Nobody really likes ads. But most people reserve a special disdain for political advertising.
Canadians just endured the longest election campaign in more than 100 years, and with it the partisan slap-fight that took over the airwaves and interrupted our hallowed worship before the prospect of a Blue Jays pennant race. (Praise be.)
Still, while – as with most advertising – few will admit that campaign ads have any effect on them, the marketing strategy has a real sway on citizens’ impressions of the candidates and their platforms.
In the case of the winning campaign, the ad agency behind much of that strategy was Toronto-based Bensimon Byrne.
While not unprecedented, it’s very unusual for a commercial ad agency to do political work, as opposed to those who specialize exclusively in political communications.
For the Conservatives this time around, staffer Dennis Matthews – who previously was an advertising manager with the Prime Minister’s Office and a marketing director at Sun News – headed an in-house team responsible for marketing strategy along with outside writers, camera crews and other production staff on a freelance basis. The NDP used a combination of an internal team and advertising consultants.
Bensimon Byrne has done political work for more than 10 years, handling Liberal Party political campaigns in Ontario for Dalton McGuinty and the latest run for Kathleen Wynne, and federal elections for Paul Martin before being approached by the team behind Justin Trudeau in March. (The agency did not work with either Stéphane Dion’s or Michael Ignatieff’s campaigns.)
“Personally, I would have loved to be involved earlier than we were. By the time I got involved, he was in third place,” David Rosenberg, partner and chief creative officer at Bensimon Byrne, said during an hour-long conversation in his office reflecting on the campaign – from which he is still recovering lost sleep. “It was a steep hill to climb.”
Advertising for products and advertising for a political candidate are similar in that they’re both, fundamentally, selling something. But political ads are a different beast: People think about their vote differently than they think about a purchase decision, and a campaign ad often has to be produced quickly to respond to attacks or policy issues as they arise. All the ads were produced in less than eight or nine days, some in as little as 24 hours. Research was also rigorous, testing both ads and the phrasing of campaign messages with focus groups multiple times.
“David is an awesome creative talent,” said Subtej Nijjar, partner and president at ad agency Union, which did some work for the Trudeau campaign on a project-by-project basis earlier this year. “Although it is uncommon, I think ad agencies are well suited to help candidates. We approach it from a creative point of view, as opposed to a political point of view. ... The look and feel [of the Trudeau campaign] took it away from typical political advertising.”
The ad concepts were developed by Mr. Trudeau’s advisers, Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, and other members of the campaign team, in co-operation with the agency. Bensimon Byrne then wrote the ads, designed the look and managed the shoots. Conversations about strategy happened multiple times each week.
“They worked on concepts that we developed together. David would take them away and make the creative presentation incredible,” Mr. Butts said.
Mr. Rosenberg reflected on some of the ads that made the biggest impact on the campaign, and how they were made.
This ad, released in the summer, featured Mr. Trudeau walking on Parliament Hill and addressing the Conservative ads that had framed him as “just not ready.” The script had Mr. Trudeau saying he was “not ready for” economic recession and job losses, and making economic promises. The candidate was concerned at first.
“There’s a rule that you’re not supposed to parrot the language your opponents are using against you – an accepted rule of political advertising,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “I said, ‘I think it’s time to break some rules here.’ By taking that criticism head-on, we were able to begin to change people’s perceptions.”
The ad was well-received and was rebroadcast just under a month before the election. It also set the tone for the communications: The campaign team was willing to respond to other campaigns’ claims and to contrast policy points, but refused to mount personal attacks.
“The most different thing was working with a candidate who was committed to not doing attack advertising. I’ve done plenty of it personally,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “They wanted to win in a different way.”
Pity the poor Steadicam operator who had to walk up that downward moving escalator backward, filming Mr. Trudeau talking about how Canadians have been struggling to get ahead.
“To make the point to the visual metaphor, was a risk for him,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “He put himself out there in such a unique way. It’s a set piece.”
Mr. Rosenberg himself acted as the stand-in while the director tested focal lengths, and quickly discovered how difficult all that stair climbing would be. “I went over to him and said, ‘I hope your core is in good shape.’” It wasn’t an issue. Mr. Rosenberg found that out on another shoot, as well – an ad made specifically for B.C. voters, featuring Mr. Trudeau doing the popular Grouse Grind mountain climb. It was a tough one to film: The candidate wanted to make good time and wouldn’t stop for the cameras.
“People noticed it and began talking about it,” he said. The ad has since attracted roughly three million views online.
“Do I look scared to you?”
Former Mississauga mayor and nonagenarian powerhouse Hazel McCallion agreed to produce an ad combatting the Conservatives’ claims that Mr. Trudeau would cancel income splitting for seniors. Mr. Rosenberg wrote the script on the Saturday morning of Thanksgiving weekend while at his mother-in-law’s cottage. By Tuesday, they filmed (Ms. McCallion gave them all of 27 minutes to complete the shoot, then kicked them out of her office.) By Wednesday afternoon, it was on the air. Working that quickly can have creative limitations.
“I was imagining this lovely wingback chair in her living room, but none of that was available,” he said “I’m not sure the way it was produced was any worse. She’s in her office, this is a position of power.”
Footage from a rally in Brampton, Ont., was the closing ad of the campaign.
“This was designed to give Canadians a sense of momentum that was building on the campaign trail and get to them emotionally,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “The ad plays on a Friday night and throughout the Thanksgiving weekend, when people really start to make up their minds.”
The production crew had no control over lighting, but studied the rally setup and used five cameras to capture the speech – two roving through the audience and three trained on the candidate, including one placed below him and shooting up, to make him look prime ministerial. It was edited by midday the next day, with an eye to dramatic effect. Mr. Rosenberg, seeing the rough cut, sent an e-mail to Mr. Butts with the subject line, “Sweet Jesus.”
The team ended the ad with a slow fade to text on a screen that said “Ready.”
“It was the only word of that script that I wrote,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “That was the last word that needed to be said.”Report Typo/Error