Politics

Kiwis who helped ScoMo triumph

A New Zealand agency founded by two former "Young Nats" harnessed the power of Facebook and Instagram to help the Liberals win Australia's "unwinnable election".

A low-profile Kiwi digital and creative agency was in the thick of the 'miracle', come-from-behind campaign that saw Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his Liberal Party re-elected.

Topham Guerin, established just three years ago, helped the Liberals outgun Bill Shorten's Labor campaign with high octane digital messaging, deploying videos and ads around the clock.

Founder Sean Topham was based at the party's national campaign centre in Brisbane with members of his Auckland staff and has been credited in Australian media reviews of the campaign with helping execute a digital campaign that swamped Labor.

Topham, a former head of the National Party's 'Young Nats; youth wing, and fellow former Young Nat Ben Guerin, 23, set up their agency in 2016 after personal stints working on political campaigns in the UK and elsewhere. They worked for Bill English's losing campaign in 2017, and have used their skills in digital and video disciplines for winning Liberals' state campaigns in New South Wales and South Australia.

While their business based from offices in Auckland and London advises corporates and other organisations as well as political parties, their reputation in the fine art of election campaigns will have risen sharply after Morrison's highly-calibrated comeback.

Topham Guerin was engaged by the Liberals' federal director Andrew Hirst, now the toast of his party alongside Morrison for winning what outside pollsters and pundits considered the unwinnable election.

Interestingly, in January the Morrison team employed a former press secretary and adviser from John Key and Bill English's prime ministerial office, Kelly Boxall. She was part of the Australian Prime Minister's travelling group during the campaign and advised on social media.

On Facebook, comments about Topham Guerin from happy campaign workers have been laudatory. "The best digital campaign company in the world. Very smart strategy (without giving anything away). So good to have you on board. Well done!" said one.  "Best. Digital. Campaigners. Ever. If you want to win, TG are the only game in town. Well done guys. Not only are you awesome at what you do, you are also great people - always an added bonus!," said a government adviser.

Criticism from the left

But Topham Guerin's involvement with politics of the right, and association on this and other campaigns with the international political polling and research company Crosby Textor, have already attracted the attention of political operatives and activists on the left, both here and overseas. Last month The Guardian alleged Topham Guerin had carried out pro-Brexit campaigns on behalf of Crosby Textor.

Sean Topham, back in Auckland after a lengthy stint in Brisbane, says the newspaper's claims were inaccurate "but I'm too busy to spend any time rebutting The Guardian story".

After the Australian result, a Melbourne-based tweeter Ted Gibbons accused Topham Guerin of having "deployed their digital dark arts to shamelessly hoodwink the Aussie public" claiming they needed to "shoulder a fair bit of blame for the return of ScoMo's plague of cruelty and incompetence."

But Topham, a 28 year-old law and media studies graduate says that kind of criticism is misplaced. "That's not what we do. Digital tools don't have an ideology; we have access to all the same things everyone else does, you just have to know where you're going, take action to use the tools effectively and work hard at it."

He says Topham Guerin worked for the Liberals on social media, as well as email marketing and even the party's online shop.

"We also produced content for the Liberal campaign - a mix of videos, animations, graphics and we worked hard to present that creative in a variety of ways to suit the different platforms and audience."

The Topham Guerin website has political work as just one of many sectors it works in. 

Their role in the Liberal campaign's success shouldn't be over-stated. The party had bright, young political operators in a range of key roles, including Trent Hasson overseeing the social strategy.  And it was well-funded, obsessively focused by Morrison on the barest of messages: the economy and the persona of Scott Morrison. It was a governing party cornered, hungry and playing hard to a small number of highly marginal seats, mainly in Queensland and Tasmania. 

Harnessing the power of Facebook algorithms

But Topham Guerin's role shouldn't be under-stated either. An in-depth review of the campaign by Latika Bourke in the Sydney Morning Herald last weekend said the agency had been embedded with the Liberal Party since last year. 

"At the core of their strategy was video, coinciding with a change to Facebook's algorithm to favour video posts," she wrote. "'My Vision, the Morrison [personal story] video which ends with shots of him surrounded by his two girls and wife Jenny, has had 1.5 million views since its April release." That was one of the pieces of creative which involved Topham Guerin.

