Those cold calls, now…

You’ll think me an awkward cuss, no doubt, but I can’t help wondering what came of that infamous cold-calling exercise. As you will (try not to) recall, Clegg announced in his leader’s speech at Bournemouth that “we” would be  calling 250,000 people that very evening (18 September) to “hear their views on the challenges facing our country” and when he said “we” he meant “I, in a pre-recorded message”.

The media smelt blood and closed in. Someone had made the dubious decision to actually trail the strategy in the pre-speech press briefing, and as a result it dominated the session. Immediately afterwards, a white-faced attendee member told me it looked likely to be the main storyline of the coverage of the leader’s speech.

This subject is ripe for a revisit because the man who was (probably) responsible for both the strategy and the trailer is ex-Saatchi bod John Sharkey. Formerly the leader’s strategic communications adviser, he has just been appointed Deputy Chair of the party’s General Election campaign as part of the recent reshuffle.

In his New Statesman column at the time of the leader’s speech, Jonathan Calder had no doubt where the cold-calling idea originated:

Where did this enthusiasm for a cheesy marketing technique come from?

The independent Liberator magazine is the starting point for all Lib Dem kremlinlogists, and its latest issue points to the influence on Clegg of people from the advertising and public relations industries. It mentions John Sharkey, a former managing director of Saatchi & Saatchi UK, and Gavin Grant from Burson-Marsteller in particular.

All Liberal and Liberal Democrat leaders fall under this spell eventually; the difference with Nick Clegg is that it has happened in the early days of his reign. But there is always a tension between PR professionals, who see winning votes as a marketing exercise, and party members for whom it is a matter of policy.

Calder points to the party’s previous form on opposing not only cold-calling, but the whole creeping advance of impersonal blanket communication, from both corporations and the state. This was the stuff of “Faceless Britain”, a theme which I have argued in the past is one of Clegg’s own particular hobby-horses. So why undermine that message?

Clegg could have saved himself the stain on the generally favourable coverage of his speech, Calder suggests, if he’d run the idea past even one rank-and-file member.

Was Calder right?

First, no-one can speak for everyone. That’s glibly true in real life, but it’s much more literally true in the world of marketing. We all live on our cosy little individual pebble in the Mosaic. There is no such thing as objectivity from any one individual.

So it’s interesting to note that while most of the online party community at Lib Dem Voice exerted itself in various attitudes of horror, the marketing professionals tended to have more support for the idea.

To put it bluntly, it’s precious in the extreme for a bunch of computer-literate ABC1s to gather online and rant about how outrageous something is and how “no-one” will like it, if previous evidence  shows that, for example, the much more numerous C2DEs, whose opinions are less represented online, tend to like it very much indeed. And that goes for the media reaction as well. What happens in ABC1 stays in ABC1.

And yet, and yet… Has anyone ever met anyone, of any political stripe and from any walk of life, who likes cold calls? In John Sharkey and co we’re talking about people who are supposedly at the top of their game. Can they really think of no more sophisticated contact method than that, with the panoply of modern communication methods at their fingertips? And did they know how unsophisticated it would appear to most of those who immediate task it was to interpret it to the world?  I can think of two patterns for the mindset that made the cold-calling decision.

Scenario 1 – an old but sound idea, cleverly spun

Yes, they knew it was unsophisticated. But it also remains one of the few ways a large organisation can make contact with a large number of people. It’s a vastly different approach from the personalised, localised campaigning Liberal Democrats normally do, but that’s because it started with a much grander goal in mind. A postal equivalent would be those letters you get printed in script font. A pre-recorded call apes a doorstep discussion in the same way a script font letter apes the handwritten envelope beloved of campaigners.

In other words, the limitations were built in to the size of the exercise. The marketing industry currently knows of no better way to get in touch, decisively and in one swoop, with a large number of people. The originators had some reason to believe that not everyone would slam the phone down immediately, ergo the exercise would be worthwhile even though the idea is, truth be told, a bit clunky.

They also knew, however, that the idea would tank with the kind of people who write newspaper copy. Trying to hide things from a journalist only makes them sniff around all the harder. So they decided to be upfront. Get rid of the toxin at the briefing stage and stick it right there in the speech, rather than having someone ferret around and produce a counter-story to all the mainstream speech coverage stories.

There is a wafer of support for this view in one simple fact – the speech coverage wasn’t nearly as bad as we all thought it was going to be immediately after the briefing. We read the situation as a disaster waiting to happen which was saved by Clegg’s powers of oratory. But could it be a subtler case of someone drawing the poison from a sting in advance? How would the speech coverage have panned out if the string-pullers had elected to try to hide the cold-calling plan?

