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Interview: Craig Elder
Can the Tories squeak a win in 2024 by copying what they did in 2015?
After a long-ish summer break, we’re back with an interview with Craig Elder, one half of Edmonds Elder, now a digital agency based in London, but previously the duo at the helm of the Conservative Party digital campaigns of 2010, 2015 and 2017.
Next week, we’ll be checking in on the various by-election campaigns in Mid Beds, Tamworth and Rutherglen and Hamilton West. We’ll also introduce a new spending tracker we’ve been working on.
Lastly, please share this newsletter with others. There’s (likely) just over a year to go until the election, and lots of money will be spent on ads and more over in the coming months. The job of this newsletter is to try and explain what we see parties and candidates doing with those to as many people as possible. Getting more subscribers is the best way to do that!
And now to our conversation with Craig…
Full Disclosure: Thanks for agreeing to chat, Craig. We appreciate you taking the time. Now, you worked in digital politics for a long while - almost since the beginning. When did you actually start at the Conservative Party and what was your role when you did?
Craig Elder: I joined in September 2006. What makes it feel like such a long time ago was that I was the second hire into the brand new “New Media Team” at Conservative Party HQ, when I was midway through a PhD in English (which will always remain unfinished).
Back then I could build websites and communicate, and I was interested in politics, so I got the gig. So I was there for the four years that followed, up to the 2010 election, was promoted a couple of times. And obviously that period - 2006 to 2010 - well, I think we all recognise is the period where digital politics got real. And so as time was passing, and almost by default, we were becoming more and more important within the organisation, quite often because of what was actually happening not just inside the party and UK politics, but what was happening across the Atlantic, where the Obama election dragged all of us into this magical new world where digital politics was quite the thing.
FD: How did you get to being fully in charge of digital for the party in 2015?
CE: I split the role with Tom (Edmonds). He did the creative stuff and I did the digital stuff. On the 2015 election campaign, you had Lynton Crosby (Australian election strategist and pollster), Stephen Gilbert, in charge of the ground campaign, the Directors of Research and Comms (Alex Dawson and Giles Kenningham), and you had Tom and I. So we had managed to somehow get two seats around the top table, which was pretty great.
Tom and I had gone away in between 2010 and 2013 and were doing our own thing. I was perfectly happy where I was, working for a comms agency called Blue Rubicon - where I wanted to stay. So the party needed to make it worth our while to come back. 2010 had been a lot of fun, we had a blast, but it would be totally inaccurate to say that digital was at the heart of that campaign. We told them we wanted a bigger role and we aren’t really prepared to come back unless we got it. Back then we’d done a lot of fun and weird stuff - WebCameron, re-skinning a beat ‘em up game - but it was getting us two inches of coverage in the Standard, so really, did it matter all that much? In 2015, we wanted to drag digital from the periphery and put it at the heart of the campaign.
What this meant was us learning how to plug digital into the overall campaign strategy as directed by Lynton, as well as how it could fit into that more traditional part of the campaign as directed by Stephen. And that’s where you start to say, how does digital help with identifying, talking to and persuading voters in marginal constituencies, getting involved in the ground war side of things rather than the air war? It’s easy to give yourself a pat on the back when you win, but much of the credit goes to Lynton for taking what we were doing seriously.
We did have to prove ourselves to get there though, and to do that we ran a series of test campaigns through 2013 and 2014 to show how, with a small pot of money, we could actually reach and talk to the voters we felt we needed. Because those tests were successful, we were able to turn on the taps a bit more. And so we need to give credit to Stephen there too, as the money we were spending would traditionally have gone to leaflets or phone canvassing or posters - his part of the campaign. Lastly, Andrew Feldman, who was party chair, signed off on us spending £1.2m on digital ads. Perhaps that seems like small beer now, but it completely dwarfed Labour’s budget and changed the terms of what was possible in British campaigns. By 2017, Labour was spending the same or more than us.
FD: Social media changed a lot between the 2010 and 2015 elections, in particular, it went from an organic medium to at least, in part, a paid one. Facebook really got advertising going during that period. You seemed ready to take their advice and spend money, whereas Labour, and Hillary in 2016, didn’t. Is that the right interpretation?
