising agencies to give generous credit terms to political parties likely to be in government in the hope that they can benefit from government advertising. 

But the murkiness doesn’t end here. In my considerable experience of government procurement of advertising campaigns, the hurried way this campaign was assigned suggests to me that this £100 million piece of business has been given out without due process. If so, that could be against the Government’s procurement rules. This amount of public money can’t be spent without a proper competitive pitch, especially at this scale. 

A creative agency would expect to be paid at least 5% for this type of campaign. On this basis, the creative commission or fees for this scale of campaign might be £5 million. How sure can we be that Cummings and Johnson followed the right procedures to do this? Did they conform to the EU Public Procurement Directives? It might be ironic if the preparation for a hard Brexit campaign broke EU rules.

One thing is certain. This advertising campaign had a huge budget and little impact. It seems clear that it was a waste of money. Also, there are indications that its motives were questionable and the way it was procured didn’t follow the Government’s own rules. Add to this Dominic Cummings’ track record on breaking electoral spending limits, and it definitely raises questions to be followed up.


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