Led by Donkeys uses politics to show the power of outdoor

The campaign's successful use of outdoor reminds us of the enduring potency of this medium.

It's only halfway through 2019, but an early contender for agency of the year is surely Led by Donkeys.

And I mean that only slightly in jest for, finally unmasked, the four founders look every bit like a small start-up agency, complete with requisite beards, a predilection for craft beer and significant diversity issues.

Dedicated to pointing out the perpetual lies, arrant hypocrisy and dark funding of Brexit’s puppet masters, its work is powerful, its growth prodigious and its impact historic.

After only five months in existence, Led by Donkeys has wedged its work into every conversation about Brexit imaginable, from constantly harrying Nigel Farage with his own words to unfurling an enormous banner in Parliament Square during the People’s March and hiring a helicopter to share the moment with the world. Not even Nils Leonard has that much chutzpah.

And it has done all this with one medium. Much as Collett Dickenson Pearce created its most famous work for placement only in The Sunday Times Magazine, Led by Donkeys works exclusively with outdoor. And outdoor not in a pop-it-on-an-ad-van-for-the-duration-of-a-press-conference way, but outdoor as a hugely public statement. Just how it should be.

In a world where political advertising has become infamous for plumbing the highly private nether reaches of our news feeds and prejudices, Led by Donkeys has proved there is life yet in posters, once the medium of choice for political campaigning.

At first, its use of out-of-home had everything to do with the ease of having some poster sheets printed and then illegally overposting other people’s advertising. However, the campaign’s successful use of outdoor, now rather more legitimately implemented, reminds us of the enduring potency of this medium.

Even today, when outdoor is digitally delivered, responds to external data signals and employs increasing amounts of motion, the two engines of effectiveness at which the medium excels are deeply old-school: messages are gloriously static and wastage is epic.

While we thrill at the creative possibilities of motion, posters have traditionally beaten every other medium at searing static imagery into the mind of the viewer. In an era that celebrates distinctive brand assets, when posters are done well they have an effect a little like the patterns you see if you look at the sun for a little too long. Years on, I suspect you can still picture Saatchi & Saatchi’s "Labour isn’t working" poster down to the last detail of the art direction.

But the real killer app of outdoor is that it’s very public, with large amounts of what some people like to call wastage. Outdoor works not simply because you see the message, but because everyone around you sees the message and everyone around you knows that everyone else saw the message.

That collective experience reinforces understanding of a brand, its communications and its values. Perfect for big, mass-market brands where social proof is a powerful force in winning over new customers. And perfect for big political statements where social proof is a powerful force in winning over wavering voters.

And that has been at the heart of the success of Led by Donkeys. Not for its discrete messages placed in the echo chamber of inveterate Remainers alone, but for its full-contact engagement with the enemy in places where that conversation can be seen and overseen by voters. And, along the way, we all get a brilliant case study in the persuasive power of outdoor – or public media, as I’m now going to call it.

Celebrated work, stacks of new business (in the form of £500,000 in donations) and new learning for the industry, Led by Donkeys has everything that one traditionally looks for in an agency of the year, save an emotional Christmas ad – and surely that must be on the cards. 

Richard Huntington is chairman and chief strategy officer at Saatchi & Saatchi 

Richard Huntington

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