This interview was conducted in June 2008 and appeared in Issue 2 of Total Politics magazine.
What attracted you to the mayoral election, and specifically Boris
My firm, Crosby|Textor which I run with strategic polling expert Mark Textor, runs campaigns. Most times they are corporate campaigns aimed at changing decisionmaker, consumer, shareholder or media attitudes and behaviours. Election campaigns are a small part of our business but seem to get all the publicity! When we were approached to see if Crosby|Textor would assist on the Mayoral campaign we thought it was tailor made for our skills – and also would be an interesting and challenging project. Boris and Ken Livingstone are both larger than life characters and this made for a really fascinating contest. Most important in our decision to be involved (Mark Textor analysed the polling that was commissioned for the campaign and from that analysis we developed a clear written strategy for the campaign) was the enthusiasm and commitment that I heard in Boris Johnson’s voice when he rang me. I could tell that he wanted the job and was determined to go after it. That gave me the confidence to know he would be a candidate who would be good to work with – and I was right. I think a lot of people have spent a lot of time underestimating Boris. Yes he can crack a joke – we had plenty of fun in the campaign – but he also has very sharp mind. He will challenge what you say, but once he has thought something through and gets it, it “stays got” if you know what I mean. And I was convinced of the very strong backing of the Party from Dave Cameron, George Osborne, Jonathan Marland and Caroline Spelman down for Boris’ candidacy. This gave the whole team the confidence in knowing that we would get the help we needed – from Lord Ashcroft’s Target Seats Team, the IT team, and people right across CCHQ – which meant we wouldn’t feel like some shag on a rock.
As a campaign manager you’re expected to take a campaign from 0 to 60 in no time at all. What steps did you take to get the Boris campaign up to full speed?
The good news was that Boris had already started to assemble a good team. Dan Ritterband his campaign director and the media team at In house PR, Katie Perrior and Jo Tanner together with Alex Crowley, the policy director, were in place along with a great bunch of staff. Lord Marland had the fundraising firmly under control. They had layed important foundations. The team had to be consolidated further to be in a state to fight the final phase of the election. This involved getting more people resources to deal with the expanding array of tasks. That was the first step – to boost the team for the final stage of the fight. We were fortunate to have the support of a lot of great people, including my fellow countryman James McGrath.
The most important element in a campaign is message. I always say message matters most. It doesn’t matter how many leaflets you put out or doors you knock on, if you don’t have a relevant message for the voters then you won’t win. Boris quickly developed a clear message that he wanted to take to the voters. Once it was agreed and refined we started pushing it out – first to the campaign team and wider Conservative Party and then to the broader community.
The other early priority was to build a dedicated GOTV team. We identified the key wards to focus on, appointed ward coordinators for each and worked with the relevant agents to motivate the local teams to towards what would become a critical source of Boris’ success – turning out his voters. The good news was that Conservative Party members were really committed to working in this campaign and given the limit on spending that applies the role of volunteers was crucial. Our volunteer workforce were energized and really delivered. I think Boris’ optimistic personality helped them feel good about being involved.
What is it like to work with Boris?
Boris has an optimistic personality. That makes him motivating and easy for people to support. He is smart and at ease with himself. That means that he holds you to account intellectually – you have to be able to argue your case and be persuasive - but once he accepts the evidence he is very comfortable about taking advice.
No-one should underestimate him. He is certainly a character but he is no-one’s fool. I found him positive and responsive. And he is appreciative of those who work for him.
Sometimes his unique turn of phrase or unorthodox way of looking at things would make your heart skip a beat on the way through, but no more than for any other candidate.
At the end of the day I have great admiration for him as I do anyone who is prepared to put himself forward for consideration by the people. The media and commentators love to sit on the sidelines and profer their wisdom. The thing I have noticed about a lot of them is how thin-skinned they can be when they are subject to scrutiny even though they like to scrutinize others. Boris had the courage to put himself forward to be judged very directly and very visibly by millions of Londoners. Few people actually have the courage to do that. So I consider him not only smart and witty but courageous too.
What would you identify as the most successful technique or strategy used during the campaign?