CE: I don’t think it was as much taking Facebook’s advice as running the tests and seeing what the evidence was. Initially we ran it through an agency, but by the end we were doing it all ourselves because it gave us more control.
The main thing was conveying the idea of a “Long Term Economic Plan”. So we would do things around creating jobs and investment. We set up basic landing pages, one had a form where it’d do a tax calculator based on your salary and tell you what the coalition had saved you. Another was on on business. We ran the ads for 8 or 10 weeks and kept getting back numbers we couldn’t believe - less than 10p per conversion. So that allowed us to go to Lynton and show him how, if you put money in, voters would come out.
FD: Jim Messina (Obama 2012 campaign manager) was also involved?
CE: Jim’s a great guy, but he was a consultant, not a full time member of staff. He’d jet in and give us advice - real advice, he wasn’t a vanity hire. During the campaign he did two massive things for us. One is that he helped give us more credibility. Everyone knew he talked sense, and him telling others “guys, you should back this, they have a good plan” was really important. Second, his team put in a real shift - they were right beside us, late nights and all. It was a proper partnership.
FD: In 2015, the polling suggested it would be really close, probably a hung parliament, but then you got this unexpected majority. It’s a truism that campaigns matter when the result is close, and immediate post-election analysis seemed to be that you’d pumped a million quids worth of Facebook ads into (then coalition partner) Liberal Democrat-held seats, perhaps in a way that they weren’t expecting, and didn’t counter. Is that right? Did Facebook ads win you the election?
CE: We’re far enough away from it now that I don’t need to give credit one way or the other to digital. We were given a lot of credit, and I’m grateful to that, but the effort you describe is something I’d attribute to the entire campaign, which was ruthlessly targeted on the places that would decide the election. We had 40 seats we wanted to hold, and 40 we wanted to win. 80 seats in total. The list would change a bit over time, expand and contract, and many of them were actually Labour/Tory marginals. But yes, the Liberal Democrat seats in the south west opened up more as the election went on, and the narrative around the SNP really hurt Labour and the Lib Dems too, in the sense that people didn’t want another coalition, or Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond having too big a role in Westminster politics. So although the targeting and ads got a lot of credit, it also just seemed that people knew the only way to stop it happening was to have a single party government, and that meant voting for David Cameron as PM.
FD: Let’s talk about 2024. Imagine you got the call, and were invited back into the fold. The polls look pretty bad, so your starting point would appear to be very different to anything you’ve faced before. What would you do?
CE: Rishi Sunak has attributes that you can definitely work with. He seems like a serious guy, and when you look back over his record you’ll see he’s achieved some things - fixing stuff broken by previous administrations and so on. His personal numbers are ok, and in terms of the numbers of people who prefer him as PM, there’s a job that can be done. Overall, I think there’s still a path to the Tories being the largest party in a hung parliament and doing a deal that ends up with him as Prime Minister.
In my view, the right approach is to look back at the way we fought 2015 and be as focused as possible on a single narrative. This might look hard in 2023, with inflation numbers so stubbornly high and so on, but in a year, Sunak could have more of a platform to stand on - something like “we’ve been through a lot, we have suffered, but we’re starting to see what recovery looks like, so let me finish the job”. You then need to couple that to ruthless targeting of marginal seats and it could end up with a hard won victory, or at least with Sunak as the only realistic PM. On the other hand it could obviously also go the other way, where voters tell him “come on, you’ve been in power for a long time now. We’ve had enough.”
FD: What do you think would have an impact?
CE: Preparation. Our plan for 2015 was starting to form by the back end of 2013, and was being executed pretty much in full throughout 2014. If the Tories aren’t doing this sort of work by now, it might be too late. As Lynton Crosby would tell us, “you can’t fatten a pig on market day”. 2017 was very different, we were brought on really late in the day. I took a (very unexpected) call while standing in a queue in a fish and chip shop in Aberdeenshire, where I was told there would be an election really soon and did we want to be involved. That massively compressed timeline meant we had a few weeks to do what we had two years to work on last time. That made things very much harder.
