Brexit Autopsy: How the Ad Battle Played Out (and What the U.S. Should Learn From It)

Negative, Diffuse 'Remain' Effort Faced a Simple Argument for Control

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The leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, poses with the party's EU referendum poster in Westminster on June 16.
The leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage, poses with the party's EU referendum poster in Westminster on June 16. Credit: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

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.

The Brexit battle bus arrives at Chester-Le-Street Cricket Club ahead of a visit by Boris Johnson as part of a Brexit tour on May 30.
The Brexit battle bus arrives at Chester-Le-Street Cricket Club ahead of a visit by Boris Johnson as part of a Brexit tour on May 30. Credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Leave's most potent weapon was a huge red bus, which toured the country with a single promise painted on its side. It said, "We send the EU £350 million a week. Let's fund our National Health Service instead."

Immediately after the referendum result was announced, leading Leave campaigner Nigel Farage admitted on national TV that the £350 million claim was a "mistake." Similarly, another Leave leader, Nigel Evans, backtracked on pledges to control immigration, saying they were a "misunderstanding."

Droga5's Mr. Williams said, "I can't make false claims about a toothbrush or a car. At least advertising makes an attempt to protect people. There has always been spin and distortion of truth, but this time we've seen patent lies. Trump is doing the same. If you lie to people who are upset and fearful you can play havoc with them. People are looking for scapegoats, and lots have been put forward."

Media Battleground

The Leave campaign came up with arguably the most powerful image of the referendum without the help of an ad agency. Unveiled by UKIP leader Nigel Farage, it showed a line of refugees with the caption "Breaking Point." It was widely condemned and likened to Nazi propaganda.

Remain's 'Gamble' ad, via Adam&Eve/DDB London.
Remain's 'Gamble' ad, via Adam&Eve/DDB London. Credit: Adam&Eve/DDB London

Remain's main ads had mixed messages. One was a picture of Leave leaders Mr. Johnson, Mr. Farage and Michael Gove at a blackjack table, with the warning, "Don't let them gamble with your future."

A Remain ad from M&C Saatchi.
A Remain ad from M&C Saatchi. Credit: M&C Saatchi

Another ad, created by M&C Saatchi, showed Mr. Johnson and Mr. Farage sitting in a tree and sawing through the branch that connected them to the trunk, while a third, also via M&C, showed an image of an open door leading to a dark corridor with the caption "Leave, and there's no going back." This was consistent with government soundbites that Brexit would be a "leap in the dark."

Another Remain poster from M&C Saatchi.
Another Remain poster from M&C Saatchi. Credit: M&C Saatchi

Agency Adam&Eve/DDB passionately supported "Remain" and funded an online video campaign of its own that featured celebrities and well-known figures including Stephen Hawking, Keira Knightley and Lily Cole urging people to take five seconds to vote. While these ads did not advocate which way to vote, they were clearly aimed at younger audiences who were less likely to vote -- a prediction borne out on the day.

Social Media

Political advertising is banned from TV in Britain, where budgets were officially limited to £7 million for each camp, so the main battleground extended across print, outdoor and digital, with most of the work being seen via social media or on the news.

A report by digital marketing intelligence firm SimilarWeb indicated that the Leave campaign won the battle in social, in particular on Facebook. Its study shows that social media made up 36.7% of the Leave camp's online traffic, compared to 18.3% for Remain. Of that traffic, 85% was via Facebook.

Mr. McLeod criticizes Remain for its channel strategy, describing it succinctly as "crap."

"Our research showed that Facebook was beating Twitter hands down, whereas [Remain] went for traditional news-led comms that were only reported in the Westminster bubble and on Twitter," he said. "There was not nearly enough paid social media strategy."

The Leave camp also benefited from having a potent "storyteller." Matt Carter, founder of Message House and former U.K. CEO at Burson-Marsteller, said Boris Johnson was the politician who made the key difference to the Leave camp, making it "credible" and "appealing" after he joined its cause. Less polarizing than Mr. Trump, he appealed to a wider audience than the far-right UKIP supporters.

However, he also believes Leave delivered a more personal message to voters in comparison to Remain's "rational, cold message" about economics -- and that could have parallels with Mr. Trump. "'Remain' failed to connect with the frustration of people who felt that remote elites were connecting power, money and media," Mr. Carter said. "That is not just a U.K. problem, it's happening around the world."

Given the parallels with the U.S., the Brexit outcome likely has implications for the U.S. as it faces its upcoming presidential standoff. Droga5's Mr. Williams cautioned his Stateside colleagues, who are working on the Hillary Clinton campaign, that storytelling will be key to their charge as well. "She needs to come up with an overarching narrative," he said. "There can be smaller narratives within it, but she needs to bring together what is increasingly becoming the 'Disunited' States."

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