Advertising Done Badly: "Get Ready for Brexit" Campaign

By The Cog Blog Archives
Cover image for  article: Advertising Done Badly: "Get Ready for Brexit" Campaign

I delayed this week's post until after the glorious (or possibly miserable, depending on your point of view) day when the U.K. left the European Union. For those overseas, this happened at 11 p.m. on Friday, January 31.

I waited so that I could, without being accused of political point-scoring, to write about the incredible ad campaign run by the government to "Get Ready for Brexit."

I use the word incredible in its literal sense. The government-run campaign was hard to believe in that it was a monumental waste of money; £46 million had been spent out of the quoted £100 million budget when the Brexit delay occurred. It featured awful creative and used media so badly it will probably be featured in a "how not to do it" case study, taught to future media planning students.

Let's go back to the beginning:

Brexit was supposed to happen on October 31, 2019 (note that date). The government decided to run a campaign to advise U.K. citizens on how to prepare for Brexit. At that stage, there was no election planned and no suggestion that this was anything other than a public service announcement campaign.

Before anything else, a budget of £100 million was set aside and two lucky agencies were appointed to head the project.

No pitch, as far as anyone can tell; the agencies, consisting of Engine (fun fact: Engine's late president Robin Wight once stood as a Conservative Party candidate) and the American-Omnicom-owned OMG, were unceremoniously appointed.

The budget was widely seen as ridiculously high; after all, the campaign wasn't likely to run for more than a couple of months, three at most, given that it launched at the beginning of September.

Then the campaign appeared. You can judge for yourself, but suffice it to say, Campaign described it as "a communications abomination" and promptly awarded it the coveted Turkey of the Week for bad advertising.

Finally, the media placements were, shall we say, questionable. Campaign reported one such incident, with the ad appearing in an article on the controversy around the Northern Ireland border issue (you obviously can't experience these online placements now). The publication touched on this while suggesting "placements [were] so crassly absurd it's hard not to think someone did it on purpose for the LOLs."

A thoughtful piece by the respected ex-agency professional, now consultant, Robert Ray on LinkedIn asked: "Why would anyone — Brexit or otherwise — use a newspaper ad to simply attempt to direct someone to a website somewhere else to read whatever it is they want them to read?"

I wonder if the obsession with online media and the use of addressable messaging via the likes of Facebook has driven planners to forget the basics of how offline media works. Newspapers contain pages of words that dedicated readers can enjoy; for these consumers, long-form copy can work brilliantly well.

Anyway, with all that money and the brains of two very competent agencies, the campaign had to work, right? No, apparently it didn't.

The National Audit Office found that: "Auditors said the numbers of people looking for information about Brexit did not notably change as a result — ranging from 32 percent and 37 percent during the campaign, to 34 percent when it stopped, having spent just under half of the allotted money."

These atrocious results would never have happened or been tolerated had someone competent from the client been involved, such as the dearly-departed Central Office of Information.

The agencies involved are, of course, successful within the industry, but even good agencies, ultimately, follow a client brief. The client knows best or, to paraphrase Michael Gove, who needs experts?

Mind you, maybe it did work and we're looking in the wrong place. A general election was called on October 31 (that date again) and took place on December 12, with Boris Johnson's Brexit-loving Conservatives winning a large majority.

Not, of course, that the "Get Ready for Brexit" campaign was really a Conservative party election campaign hiding in plain sight. Election campaigns are funded by the party; government information campaigns by the taxpayer.

Perish the thought.

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