Laughing all the way to the polls

Party political broadcasts are boring - so Labour will fight the next election with a campaign based on humour. Raymond Snoddy meets its architect
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Andrew McGuinness, the chief executive of the advertising agency TBWA London, has a very serious pitch on his hands this autumn - trying to persuade the Government to finally ditch the conventional party political broadcast.

Andrew McGuinness, the chief executive of the advertising agency TBWA London, has a very serious pitch on his hands this autumn - trying to persuade the Government to finally ditch the conventional party political broadcast.

McGuinness, 34, who will be responsible for Labour's all-important advertising campaign designed to win a third term for Tony Blair, believes the traditional four-minute party broadcasts on the main television channels have out-lived their place in the schedules. Their impact has been fatally undermined by a combination of multi-channel television, instant zapping and voter apathy.

McGuinness, a devoted Blairite who will be taking on one of his old employers, the Tory advertising chief Lord Saatchi of M&C Saatchi, in a general election head-to-head, wants to see party politicals replaced by 30-second or one-minute items that have the look, pace and feel of ads.

"I think you have to find ways of bringing politics to people rather than expecting people to come to politics," says McGuinness, who has already started planning for the election which is expected to take place in May next year.

His general approach on shorter, more accessible party political broadcasts has the support of the Electoral Commission. And last month Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, asked for the public's view on party politicals, hoping to find new ways of "engaging voters more fully with the political process."

As well as shorter broadcasts - possibly on a wider range of channels - McGuinness is hoping to attract wavering voters to Labour by tickling their funny bones. "The humour will be under an overall headline of finding ways to connect with voters. Humour will be part of it," says McGuinness. TBWA won the contract in 2000, beating off four or five other advertising agencies for the right to represent Labour, even though no fees are involved. This will be McGuinness's first general election campaign since he joined the company in 2002.

Some traditions will not change. As well as a little comedy and other eye-catching devices, there will still be a place for hard-nosed "negative" campaigning, designed to hit the rival leader where it hurts. One early idea featured a selection of past Tory leaders and lampooned the famous "Labour isn't Working" Saatchi ad for the Tories. Another, published in the national press, highlighted Michael Howard's association with the poll tax. "It might be deemed negative campaigning but it is also the truth that he was associated with the poll tax. There is a duty to remind people because people do forget," McGuinness points out.

He is very surprised at the Conservative approach so far. Rather than appoint a dedicated advertising agency, the Conservative Party placed an ad in Campaign, the advertising trade magazine. In an open tender advertising agencies, or teams within agencies, were invited to develop the idea "Let Down By Labour?"

Some of the resulting copy has already appeared and McGuinness believes the plan is to continue with the theme, at least throughout this year. "My understanding is that they don't have anyone appointed full-time at the moment, which seems an odd way to go," says McGuinness.

The TBWA chief executive believes that being responsible for Labour's political advertising is much more positive than negative for the agency's commercial business. "Clients are interested in it even if they don't share that political view," says McGuinness, who adds that his young staff volunteers also have a unique opportunity to see politics at work from the inside.

At least Labour knows that it will be able to call on the experience of a prize-winning team. TBWA London recently won the top grand prix award at the International Advertising Festival at Cannes for "Mountain", an advertisement for Sony that "set out to capture the spirit of a global PlayStation community". Labour will now be looking for something just as effective to capture the spirit of its policies.

Outside the political world, McGuinness has also been trying to develop new concepts in advertising. As a result, in the past few weeks he has been paying a lot of attention to the singles charts. He was watching to see how a rather esoteric new release, "Follow Me Follow Me" - a Fat Boy Slim re-mix of the Mexican band Tejo, Black Alien & Speed - fared. The soundtrack to a car ad for the TBWA client Nissan, it got into the Top 20 of the dance music charts, although it was a bit too quirky to make the main Top 20.

Not only has the TBWA brand entertainment company Stream placed the music into the public domain in an innovative way, it will also keep part of the proceeds. "We are becoming record producers and co-owners of intellectual property. We co-own the single with Nissan and Fat Boy Slim and that's cool," says McGuinness, who believes he was almost destined for the advertising industry. "I genuinely had a passion for advertising. My father worked on trade magazines such as Marketing Week and I thought, Great, people get paid money for doing things with brands," he says.

The Fat Boy Slim collaboration could become part of a trend. "The record industry is in such a pickle that they are much more keen to collaborate with brands now," McGuinness adds. Previous musical efforts from TBWA have included releasing the music from the McCain oven chips advert at the same time as the advertising campaign was running on television. The single, McGuinness notes approvingly, was played on BBC Radio 2 in what was essentially "a £3mradio ad on the BBC".

TBWA, part of the US marketing services group Omnicom, is now starting to manage the musical intellectual property rights of other advertising agencies. It could become a further twist in the trend away from conventional advertising in an industry that is still markedly conservative in its structures and habits. "If the rest of the industry is very conservative we can push the boundaries a bit and try out new things," says McGuinness.

In another example of how new ideas are extending the traditional concept of advertising, TBWA launched an online radio station for the clothes retailer, French Connection. During its short life the FCUK radio station got more listeners than Radio 3, McGuinness claims. In the past few weeks TBWA business wins have included Sekonda watches and Chivas Regal whisky, but the company lost a much larger contract for the mobile operator 3, which led to nearly 20 redundancies.

"That's the business in a microcosm. You are never more than two phone calls away from dramatic success and disaster," says McGuinness, who has in two years taken TBWA from the 11th largest ad agency in the UK to number seven.

An unconventional figure for the advertising industry, he has no interest in wearing black lamb's wool jumpers and can even be seen in a pinstripe suit.

"My role is to sit a bit more with the clients and help them be more empathetic about what we are trying to do for their businesses," says McGuinness. As an English and history graduate from the University of Salford, he still managed to talk his way into a traineeship at the J Walter Thomson agency, which was largely Oxbridge-dominated at the time.

While he is keen to talk about the new ways of getting his client's message across, he has no intention of turning his back on television and TBWA advertisements for products such as John Smith's bitter or Whiskas pet food.

"We will carry on doing great television and there isn't enough great television. When you get it right, people will come back into the room to watch an ad," insists McGuinness, who believes the advertising industry often over-complicates its role.

"The aim is to get people to buy things they otherwise wouldn't have bought. That's all we are in the business of doing and that applies to the Labour Party as well," he concedes.