I said before that message matters most. Sometimes I think that people are looking for the “silver bullet” – the new technique or the clever idea that they can say is the reason you have won. Well one thing that 35 years in and around campaigns has taught me is that there is no such thing as a “silver bullet”. There is no one thing that will deliver victory to a candidate. Ultimate victory is the sum total of many small victories.
This is an important point to remember. Even now I read some commentators on the US Presidential primary campaign talking about Barack Obama’s website as if it is the reason for his victory. During the Mayoral campaign people were saying to us, “what are you doing about the internet?...it is the reason Obama is doing so well…Boris needs to use the internet too”. Well of course we needed to use all the media available to us and the internet was one of those but to suggest the internet is more than one tool is to overstate its usefulness. People should never fall for the idea there is a “silver bullet”.
Message matters most. We worked hard to get the message right and Boris also worked hard to have a clear, written strategy that every member of the team understood and worked to implement it. It is amazing how often in politics parties and candidates don’t actually have a strategy, developed from sound research and clear thinking that is committed to writing and used as the roadmap to success. Once you have a strategy and message then you must stick to them. Staying the course is not always easy. Candidates never want for advice. Everybody and their dog think they know best how to win an election and if you listened to everyone of them you would go around in ever diminishing circles. Boris had a strategy and a message and he displayed great discipline in sticking to them
Did you expect the Oyster card holders to prove as popular as they did? And why do you think they were so popular?
They were Dan’s idea I think and they were a great idea. They had already been produced when I arrived. Lots of people wanted an Oyster card holder and whilst they didn’t carry a formal persuasive message they were a positive way for people to demonstrate their support for Boris.
What would you advise someone working on a smaller campaign to look out for when identifying something to brand for the campaign?
You can over-analyse these things. The branding or graphics you use cannot replace the fundamentals – getting your message right and having a sound strategy. Logos and slogans don’t win elections. However they are useful in summing up complex strategic issues however. You can win an election without a slogan or a logo. But if you choose to have a slogan or “branding” for a campaign then they must reinforce the overall message that you trying to display. The Boris silhouette, that was devised for the campaign highlighted Boris’ strengths – he stands out; he is colourful, distinctive and larger than life. But of course it wasn’t as important as having clear and relevant policies that addressed people’s real and substantive concerns.
On reflection was there anything about the campaign you would have done differently, or anything that turned out less successful than anticipated?
There are always things you would do differently. However, it is good to retain a bit of mystery so I will keep those to myself.
Was there anything Ken Livingstone’s campaign did that you admired or wished you’d thought of?
Ken stuck at it till the end. And he stilled turned out a lot of voters. But I think some of the lies that Ken’s supporters spread about Boris – such as him wanting to ban the Koran when he had said exactly the opposite were outrageous and made him look like a nasty old leftie who had a sense of entitlement that he should go on forever.
Brian Paddick’s campaign never seemed to get off the ground. If you’d been running it what would you have done differently?
I wouldn’t have selected Paddick! Then again I would never work for the LibDems because they stand for nothing and believe in everything in their attempts to populist.
Towards the end of the campaign there was a lot of talk about an expected ‘Ken Armageddon’ which never materialised. What happened? Was it media hype?
There is more media hype and campaign commentary than most places I have worked in. And there more insiders seeking to be quoted in the media than in most places too. I am always skeptical when I read articles quoting “senior sources”. The simple truth is that in most campaigns and political parties polling and strategy details are held very tightly and most people do not have access to them. Often the so-called senior sources have no idea what’s going on but they are certainly not going to tell a journalist know that so they make it up.
How important was national media versus local media for the Boris campaign?
In the UK television and radio advertising is banned and there was a cap on spending too. This means that you cannot advertise heavily in intrusive media (billboards are not intrusive unless they fall on you) so you need to engage with media much more. This makes every level of media important. In this campaign the local media was especially important in getting to the voters or potential voters who had not always been engaged in Mayoral election campaigns in the past. Boris had to motivate these people to come out and vote and so the local media was critical in achieving this.
What would you say is the most critical skill of a campaign manager?
There is not one. There are several. Focus, discipline, clear-headedness, strategic thinking, understanding of the way voters think and attention to detail.