The brand monsters from Down Under have been proving their mettle of late. Elections have been won from seemingly improbable positions. Narratives have been spun, stories of varying degrees of accuracy told to sway voters. Following in the footsteps of that other nefarious Australian, Rupert Murdoch, Sir Lynton Crosby finds himself keeping company with Larry Grossman of CT Group. His pupils rule the roost, advising the unelectable on how to win.
The Boris Johnson campaign in Britain had the sprawling paws and prints of a Crosby protégé, Isaac Levido. A relative unknown, this cheeky number, aged 36, is said to be experienced “beyond his age”. He worked on the 2015 and 2017 general election campaigns, but then busied himself with the project of moving Crosby into the US political bloodstream. The Washington DC office of Crosby-Textor kept him busy before scooting back to Australia between January 2018 and mid-2019, where he took over the reins of deputy director for the governing Liberal Party.
A write-up on Levido in the Canberra Times reads like a puff piece on a saboteur made good, the political animal brought into the fold. He liked politics from young. His father, councillor in Port Macquarie Justin Levido, “was always interested in politics.” Then there was, wait for it, his mother. “She always encouraged me to think big, but most importantly to be finding ways to make a positive contribution in whatever circumstance I found myself in.” This statement throws up a range of points. By definition, the advertising man thinks small, honing in on targets, avoiding the messiness of complex patterns and life’s difficulties. There are no solutions, merely tweaks on image. What the voter or consumer does with it is a different matter.
It was the Svengali-like influence of Crosby, while working for David Cameron’s campaign in the British elections of 2015, that Levido acknowledges as seminal. In May 2019, Levido showed what he could do in the Australian federal elections. He went to work on maligning a progressive platform not dissimilar to that of Jeremy Corbyn’s British Labour Party. The then Australian Labor Party leader, Bill Shorten, had released a program that would cost billions, one promising infrastructure and service spending, minor wealth redistribution and a green platform.
The challenge for the conservative government was considerable. The Liberal Party had been recovering from a bout of bloodletting, removing its leader in yet another instalment of Australia’s killing seasons. With the country facing a new prime minister, the idea that Labor would romp home seemed firmly entrenched. But Levido’s response was consummate and destructive. He realised that Shorten had always had a popularity problem, crudely described as a “trust deficit”. He also knew that progressive policies could be suitably demonised as affecting wallets. Vote Labor, and the government is bound to pinch your hard earned bank notes.
Then came British Blue glory. The improbable hope of the Conservatives, Johnson the bumbler, philanderer and buffoon, was given a Levido make-over. With the announcement of the exit poll, showing a crushing Tory victory in the offing, the Levido magic was acknowledged in Conservative HQ.
Levido’s approach pretends to be unique, but is actually embedded in the usual practice of a craft practiced since antiquity. To win people over, keep the message simple. Complexity is the enemy, and what is required is a good story, a touch saucy, if necessary a touch violent and a touch reassuring. Suggest that commentators and media outlets are, as Martin Luther said of Catholic priests, the obscurers of God’s voice. “Message discipline, being research focused (polling) and hence ultimately led by what voters actually think not by the media and commentators.”
On the issue of Brexit, politics was the enemy, and therefore had to be avoided. “People didn’t want to hear about politics anymore, they didn’t want to turn on the news and have a bunch of politicians screaming at each other.”
Levido cannot claim to be the only significant antipodean in the Johnson victory. The prime minister can also thank the efforts of Sean Topham and Ben Guerin, a New Zealand duo Johnson called the “Digi Kiwis”. Both Topham and Geurin were also part of Levido’s Australian campaign, one also linked to pollster Michael Brooks, himself of Crosby’s CTF Partners group based in Britain.
A propaganda coup of sorts was played near the vote. A spoof of the film Love Actually was run, featuring Johnson with a series of cue cards seeking to appeal to the electorate. As Topham recalled, Levido “was determined for us to be creative while sticking to the message, his view was that just because this was a Conservative Party, we didn’t have to communicate conservatively.” This is telling: to win for the Conservatives, you did not have to necessarily act like one.
The next antipodean mission of storm and persuasion will be in the United States, powered by Levido’s mission. The task at hand: winning the 2020 election for Donald Trump. Grossman cannot help but be impressed. “Everybody likes to win – that’s the part of I like about the firm.”
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]