Scenario 2 – outmoded marketing principles clumsily applied

Calder is right. Marketing and its techniques is a shallow industry and its ideas will always be accordingly shallow.  The originators of the cold-calling plan believed it to be a work of sophisticated brilliance that would be hailed as an advance in political communication. They were disastrously and horribly wrong.

There is a wafer of support for this view as well. I disagree with Jonathan insofar as I believe that marketing is an intellectually complex an exercise as policy-making is. But I think he could be right in that the marketeers, in this instance, got their calculations badly wrong.

We’re talking, remember, about people at the “top” of their game. Being at the top of your game in, say, law, is extremely desirable. It has no disadvantages. That’s because knowledge of the law can only get deeper and subtler. Knowledge of marketing can get deeper and subtler, but it can also get out-dated. This is a self-consciously young industry and in John Sharkey we have someone who was a rising star at Saatchi & Saatchi at the time he was running Thatcher’s re-election campaign in 1987. Being at the top of marketing isn’t necessarily as useful as being somewhere nearer the middle.

When I say “out-dated”, by the by, I don’t mean in technological terms. Telephones are still more widely owned than an internet connection. That’s not the problem. It’s less easily defined than that – an outmoded sense of what people like, what people will respond to, what kind of assaults on the senses they have been suffering lately from the spectrum of marketing.

It’s a failure to keep “up-to-date” in this wider sense that leads political parties to produce shockingly unsophisticated and dreadful party political broadcasts. It was a comprehensive failure to be “up-to-date” with recent (and when I say recent I mean, decade-old) fashions in humour that led to the production of that head-in-cushion anti-Boris “viral video” during the mayoral campaign. In this scenario, John Sharkey and co were fundamentally out-of-date when they came up with this idea.

Which is it, pattern A or pattern B? The answer matters a great deal. This man is now deputy chair of the GE campaign. On him depends the future of our national campaigning strategy, whether it appeals to the right groups, and whether it dovetails with our local campaigning strategies.

Bring me the head of communications

I can think of one way we could resolve this. Some wise soul in that LDV thread pointed out that there was very little point in our banging on about how worthwhile or worthless we thought the exercise was – the originators would know the real answer soon enough for themselves.

They would get the data back and analyse it – how many people stayed on the line, for how long, are there geographical patterns for success and failure, does this relate to local polling and/or canvassing information in any meaningful way? Even an out-of-date marketeer can do all that.

Basically, if the results vindicate the decision to hold the exercise – irrespective of its legality – then we’re in good hands, whether we happen to like the clammy ad-man feel of those hands or not. If not, we’re in serious trouble, and need to lead an online revolt to secure the integrity and effectiveness of our national campaigning strategy.

So I’m asking – would the party or any component part of it care to officially or unofficially give us all an idea of exactly what the results of that exercise were?

Or perhaps Sharkey himself would care to comment – it’s his reputation at stake, after all. My membership subscription pays for his ideas to be realised. And like any taxpayer, I want to see the money.


  1. It does sometimes feel that there’s a culture of uncritical analysis within the Leadership, that there’s not enough people saying ‘no’ to things.

    Then again, we never find out about all the things that do get pulled. We only ever hear about the things that get through and then go wrong.

  2. Well kind-of but I tend to think the results will prove it was counterproductive and my own anecdotal experience of regular phone canvessing is that people get hacked-off enough when it is a human being on the end of the phone and you drag them away from their tea/bath/Eastenders etc….

  3. But there is always a tension between PR professionals, who see winning votes as a marketing exercise, and party members for whom it is a matter of policy.

    Indeed, though most people seem to get this one arse-about-face, blaming the marketers for simply wanting to court popularity, whilst claiming that the policy-wonks are engaged in ‘real’ politics. Untrue.

    Traditional issue-based politics, ie presenting your ideas, persuading people to support them, and then – once you have enough support – winning an election and implementing them, requires marketing. The policy is your product, and you market it to people in order to persuade them that it is a good idea and worth voting for. No different from persuading people that they need or want your dishwasher tablets, cars, or perfume.

    Vote-winning-through-policy, on t’other hand, means shaping your policy in such a way as to make it something that people will vote for anyway. It has the benefit of being reactive (“we listen to the people”) but the drawback of having to be reactive; government by focus group, in fact. More populist, and necessarily a short-termist strategy.

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