The 'Tossers' who could win for the Tories

Meet Mr Tosser. As part of a new Tory internet campaign, he could spell the end of the Saatchi age of political advertising. In their first interview, the tiny firm of admen who created him explain why

Francis Elliott
Sunday 26 November 2006 01:00 GMT

Something remarkable is happening in the world of political advertising - Saatchi isn't working. The guru of right-wing communication has been replaced by a "Tosser".

When David Cameron dumped a subsidiary of M&C Saatchi in favour of the tiny, if very trendy, Karmarama agency it made front-page news.

The outfit that personified a golden age of ultra-professional, hard-nosed political advertising with such gems as Labour Isn't Working and Like Your Manifesto Comrade was out in the cold.

But few could have suspected just how radical a change of direction the Tories were planning until a turquoise-clad "inner tosser" dirty-danced on to computer screens this week. The "conniving dirty little parasite" urging us to buy things we don't need with cash we don't have is the anti-hero of an anti-debt campaign launched last Thursday.

The reaction was predictable: "Do the Tories give a toss about middle-class values any more?" asked the Daily Mail. "It seems not to have occurred to Tory high command that the use of such a word, an insult based on the act of self-abuse, might be offensive to huge sections of the electorate."

How wrong they were. David Cameron's most senior aides knew precisely the controversy it would cause, as the agency behind the ad admits. "They said that as long as they knew what would happen they could control it," says Ben Bilboul, managing partner of Karmarama.

There is little in Karmarama's offices off Oxford Street to relieve the ache of the modern. But the apparition of zeitgeist within its white walls has more to do with the direction of politics than advertising.

Not that long ago political messages were delivered by middle-aged men behind desks. The 'Tosser" advert is very different, although its purpose is curiously old-fashioned: it is essentially a public information film on the dangers of personal debt updated for the YouTube generation. It is funny and inoffensively educational with none but the most subtle political content. One has to search hard for the Conservative logo on the "Sort-It-Out" website that hosts the film.

To understand its significance it is necessary to look beyond two old tricks at a third that could have profound consequences for political advertising.

First, the "controversy". Without a bit of hoo-ha the ad would stay where it was, parked in an obscure corner of the internet instead of spread over the pages of national newspapers.

Second, the advert is an example of "viral" advertising; the idea being that it will be spread among social networks on the internet, bringing far more influence to bear as a result. So far, so routine.

What is genuinely new is the whole purpose of the ad itself.

Instead of simply stating "Vote Conservative", or knocking Labour, it is an exemplar of the sort of social action that is a key plank in Project Cameron.

Success for the campaign is not a jump in the polls for the Tories, although of course the party hopes to benefit in due course, but evidence that it has had some impact on levels of debt. "This is about doing rather than talking," a Tory spokesman told the Mail.

Bilboul expands: "They want people to take more responsibility for themselves. But not just to leave them out in the cold but give them the tools."

The campaign is the brainchild of Steve Hilton, David Cameron's most senior adviser. Hilton, who worked with Cameron on the Tories' 1992 election campaign and was subsequently recruited by Saatchis, knows a thing or two about old-style political campaigning.

But Hilton developed a radical new approach with his firm Good Business. The firm - and book of the same name - encouraged corporations to behave more responsibly while urging good causes to make peace with global capitalism. He believes brands - through their influence on individual behaviour - can be forces for good. Since inspiring citizens to take more responsibility for themselves and their communities is the essence of Cameron's message, its medium is all-important.

Which comes back to the three partners of Karmarama in their loft off Oxford Street. "One of the reasons we are called Karmarama is because we wanted to do good stuff out in the world," says Bilboul. Such a statement might look, well, smug, were the agency not able to point at genuine pro bono work. When their local mini mart looked like being crushed by a new supermarket they designed posters to ward off the threat. ("Sainsbury never runs out of milk like we do but please do not be forgetting us".)

They think Hilton also "liked the idea of working with an ad agency that instead of taking months to do something behaves more like a newspaper. We were early in getting our heads round the need to turn round stuff very quickly rather than spend three months in Trinidad researching locations," says creative partner Dave Buonaguidi.

