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Advertising spending limits mean a lot less today

This column originally appeared in National Newswatch on May 16, 2018

We live in an age where it’s almost impossible to define advertising. It’s hard to distinguish between a Facebook ad that reaches voters, or a Facebook post that people share widely of their own free will. It’s not like the good old days where ads were confined to a commercial break.

With the right content, a crack digital campaign team could take a modest budget and make an incredible impact for a decent candidate running for office without spending a penny on traditional TV or radio ads. By helping seed great online content with a small paid spend, a good campaign can prime the pump in terms of having viral posts that ultimately get shared for free.

It’s hard to imagine a celebrity like our Prime Minister, with his massive online following, not having an advantage when it comes to reaching people this way. His nearly six million Facebook fans dwarfs the 160,000 who follow Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.

The federal Liberals, through Bill C-76, have introduced legislation that limits advertising spending to $1.5 million in the pre-election period starting on June 30th of an election year. But because the manner in which people consume their media and information is going through a revolution, it’s doubtful these restrictions will make much of a difference.

The very nature of advertising and campaigning has changed. And it keeps changing. Much of what we might think of as advertising won’t even count towards any sort of limit at all.

So why the bill? It’s always hard to know motives. But it certainly appears as if past Liberal wounds from Conservative advertising campaigns was top of mind when they came up with the new $1.5 million-dollar spending limit.

The Conservatives unleashed a torrent of attack ads on Stephen Dion shortly after he was elected. They branded him weak, ineffective and “Not a Leader.” For political watchers it would be hard to forget the cringeworthy exchange where Michael Ignatieff accused the newly-minted Liberal leader of being unable to make priorities that was heavily featured in the ads. Mr. Dion never recovered from that onslaught.

That was near the end of the golden age of television advertising. The ability to reach millions with your message was only held back by depth of your pockets (and they were deep pockets).

It worked for the Conservatives then, but it’s unlikely such an effort would work the same way now. Even if you had millions to spend on TV ads, between PVRs, Netflix and YouTube they wouldn’t be as effective. People are more distracted than ever with viewing habits that span many different media types.

Still, in politics, attack ads work. The Dion case shows that. It’s the format they appear in that’s a moving target. Attack ads may not exist as 30-second missives on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy in 2019, but the types of messages they conveyed aren’t going anywhere.

They’re just going to look different in the next election and appear in different places than “over the airwaves”.

Looking back, a limit might have been truly effective when there was no way to click on an ad and share it with your friends. Voters used to be passive participants in the political process relying on news coverage to find out what was happening in Parliament. They aren’t anymore.

Political parties will continue to get their messages out and they’ll adapt to best communicate with the modern voter.

They’ll spend millions on building up their following on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram in advance of the pre-writ period, so they have a direct ability to reach people without spending additional money.

They’ll produce online videos, photos and infographics that their fans and followers will share (for free) on their own platforms. At the same time they’ll no doubt come up with hard-hitting memes and revealing videos about their opponents (“attack ads”).

They’ll seek out media interviews and opportunities that can be shared by their supporters as proof points of why their candidate is best.

They’ll host elaborate rallies and events that get livestreamed to your phone.

They’ll work with influencers to amplify their message.

They may even create their own internal video service that documents their candidate and positions.

And if they’re the governing party, they’ll likely be making all kinds of splashy announcements with taxpayer dollars.

All of these things have one big thing in common. They’re digital content that’s largely indistinguishable from what we used to think of as advertising.

To quote Stephane Dion from those Tory ads from a decade ago, “this is unfair”.

He might be right. But this is a challenge the entire marketing industry is facing as individuals, companies and brands transition from advertisers to digital communicators who create content for many different purposes.

It’s no longer necessary to go through the filter of the mainstream media or the filter of a paid advertising spaces to reach people directly.

It’s changed campaigning completely. Right now, digital skill and savvy is required more than dollars and cents. And unless the government finds a way to regulate talent, they may find these limits don’t make much of a difference at all.

How suburban moms hold the key to the provincial election

This column originally appeared in National Newswatch on April 2, 2018

We should all listen to our mothers more and Doug Ford is no exception. Starting his winning leadership campaign in his Mom’s basement wasn’t just a fun dis to the elites, it should serve as a nod to his most important group of voters.

Political campaigns tend to run complicated data and polling operations that slice and dice voters into target demographic groups. While that type of planning will be important to the Ford camp, they should hold one group up as a litmus test for everything they say and do during the campaign: suburban mothers.

The Tories are in an enviable position right now. Virtually every poll has them ahead by a significant margin. A vast majority of Ontarians want a change in government. And with only a few exceptions, their lead cuts across many regions and voter types.

In some ways, the election feels like what happened in British Columbia in 2001 and Manitoba in 2016. Voters in those provinces had long since made up their minds to switch governments and the election proved to be a final stamp of disapproval.