'We were still placing ads and creating content in the lobby of our hotel at 11 pm the night before the election.'

Through the campaign, almost from the start, the Liberals' social media targeting and output was at a higher volume and cut-through than that of Labor, which in the past had the reputation for social media dominance.

Bourke reports the Liberals had a critical sense of urgency. "This election, the Liberals were producing content exploiting any Labor mistakes within hours."

Asked about that kind of attack strategy on social media, Topham says: "On digital we outperformed Labor consistently and produced more engaging content from day one. But we never felt we were out of the woods and worked right to the end. We were still placing ads and creating content in the lobby of our hotel at 11 pm the night before the election."

Interestingly news coverage in Australia showed the Labor campaign operation celebrating the night before the poll. Hubris, perhaps.

Topham says the party director Hirst and his two deputies Isaac Levido and Simon Berger led a highly disciplined team. "The leadership group was actively engaged in the digital campaign and digital was well integrated across the operation."

So what did they actually do to achieve that advantage over Labor?

Another Sydney Morning Herald story reported "Morrison's Facebook page attracted 25 percent more interactions - reactions, comments and shares- than Bill Shorten's, while the Liberal Party's central Facebook page had almost double the levels of engagement its parallel Labor account had." 

'Within an hour of something going wrong for Shorten, the Libs would have something running digitally to exploit it.'

Morrison's videos got more than double the views of the Labor challenger.

On Instagram, too, Morrison had almost 50 percent more likes and comments than Shorten.

Much of the digital effort is in targeting ads, videos and messaging to the right audiences. Those Queensland electorates worried by Labor on mining and climate change, for example.  Polling and research has to be sharp and accurate. The Liberals had a polling chief from Crosby Textor in London to oversee that task. 

An analysis of the secrets of the campaign by Simon Benson in The Australian said the Liberals were more sophisticated but were also lightning fast. "Within an hour of something going wrong for Shorten, the Libs would have something running digitally to exploit it. Facebook and Instagram were the key platforms, whether it was a video of Morrison cooking a curry or a savage lampooning of a Labor mis-step."

It quoted one Labor operative saying: "We were being massacred."

Topham will only say, coyly, that "running an effective and creative digital campaign can have a considerable impact."

He has been more forthcoming on his firm's Facebook feed, though, saying it was proud to have been "a key part of the campaign behind Scott Morrison's historic election victory in Australia. We worked with the Liberal Party to build out a strong, responsive and creative campaign that consistently outperformed the opposition in variety, volume and reach.... the best one in Aussie politics... the results speak for themselves."

The Morrison victory had shown him no campaign was unwinnable. 

Asked if Topham Guerin saw themselves as a kind-of Crosby Textor, mastering the dark arts for the right of politics, he says the disciplines are different.

"Crosby Textor is the best polling and research company in the world. We complement that work, but we're different. Our aim is to be the best creative and digital consultancy in the world. It's not about being creative for the sake of it or using digital tools for the sake of it - it's about being effective with them. That's what counts. Our approach has an impact and gets results."

He won't say, but you'd imagine there'd be a tilt next year at trying to get a result for Simon Bridges and the National Party at the general election. Their common backgrounds would indicate yes, but the agency and the party were on the same side of an ultimate defeat to Jacindamania and then Winston Peters in 2017.

With Morrison's triumph the company seems to be running at three wins out of four (Australian Federal, NSW and South Australia wins to Bill English's defeat).  

Topham's only prediction about the New Zealand campaign, after the Australian experience, is prosaic. "Digital is continuing to grow and will play a much bigger role for the parties and candidates in the next NZ election."

While politics was the genesis for setting up a digital company - Topham was encouraged into it by a conversation with the digital director from Barack Obama's 2012 campaign, Teddy Goff - the agency's website includes campaigns and political messaging as just one of about a dozen services offered. It is looking at starting an office in Australia and expanding on its work advising corporate from e-commerce to telecoms and tertiary education.

"Most of our work is outside politics," Topham says.

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