FD: Many of the things you did in 2015 no longer necessarily exist in the same way do they? We spoke to Teddy Goff a few months ago (2012 Obama Director of Digital), who thinks that in the US, TikTok is the most important thing of all, and that there’s a sort of information war that needs to be fought there. But UK politics doesn’t feel quite as polarised as that does it?
CE: We do have to accept that the platforms really have changed. In my agency work now, fewer of the brands we work with care much about what’s happening on Facebook. So yes, there’s more interest in TikTok. I’ve got mixed feelings about the concept of ‘influencers’, but on platforms like that they are important to a degree. I suspect their importance plays into Labour’s hands, as does the fact that Instagram is probably more dominant than Facebook itself. But ultimately the question has to be “do you really get your audience?”, and working out how to find those people where they are.
FD: British politicians are nowhere on these platforms though? Very few of them seem able to make videos of any quality or authenticity? Neither Sunak nor Starmer has the ease on camera of someone like Obama. With TikTok, you’re getting, at most, a few seconds of someone’s time with a video and because you can’t buy ads there, it’s not possible to get the sort of reach you might get elsewhere? It feels like it could cost campaigns a lot of time and money, and at the end of a week’s campaigning, you might well feel like you got nowhere?
CE: It is a much more difficult environment. The Tories are going to have to find a way to be super focused, hope that the position turns in their favour and get their message across.
FD: Similarly, there’s a persistent idea that many things have moved to local groups and messaging. That seems like one way of reaching people in a targeted away, but is anyone actually able to do it credibly? Can you avoid it all turning into a massive political fight in the comments section? It seems to be a real challenge to do genuine grassroots engagement - most parties still want that top down control and they won’t take the risk of letting go?
CE: There are individual MPs who are good at it and instinctively understand it, but they’re very much in the minority. If you’d caught me back in 2011 or so, I was a proper social media utopian. I really thought the system of party politics was going to be smashed and we’d have genuine local champions discussing real issues. What an idiot eh? The parties have never been stronger. I still think it’s having a profound effect, but I’m just not sure what it actually is. If you think back to Clay Shirky and “Here Comes Everybody”, I’m not sure I internalised the “everybody” part. I assumed it was the good people, who wanted debates on real issues held in good faith, and we’d get this wave of splendid democracy where we would all focus on doing good things. But obviously the hate and bile came, and it drove away the reasonable people who don’t want to spend their time engaging in that sort of thing.
FD: We’re still a long way from platforms having control of that, or even seeming to care much about the quality of what they carry. In fact, they seem to be shrinking back from any responsibility to some extent. One of the successes of Who Targets Me has been this idea of transparency, and ad libraries - things that didn’t exist when we started in 2017. It’s allowed us to better ‘read’ what political campaigns are trying to do, in near-to-real time. Given that it would likely have spotted your target seats and messages in 2015, does that type of transparency worry you?
CE: I’m completely comfortable with it. We always ran our campaign on the basis that any of it could be on the front page of The Guardian tomorrow. It’s another thing Lynton (Crosby) should get credit for, the fact that things can leak, so they should be done right.
FD: You can see Labour trying to position itself to have that level of control again too, by setting up a very ‘97 type of operation, both in terms of people, but also trying to be very message disciplined and planned in their comms.
CE: The big change is that everyone has a direct line to the media. A modern Alastair Campbell would be going mad every day, because of who tweeted what, who said this and that.
FD: He’s very active on Twitter himself now, and doesn’t always exemplify the type of control he might expect of others.
This conversation leaves us feeling that things are really very chaotic out there. Perhaps there’s no obviously “right” digital campaign strategy for UK parties at the moment? Maybe, like in 2015 or 2019, we’ll just have to wait until someone wins to find out what it was?
Craig, we really appreciate you taking the time to talk. It was really fascinating.
CE: Thanks for having me.
We’ll see you next time, for that by-election update. Please remember to install our browser extension if you haven’t done so already. It helps track and explain what’s going on with digital ads at a much more granular level than the data provided by Meta allows for.
Thanks for reading! See you next week!
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