Just a few days before the UK elections, Boris Johnson’s now-famous “Love, Actually” parody video filled social media feeds around the world. It was the rare instance of a political video that was on message that you wanted (or maybe even had) to share. I immediately recognized the work of my friends Sean Topham and Ben Guerin, the creative partnership behind Topham-Guerin, which earlier this year helped Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison surprise the world when the Coalition won.
Now that the election is over, Sean and Ben are able to discuss their work and, as they make clear in this interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, “Conservative, Actually” was the tip of the iceberg when it came to UK Conservatives’ digital strategy in the 2019 campaign. There are lots of lessons for campaigners around the world to learn from how the Conservative’s campaign decision makers empowered its creative team.
In politics today, a campaign’s greatest fear shouldn’t be that voters disagree with you, but rather they ignore you. It’s hard to get people to pay attention. I’ve written about the concept of “cut through” before and nobody understands that better than antipodeans. In 2020, your competition isn’t simply the other campaign, it’s the thousands of other things vying for a voter’s attention, whether that’s Netflix or Peloton.
With “Conservatives, Actually” the team created a video that was “picked up by worldwide news outlets, including in Australia – earning the Conservatives hours of valuable publicity in the final days of the campaign.” You can’t buy that kind of attention.
It was a lesson the Tories learned from an earlier video where they followed Johnson, asking him questions as he made his morning tea. That video got Britons talking about Johnson’s tea making routine. The lesson, according to Topham, is “that told us just how big the video moments were proving to be and how much attention there was on the tiny details.”
Creativity Means Doing the Unexpected
I hear lots of candidates and their staff talk about how they want to be creative, but when it comes time to actually do the unexpected things you need to do to be creative. It’s so easy for voters to filter out political content that sounds and looks like every other political message they’ve seen before. But when something unexpected happens, like the Prime Minister participating in an expertly recreated parody of the famous “Love, Actually” scene, people notice.
But the creative content must always be in service to the campaign’s message. Isaac Levido, the Conservatives’ campaign manager, “was determined for us to be creative whilst sticking to the message,” explains Topham. “His view was that just because this was the Conservative Party, we didn’t have to communicate conservatively.”
The Conservatives knew they got outworked online in 2017 and if they wanted to be successful this year, they couldn’t afford to play it safe online. Being creative means taking risks, but the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. That’s exactly what the Tories got by going with the “Love, Actually” parody.
Nobody would have faulted the campaign if they closed their digital messaging push with a staid, conventional political ad, but had the outcome been any different, we’d be reading stories about unnamed critics who thought the parody was an unforced error for the final week. Remember that defeat is an orphan while victory has a thousand fathers. Making the right strategic decision – in this case, the parody video – doesn’t always guarantee the desired result. Fortunately, in this case, it did.
Build the Sails for When the Wind Comes
The parody video almost didn’t happen. The project was greenlit in the final fortnight of the campaign leaving them “just 24 hours to hire actors and get it produced, shot and edited in time for the final pre-election broadcast advertising slots. The PM’s only available time to shoot the film was on the night of Wednesday, December 4, eight days from polling day.”
The Conservatives wouldn’t have been able to pull this off without having Sean and Ben embedded with the team early on. Johnson had worked with them on other videos so the trust and relationship was there to execute flawlessly. Not only was the team in place to create the video, they’d spent weeks building up their distribution capacity on social media with a consistent output of content to ensure that this video had legs and got noticed.
It’s Not All About Data
The “Love, Actually” parody video wasn’t even the Conservatives most viewed video of the campaign. “Post-election analysis conducted by the BBC showed it was in fact anti-Conservative videos which were the most viewed, suggesting the number of views is not as important in shifting votes as who is watching them.”
Rather than focus solely on reach and frequency against a targeted universe, the Tories relied on compelling, creative content. “If you get the idea right,” explains Guerin, “you don’t need data, you don’t need targeting. A good idea will sell itself.”
Throughout the campaign, the Conservatives were criticized in the media and by their opponents for their online campaign tactics, including accusations of engaging in deliberate disinformation. Twitter even threatened their account after they changed their profile to “Fact Check UK” during a leaders’ debate.
Again, nobody would have faulted the powers that be for sacking their creative team or severely reining them in after this unwanted attention, but Levido and the Tories stuck to the plan, setting the stage for the now-famous “Love, Actually” video.
The lesson, according to Topham, is that “Twitter is a storm in a teacup.” And elite political conversation rarely reflects what voters actually care about.
While millions of people around the world (and more importantly, the UK) saw the parody video, what they didn’t see was the months of hard work that went into getting the campaign and its digital team into a position to execute on such a clever concept. Campaigners around the world can learn from the Tories’ success.