The Tory message isn't working... so Saatchi has been called back in

Conservatives return to advertising brothers in face of closing opinion polls

Andy McSmith
Friday 26 March 2010 01:00

Their 15ft-high posters of David Cameron were graffitied with spray-canned quiffs and obscenities. Hundreds of spoof versions were posted online.

Now, the ad men who came up with the idea are themselves close to being airbrushed out of the general election campaign, because one thing you don't do when promoting a client is turn him into a joke.

After that embarrassment, and with the gap in the opinion polls between the Conservatives and Labour closing, Mr Cameron has decided one advertising agency is not enough. He needs two. Because when things get really tough in politics, you send for a Saatchi.

The Saatchi creative team has been behind all of the most memorable Conservative political slogans of the past three decades, including the famous "Labour Isn't Working" billboard that helped Margaret Thatcher bring down the Labour government in 1979.

They also came up with "Labour's Tax Bombshell", which helped John Major stay in power in 1992. But M&C Saatchi's contract with the Tory party came to an abrupt end after Mr Cameron became leader, amid rumours of sharp differences of opinion about his strategy to rid the Tories of their "nasty party" image.

So yesterday's announcement from the Conservatives that they have rehired M&C Saatchi, founded by the brothers Maurice and Charles Saatchi, is a remarkable about-turn.

There is no precedent for a political party taking on an extra agency this close to an election, suggesting that Tory nerves have been badly frayed by opinion polls which show that the lead they once enjoyed over Labour has shrunk.

Their contribution will be keenly awaited – three years ago, Lord (Maurice) Saatchi warned that Mr Cameron's "nicey-nicey" approach was not working. "When the Conservative Party moves along the dimension from nasty to nice, nothing happens," he said. "It follows that nothing will happen until the Conservative Party has something compelling to say about the subject that matters – economics."

Baroness Thatcher's former public-relations adviser Lord Bell, who has worked with the Saatchis on previous Tory campaigns and been critical of recent Tory strategy, said: "At last, the Conservatives are starting to use professionals who have actually won elections before. If M&C Saatchi can produce the kind of brilliant work that we did, it will have a dramatic effect on the election outcome. This will frighten the other side."

The Conservatives were keen to stress that Euro RSCG, the French-owned agency behind those ridiculed recent posters of David Cameron, is still the party's "lead" agency. The Tories insisted that the two companies are not competing against each other, but working on "clearly delineated communications strategies".

David Jones, the global chief executive of Euro RSCG, added: "There are a lot of people in the ad industry who would like to see the end of Brown's regime. All great ideas that help us achieve that are welcome."

The Business secretary, Peter Mandelson, who masterminded Labour's general election campaigns in 1987 and 1997, crowed to Labour Party members in south London last night: "The Tory high command would be better advised to turn their hand to new policy rather than bring in another ad agency to help them with their new posters. As if David Cameron needed more airbrushing! Doesn't he realise that is his problem? He is too much PR, and not enough PM."

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