Rashmi Menon

A Dummy's Guide to Political Advertising

For an ad agency, how similar or different is the experience of working on a campaign for a political party from that of working on a regular brand campaign? This election season, afaqs! tries to answer this and other related questions.

A Dummy's Guide to Political Advertising
The world's largest democracy has begun gearing up for its General Elections. And persuading the Indian electorate is no easy feat. Canvassing for votes has always been serious business. However, of late, most parties have spotted merit in investing in the services of professional, mostly networked, advertising agencies. The target consumer is everywhere and connecting with him/her across platforms is each party's No. 1 priority. Some of these efforts are already visible across mass media channels.

For agencies, on the other hand, a political campaign is not just another brand campaign. From the target audience to 'brand' positioning, strategy and media vehicles, it's a completely different ball game for planning and creative professionals.

As the aspiring leaders of this nation bring out their slogans and arsenal of promises, and as agencies deploy their best minds to the job, afaqs! decodes what handling a political campaign entails, and studies its sharp contrast to a corporate brand campaign.

How is a campaign for a political party different from a regular brand campaign?

At many levels, political parties and their leaders are brands in themselves - look at the symbols (read: logo), the principles the leader stands for (read: brand virtues) and the mass following they have (read: loyal consumers). "If you want to know how a brand ought to be then you should look at a political party. In fact, to many, following a political party based on its ideology is a way of life, which is what brands aspire for," says an ad veteran, in support of the notion that there's no brand bigger than a political party.

The difference, then, seems to lie in conceptualisation and strategic planning. And at the creative execution level, some agency folk tend to switch on the 'sarkaari ad' button while ideating for a political party, and produce creatives that bear "that sarkaari look".

Unlike a corporate brand/company, there is almost no two-way communication when dealing with political parties. Instead of a dialogue about how best to build the brand, often the parties tell their agencies what needs to be done. This, of course, may differ according to the views of the people comprising the core committee of the party. And if the agency is firm about speaking its mind about the campaign, the 'client' does pay heed.

Approach to the TG is another difference. In contrast to brands, that typically have a limited, well-defined TG, a political party's TG is practically the whole country. The campaign is massive and it's easily the 'biggest' mass media campaign the agency would have ever done, both literally (size and scale) and figuratively (high stakes).

What does an agency need to highlight in a political campaign?

For the ruling party, the campaign is all about the promises it delivered, the progress it helped bring about and the work it accomplished.

Opposition parties, on the other hand, will talk about the lacunae in the ruling party's governance, how the ruling party has let the people down, the promises it didn't keep, and of course, its own vision and what it plans to do if (or when, if it chooses to take on an optimistic voice) it comes to power.

The ideation for regional parties too works on similar lines, where the campaign mainly talks about that particular turf and more specific issues and promises.

What are some of the challenges unique to political advertising?

Here is a quick list:

1. Lack of structure: There is no exact structure to a political campaign. Many of the campaigns are in response to or an attack on competitors' campaigns. Sure, the degree of structure changes from party to party - unlike most parties, Congress is believed to have a structured, organised point of view and a fairly 'corporate approach'. In the case of other parties, the brief is vague and agencies are left shooting in the dark while pitching. Needless to say, the scope for experimentation in a political campaign comes with its boundaries.

2. Positioning: Given the mass appeal a political campaign ought to have, it is difficult to position a party easily. Often, parties keep at the centre of the campaign ideas that help push their core agenda. Also, many a time, for the national campaign, the agency needs to take into consideration inputs from regional parties. And though the national campaign addresses the entire country, the agency also has to come up with region-specific campaigns. For instance, Congress, in the last elections, had done a campaign in Uttarakhand addressing a group of retired army personnel. Therefore, the agency needs to put together a structure to 'trans-create' the campaign on two levels - national and regional.

3. Stringent deadlines: Political campaigns are extremely time-sensitive, so often, the time between briefing and execution is negligible.

4. Trust before work: Another unique challenge is the need to gain the trust of key party officials; once this is accomplished, they tend to support your ideas all the way. So it helps to invest time and effort in understanding the mindset/preferences of the key party officials involved in the campaign. While national parties do set up core committees to look into election campaigns, in regional parties a person (or very small group) close to the leader is assigned the task of vetting the campaign. The leader then gives the final nod. The late Pramod Mahajan used to give the final nod for BJP's political campaigns.

5. 'Human Brands': Political brands are live people, not inanimate products. So, the personality traits of the leader do dictate the tone of the campaign, especially in the case of personality-driven campaigns, and to a much lesser extent in the case of national level campaigns.

Does an agency need to have worked on a political campaign before pitching for one?

No, but an agency may be eyed with suspicion if it has worked with a rival political party in the past! After working for one party, the agency may get labelled by others.

How important is it to share the ideologies of the party you're pitching for?

More than the ideology, it is the conviction in the brief that matters. Like in the case of a corporate brand, at that particular moment you need to be convinced about the work and solution you are providing to the client. Once the job is done, you move on. People are free to have their personal ideologies. Interestingly, some believe that one starts to buy into the ideology of the party he/she is working with, over time.

What role does strategic planning play in a political campaign?

Strategic planning does play an important role as the parties need to grasp the pulse of the people and base their communication on it. Agencies need to have keen observation and understanding of current affairs, the opposition's stand and ideas on how best to connect with the people. Account planners' consumer insight mining skills are required here.

As for the media mix, no medium goes unattended and all media platforms are used liberally. In the case of the Aam Aadmi Party, however, radio was used extensively as the party felt its target audience tuned into this medium extensively.

Does working on a political brand come with perks?

Yes and no. At some level, the political party which wins owes you a favour for the successful campaign you created. This may lead to a better chance of your team/agency being chosen to work on government projects in the future.

But since agencies work with their political clients for a very short period, they don't usually get any extra frills or advantages per se. On the personal front, perhaps, people may end up making 'political connections'.

There is a perception that political parties almost always default on fee deadlines. Is it true?

This too depends on the political party you are dealing with. For instance, Congress is said to pay its media agencies right at the outset. Smaller parties tend to delay sometimes.

But like in the case of many regular brands, even in the case of political parties, once the campaign is done, it is difficult to get the entire amount out of the client!

(Based on interviews with advertising agency heads and creative heads)

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