”Why was Margaret Thatcher your greatest client?” This was talkRADIO Sam Delaney’s first question to Jeremy Sinclair (Saatchi & Saatchi; M&C Saatchi) at Mad Men & Bad Men: When British Advertising Met Politics, part of the Festival of British Advertising. Without hesitation, Sinclair replied that Thatcher let Saatchi & Saatchi, appointed to run the Conservative Party’s advertising in 1978, do its job. Although she would ask about everything, the Prime Minister would trust the agency to come up with the best communications. Glancing at his colleague Bill Muirhead, who worked with him at the time, Sinclair chuckled: “Also, she made us famous.”

The event had an enviable panel for political advertising aficionados: Sinclair and Muirhead were joined by Shaun Woodward MP and Lord Tebbit, who as Director of Communications for the Conservative Party (1991-92) and Conservative Party Chair (1985-87) had direct responsibility over what advertising agency to appoint and what its briefs should be. The discussion revolved around the Thatcher and John Major years, briefly touching on Brexit and Trump.

Lord Tebbit, sometimes referred to as ‘Thatcher’s Rottweiler’, at first seemed to disprove his reputation by looking at the audience and saying: “You’re younger than me. Most people are younger than me.”

However, soon he hit his stride. He described Thatcherism’s growing popularity in the 1980s, arguing that its strength made the party’s advertising easier: “you can have as good an agency as possible but if product isn't good, people aren't going to buy it more than once.” Also, he reflected on the supposed futility of Britain Stronger in Europe’s advertising, agreeing with Sinclair and Muirhead (who worked for the Remain campaign) that advertising cannot sell what people do not feel and believe in already. Woodward supported this, claiming that Britain is a small-c conservative country that needs much more persuasion about why its EU role matters. Some of the potentially hardest-hitting, negative advertising never ran, including this poster:

Could it have made a difference? Sinclair argued it might have, arguing that, in general, negative political advertising works best. M&C Saatchi’s political advertising mantra is “kill or be killed”, or, even more colourfully: “hit first, hit hard and keep hitting” (a line borrowed from Admiral Jack Fisher). But the agency did not have its best work in this regard approved by Remain’s communications team.

This discussion led to Tebbit’s most contentious lines of the event, passionately in support of Brexit, as he listed Elizabeth I, Wellington, Lloyd George and Churchill as examples of British strength: “We have saved Europe for hundreds of years. When has Europe ever saved us? Out!” (a neat sidelining of the Dutch Revolt, Blücher and the Eastern Fronts, amongst others, but that is another story).

Saatchi and Saatchi’s famous Labour isn’t working, and The Journey, intended to humanise John Major as Thatcher’s successor, led to the most interesting sections of the event. Much has been written about ‘Labour isn’t working’, but it was fascinating to witness Sinclair and Muirhead’s glee at the memory: the poster had a tiny budget and yet, every time Labour complained about it in the House of Commons, “the papers had to run a photo to show what was being complained about.” The result was an overwhelming amount of free publicity. Furthermore, Sinclair explained, many wondered about the people in the queue: who were they? Saatchi & Saatchi had used Conservatives from the Henley branch, and when this came out, it gave the story even further notoriety. This did not only benefit the Conservatives, but also the agency, as the story was reported around the world.

The Journey looks slightly contrived to the modern eye, yet Woodward explained that in the days before social media, selling a new leader to the country had to rely on carefully staged interviews. Here, Saatchi & Saatchi decided to drive John Major through Brixton, where he lived during his childhood, to try to inject some informality. Muirhead, who was with Major in the car at the time, said they tried to brighten his image by giving him a coloured shirt and by changing his hairstyle, but giving up on the latter when it was found to be gelled firmly into place. Major was perfectly friendly, interested and reasonable, but lacking in spontaneity. And so, the film team decided to drive Major past his childhood home, which he had not seen in decades, leading to a moment of genuine emotion: “Is it still there? It is! It is!”

Forthright and contentious, the discussion did not touch on the recent rise of political social media advertising. Woodward came closest, saying Donald Trump’s US election message was clear (“Make America Great Again”), while Hillary Clinton’s message was unmemorable. The point was not made that #MAGA was prioritised in digital political marketing, particularly on Facebook and Twitter. Still, many of the principles pioneered by Saatchi & Saatchi continue to this day, particularly relentless attacks on the opposition (as in Trump’s #CrookedHillary) and the reliance on earned media to amplify low-budget campaigns (it must have cost Vote Leave next to nothing to paint “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead” on its battle bus, yet the image was shared and commented on thousands of times on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram).

The most useful aspect of the talk, going well beyond political advertising, related to how to achieve a strong impact on the audience. Sinclair concluded by saying that, in his opinion, the most successful political campaigns make people feel something they believe already (even if half-consciously). Of course, this kind of strategy is at heart media-agnostic, and could be applied in strategies aimed at audiences most likely to engage with digital or social media. The reality is that, even though writers like Mark Ritson may continue to dismiss digital media as ineffectual compared to traditional media like TV, politicians and brands can be faster at seeing the potential and actual payoffs of using different channels and platforms.