There are five or six more such ads in the pipeline and the creatives are already hard at work on the next. They won't say what the issues are but it would be surprising if they didn't include drug use and the environment.

"We had a different way of communicating important issues that isn't po-faced or dry," says Bilboul. The agency, which employs just 25 people, clearly enjoys being given its creative head to tackle the issues of the day in as fun and provocative way it can. "It's refreshing to work with people who are looking five, 10 years ahead," says Sid McGrath, the planning partner.

Do these three - Bilboul, Buonaguidi and McGrath - understand the scale of what they are being asked to do: to prove that David Cameron's revivalist vision of Britain is credible? For a moment the owners of adland's hottest property look a little perturbed.


1979 The 'Labour isn't working' poster that made the Saatchi name - to Labour PM Jim Callaghan's cost - and it helped Margaret Thatcher take her first step into No 10.

1992 The Tory tax campaign that swung the election everyone expected John Major to lose. Devised by M&C Saatchi, whose Conservative linkman was a young Steve Hilton.

1996 The devil's eyes poster attracted 150 complaints to the Advertising Standards Agency who condemned it for suggesting that Tony Blair is "sinister and dishonest". It was amended but continued to run.

1997 Fitz the bulldog led a Labour campaign which reclaimed traditionally British symbols from the Tories. His rather prominent testicles were airbrushed out.

2001 A Trevor Beattie classic blending images of William Hague and Margret Thatcher, wrecking Hague's election image. Alastair Campbell said: "At least she gave her party a sense of direction and momentum."


Once a Conrad...

Creditors take note. Tom Bower's biography of Lord Black strangely omits to mention the fallen press baron's part-ownership of The Catholic Herald. Black had already sold his interests in the Telegraph Group and The Spectator, but he seems to be showing some God-fearing loyalty to this little organ. Black's lawyer emailed to say: "My client's shares in The Catholic Herald are not, and will not be, for sale." God willing.

Money to spare

Standard not to close shock. Despite the arrival in London of two evening freesheets and the doubtless vast sums spent on the three-headed statue and the new Stringfellows-style entrance hall to its Kensington building, the Evening Standard's budget has been assured for another year.

Ken and Oliver: Round 2

Mayor of London Ken Livingstone and Tory Westminster City Council hardly see eye to eye. So what better way to raise the stakes than for the council to hire Oliver Finegold as its new press officer. Finegold was, of course, the Evening Standard reporter Livingstone likened to a Nazi concentration camp guard. This caused the mayor to be dragged before the Adjudication Panel for England and Finegold to receive adulation from his Ken-baiting editor Veronica Wadley. Let's hope Westminster City Council can deploy their new man as effectively.

Radio 4 rapper

To paraphrase dear old rapper Jay-Z: "I got 99 problems but money ain't one." A point keenly seized upon by Radio 4, which has scored a bit of a coup over its trendier rivals. It has signed up the hardman rapper to explain his entrepreneurial talents to its listeners. In an interview with Alvin Hall, Jay-Z will be appearing on Brooklyn to the Boardroom, on 2 December. To add insult to injury, 1xtra, the BBC's trendy youth station, gets to air the repeat two weeks later.

Helen the hidden

Don't bother emailing complaints to BBC head of news Helen Boaden. She was at the launch evening for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford last Monday night. Discussion turned to protest groups and lobbying outfits which email their views to senior editors. Boaden's response: "Oh, I just changed my email address." So much for the Beeb being accountable.

Kimberly's level best

Kimberly Quinn's departure as publisher of The Spectator may be viewed with equanimity by its chief executive, Andrew Neil. Indeed it is suspected that Brillo already has some strong ideas about her successor. One potential candidate is former Economist publisher David Hanger, who wrote a five-year plan for the magazine earlier this year. But there is also talk of Neil having his eye on an internal appointment. On Friday, Neil praised Quinn for having taken the mag "to new levels". Heights, surely? Or maybe he did mean levels.

The war of the web

As reported here last week, The Times is ploughing millions into a revamp of its website. Now The Guardian is following suit, with its little design wizards currently working up a new design for their sprawling online empire. Unlike the Berliner-isation of the main paper, the new pages are going in the opposite direction - widening the area used for text to give it a more "modern" feel. Let battle commence.

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