But nothing is guaranteed. With two women opponents and a long track record of conservative parties having women voters turn on them at the last minute, the group he needs to worry about most is obvious. It’s clear that attracting these voters will be the goal of Kathleen Wynne.

Doug Ford should relentlessly focus on women voters in a way conservative leaders rarely do. And the most important ones to his campaign are centered in the suburban ridings around Toronto.

He needs to talk to them, relate to them and never forget them for even a moment of this election campaign.

This isn’t about playing identity politics or announcing a bunch of women-specific policy proposals. A winning strategy for the Tories involves making sure women feel included in Ford Nation. They need to see their struggles addressed in Ford’s priorities with language that speaks to them.

The top issues with the electorate center around affordability, taxes, accountability and healthcare. These aren’t male or female issues. But there’s a way of talking about them and approaching them that will resonate better with suburban women.

Doug is a tax fighter. His brand of being a warrior against the gravy train is set in stone. His relentless focus on concerns of the folks makes him a natural ally for a province where hallway healthcare and a growing mental health crisis symbolize the need for new management at Queen’s Park.

The challenge is conservative parties too often use language, imagery and storytelling that appeals to the core male donor but misses the mark with the busy mom who is part of the 80 per cent that are ready for change.

As an example, the standard Tory Facebook post that features a bad looking photo of Wynne with angry red writing yelling at you on screen. There’s a reason ads, magazines and products geared to women don’t look and feel the same as a Budweiser commercial.

Beyond appearances, it’s making sure that women know Ford has them in his heart by speaking to the struggles individual families face, not simply shaking his fist into the sky at all the waste and mismanagement.  It’s a case for change that uses real, down-to-earth examples of how hydro is more expensive, child care is more expensive and commutes longer because of actions taken by the Wynne Liberals.

As an added bonus, speaking directly to women voters is low risk. It’s hard to imagine a language and style that appeals to hardworking suburban moms yet turns away other voters or drives them to the other parties. Many, if not most, of these women oversee budgets in their own homes. They know how to manage money and want their politicians to do the same.

The only danger is allowing the primary campaign narrative to drift away from the big issues and spend time focused on niche conservative social issues the Liberals are so desperate to fight an election on.

Ford cannot let that happen and if it does he must take bold, categorical action keep control of the change wave. He’s good at that.

Still, going up against two strong women won’t be easy. The traps to say something nasty will be there every day. And you’re only one ‘mansplaining’ slip away from telling those suburban Moms you don’t really respect them.

But that won’t happen. Because Ford is surrounded by women in his daily life. He has an all-star roster of female candidates to lean on. It won’t be hard for him to be authentic and genuine while still appealing to them. He just needs to make sure his broader campaign hits the right tone and that always comes from the top.

When in doubt, he needs to talk to a Mom. And they aren’t hard to find.

Remember, Facebook got its data from you

This column originally appeared in The Province on March 25, 2018

Most info Google or Facebook has on you comes from one primary source (hint, look in the mirror). Change your Facebook password frequently, but don’t get too worried about some evil marketing genius hacking your brain and making you vote a certain way.

The Cambridge Analytica Facebook data scandal rocking politics has painted an unflattering picture of some political operatives, but it’s hardly worth getting worked up over.

Yet some people are reacting as though voters have lost the ability to think for themselves. Having worked on advertising campaigns for political parties and businesses, I can assure you that’s not the case.

What’s most surprising about this story is how unaware people are when it comes to understanding how companies like Facebook or Google make money. It’s not just about sharing selfies with your friends or looking up a restaurant review. The information you give them on a daily basis forms a core part of their business: selling targeted advertising space.

This data controversy follows an old road of complaints each time political parties embrace new media types. Whether it’s bemoaning “American Style” attack ads on television or “robocall” recorded phone messages, there’s always a group of people who manage to get themselves worked up enough to believe they’re witnessing the end of democracy.

Issues with how personal data and information is shared by gigantic technology companies is worth discussing. And if the company in question broke laws or policies it should be punished. But micro-targeting voters is as mainstream in politics as it is for those who sell running shoes.

When you cruise the internet looking at hotel reviews in Maui, it’s inevitable you’ll be bombarded with ads to visit the Aloha State pretty much every time you look at your phone or open your laptop. You’re being tracked. Political parties do this too.

Sure, the Cambridge Analytica story is loaded with marketing industry jargon that sounds scary. Phrases like “Big Data” and “Lookalike Audiences.” Yet it’s pretty standard stuff for any digital marketer.

But let’s recall how Cambridge Analytica got this data: 270,000 people downloaded an app called “thisisyourdigitallife” to take a personality test. These people surely didn’t need a personality test to let them know they’re naïve.

What matters here is what political campaigns can do with this data. Operatives love Facebook because it’s a two-way street: you don’t just send information, you learn about the people who are absorbing it. This is invaluable data for campaigns to build their target audiences and sell them on their candidate.

