As soon as he heard that Britain had voted to exit the European Union -- widely seen as a populist rejection of the status quo -- Dylan Williams, chief strategic officer at Droga5 London, sent his colleagues in New York an email saying, "Watch this. There are just as many disgruntled people in the U.S."
Wary that a similar uprising might see Donald Trump elected president in November, Mr. Williams said, "I hope this doesn't set a precedent for the U.S. The failure of the 'Remain' campaign is rooted in a failure of vision and purpose, coupled with a complete lack of understanding of anybody who isn't like them -- or how to communicate with them. Remain warned about mortgages going up [if we leave the EU], but how is that relevant to a population with no prospect of buying a house?"
On the other hand, observers believe the official "Vote Leave" campaign -- mostly made up of right-wing politicians and led by master-of-spin (and ex-London Mayor) Boris Johnson -- benefited from strong leadership and vision. Its "Take Back Control" message was simple and memorable, suggesting that Britain would once again be master of its own immigration and financial policies if the country voted to leave the EU.
According to insiders, the Remain campaign lacked its North Star. The official "Britain Stronger in Europe" group was made up of politicians from different parties, with different sets of beliefs, unable to agree on a game plan. Remain hired Adam & Eve/DDB and M&C Saatchi to create some of its ads, and had the backing of almost the entire British advertising community – but without a coherent strategy there was no chance of connecting with voters.
"Overall the Leave camp were far more mobilized and inclusive, less cosmopolitan in their tone and clearly appealed to a more national audience," observed Jason Dormieux, CEO of MEC U.K..
Chris Rumfitt, founder and CEO at Field Consulting, former managing director at Edelman and a one-time advisor to Tony Blair, observed that the Leave message also remained consistent throughout. "Every time any one of them spoke on any subject they ended with the words 'take control,'" he said. "That created a relatively broad church of voters -- they were not saying 'stop immigration,' but 'control it.'"
Moreover, it plugged into the global anti-establishment movement that has seen the rise of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and U.K. left-winger Jeremy Corbyn.
Positive vs. Negative
Meanwhile, Field Consulting's Mr. Rumfitt believed that the Remain camp suffered from its pessimistic P.O.V.
"Remain at times painted a picture of people who wanted to leave as bad or wrong -- that alienated people in the middle," he said. "They were not reaching out enough to the floating voters." On top of that, it had a harder sell: "The status quo is a much more difficult message to deliver .... How many advertising campaigns do you see telling people to stick with the same?"
Instead of focusing on the positives of staying in, Jon McLeod, chair of corporate, financial and public affairs for Weber Shandwick London, said that the Remain campaign suffered from an "excess of negativity." It focused on the negative outcomes of leaving Europe and constantly warned of dire consequences, inspiring the Leave campaign to dub Remain's messaging "Project Fear" -- an epithet that stuck.
Semantics also played a part. McLeod goes as far as to say that "Remain" was the wrong choice of word. "Remain is a very difficult word from a neuro-linguistic point of view -- they should have gone with 'Stay,' which has much more warmth and positivity."
Of Leave's approach, "Rather than relying on fear, there was an optimism of positive action, and, rightly or wrongly, they used facts to build upon emotional territories," said MEC's Mr. Dormieux.