Yet there’s no guarantee mastering any of this will win you an election campaign. The only type of political ads that ever work are ones that fit into a larger narrative while tapping into a fundamental truth about a politician, for better or worse.

Barack Obama’s political campaign was “famously data driven” but it also had a winning message. This story shouldn’t be a bigger deal because the antagonist is an unpopular US President.

It is creepy how much companies and political parties know about you. But it’s just one of the trade-offs we make for living in a world where Siri or Alexa proactively give you advice on which road to take on the commute home to avoid a traffic jam.

Remember, you gave them the data in the first place. Don’t be surprised when they use it to talk back to you.

OPINION: PC race not just a reality show

This column originally appeared in The Province on February 9, 2018

If you took everything that’s happened so far this year in Ontario politics and spread it out over all of 2018 we would still be talking about how crazy it’s been.

With this in mind, we find ourselves thrust into a lightning fast race to crown a new Progressive Conservative leader just weeks before an election campaign.

News coverage of a political race naturally takes on a Hollywood reality show feel where contestants are unceremoniously voted off an island each week. But the reality is more complicated than just outlasting your fellow contestants. Barring anything else crazy happening over the next few weeks, and that’s a risky bet at this point, the winner will have to get these five things right.

First, this race will come down to one big question: Can you beat Kathleen Wynne? There are times when races are about the soul of a party or major policy issues, but not this time. For perspective, the last time the PC Party won an election campaign Bill Clinton was president.

The party is still polling competitively, and members are desperate for victory after fifteen long Liberal years. They can taste it. Prove you’ve got what it takes and the job will be yours.

Second, sell memberships quickly. With less than a week left to sell new memberships it’s critical to make sure you’re adding new supporters to the party rolls. This requires incredible speed in signing up organizers and volunteers across the province, as the system treats all 124 ridings equally. Running up the score in a few ridings won’t get it done.

Third, organize and mobilize. By all accounts the Party’s membership and tracking database is a total mess. Modern campaigns live or die on first-rate voter contact systems. It’s not enough to have most members wanting you to win, you need to track and make sure they actually vote.

Ontario PC leader Patrick Brown speaks to party members at their policy conference at the Toronto Congress Centre on Saturday November 25, 2017. Michael Peake/Toronto Sun

Fourth, address your concerns with the People’s Guarantee in a realistic way. Patrick Brown’s platform was widely praised when it was announced, but it includes a carbon tax that many members can’t stand. If you want to scrap the tax, you’ll need to either scale back promises or cut government spending to make up for the shortfall.

Poorly received platforms have sunk Tory campaigns of yesteryear. Members will recognize you only have a few weeks after the leadership to get a top-notch platform ready to go. In a normal leadership campaign you can promise the moon and worry about results later, there’s no time for that this go round.

Fifth and finally, be yourself. Authenticity is tops. Voters want the real you not some prepackaged caricature of a politician. And after everything the Party’s been through, there will be bonus points for women candidates. In the #metoo era even stodgy conservative members will no doubt consider a women leader as shortcut to help purge the nasty taste of the Brown fiasco.

But beyond that, for many it may just feel like it’s time for female leadership to help shed the Bay Street, old boys club image that has dogged them in the past. It’s an issue both male and female contenders will have to address.

While the race has just started, it’s almost over too. Even though you won’t get voted off any island if you lose, it’s still going to be a crazy ride. Act quickly while getting the basics right and you’ll have your chance to face the toughest opponent of them all: Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Dennis Matthews joins Enterprise

Enterprise is pleased to announce that Dennis Matthews has joined the firm as a Vice President, Marketing and Communications.

“Dennis brings a wealth of marketing, digital and communications experience to the firm from both the public and private sector. He has served as an advertising and marketing advisor in the Prime Minister’s Office, held a senior strategic communications role for a federal party leader and been involved in numerous election campaigns across the country. His private sector experience includes leading marketing and digital operations for a major media company in Toronto.”

“We are thrilled to have someone of Dennis’s calibre, experience and ability at Enterprise,” CEO Barbara Fox said. “He will bring invaluable insight in helping our public and private sector clients achieve their communications, marketing and public policy goals.

Dennis is a skilled marketer with a strong understanding of what it takes to effectively engage audiences and move opinion to generate measurable results.

“Digital strategies and tactics are critical in delivering successful communications and public affairs campaigns,” Enterprise President Jason Lietaer said. “Dennis has spent his entire career working and demonstrating excellence in this area. We’re thrilled to have him.”

Enterprise’s philosophy is to look inside, find the emotional barriers to effective communications and the drivers that will overcome them.

“We’re able to look inside because our consultants come from the inside, at senior levels in government, journalism, and public affairs. Dennis brings a unique senior insider’s perspective to help ensure our clients’ success,” Lietaer said.

Enterprise is a leading Canadian communications, public relations and government relations firm with offices in Toronto, St. Catharines and Ottawa.