Sunny ways can be a sledgehammer

Ahead of his Cannes chat, Bensimon Byrne's David Rosenberg talks election lessons for other brands and taking on negative spin.


An election campaign isn’t just about the advertising, but it certainly didn’t hurt last fall that the Liberal Party of Canada had the team at Bensimon Byrne on its side.

The campaign featured a series of memorable, unconventional and mostly positive spots that helped leader Justin Trudeau move the third-place Liberals (who were also polling in third at the campaign’s outset) to a 184-seat majority government.

On Saturday at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, Bensimon Byrne partner and CCO David Rosenberg will look back on the campaign, telling the international audience in this highly political season about breaking with convention and the power of “sunny ways.”

We caught up with Rosenberg in his Toronto office before he left for France. This interview has been edited for style and length.

When you got the account, Trudeau was in third place but he didn’t have some of the problems that a lot of third-place candidates have. His story was well known, he had been leading in the polls for a while, up to fall 2014.

Those polls are fairly meaningless, two or three years before the fact.

But he had some celebrity to begin with. Did you recognize some of those advantages, and how did you make use of him as a personality from the start, in a way that you couldn’t have if you had to introduce a candidate to voters?

I’m not sure that worked for us. Obviously there was his name, the fact that he was the son of Pierre Trudeau. But Pierre Trudeau had such an immense reputation – a philosopher, lawyer, journalist, professor. Justin, beyond being the son of Pierre and having the same last name, didn’t necessarily have those credentials. So when you say “make use of his celebrity,” I would say we didn’t.

What we did make use of were the qualities that make him such a worthy candidate and ultimately led to him becoming Prime Minister. He is incredibly bright. He has the courage to think differently about Canada’s problems and the resolve not to shy from talking about solutions. And more than anything else, he’s got a level of physical energy. He never stops. We tried to make his vigour a part of how we advertised. It wasn’t obvious, necessarily, but we shot him on the move whenever we could, walking in a straightforward manner into the camera.

He was the fourth Liberal leader in four elections. What did you learn from how the Conservatives had managed to brand the Liberal leaders in previous campaigns?

We knew that Harper and the Conservatives were going to negatively position Trudeau. They had already done that prior to us working on it, with not a whole lot of success in their first attempt two or three years ago. But we knew they would take another shot at it… and in fact that did happen in May of 2015.

We were busy working on concepts that got our message out, which had a lot to do with fairness for the middle class. Then the Conservative “Just Not Ready” ad hit. We looked at it and we immediately thought it was interesting and unique. But ultimately we thought that it was inauthentic, in the sense that it involved actors sitting around a prop round table, reading a fairly average-to-bad script and opining on the suitability of job applications for prime minister, like that could ever happen.

However, as you know, ultimately the message of that spot, “Just Not Ready,” began to resonate with people, no matter what they thought of the ad. People would use precisely that language – people who would normally go out of their way to tell me how advertising never affects them, yet they were saying he “just isn’t ready.” So obviously we knew it was resonating, at which point we started developing ways of thinking about that. That core inauthenticity in that ad contributed greatly to the kinds of concepts we started to develop to combat that ad.

The overarching thinking on all of this came from Trudeau himself – that he did not want to go negative. They wanted to win in a different way. He would not respond to personal attack advertising with a corresponding personal attack.

Where did the decision to repeat the attack line come from? Did you have to sell it to the campaign team?

On shoot day, we went to a room at the Chateau Laurier to meet Trudeau and he asked me, are you sure you want to shoot this? Are you sure this is the thing to do? He said, and this is almost a direct quote, “Isn’t it against the rules to use your opponent’s line of attack in your own advertising?” I told him I think maybe it’s time to break some rules and take an unconventional approach.

When we think about how much the Conservative spot had played for those two months, and continued to play thereafter, it’s not like Canadians hadn’t heard the message “Just Not Ready.” We weren’t going to give it more exposure – it had had maximum exposure. So I think that also contributed to it working for us when we turned it around 180 degrees.

It was an exceptionally long campaign – 78 days. How did that affect your strategy?

We had a limited amount of money. When we decided to shoot the “Ready” ad, we did it because he had been so negatively positioned by “Just Not Ready.” We knew we had to take a gamble and bet on television right at the beginning of the writ and spend a considerable amount of money on that ad. We had supreme confidence in that ad because not only did we pre-test it but once we shot it we brought the rough cut into focus groups the next night and it immediately changed perceptions of Trudeau.

We spent a lot of our money knowing that we had to change perceptions immediately, and also knowing that once we did, it would help drive fundraising for the rest of the campaign. Which it did.

What would you offer other campaigns as advice for running a mostly positive campaign? Does it depend on the candidate and flow down from there, or is it an approach that any campaign can make successful?

Some of the mudslinging that goes on in modern political advertising is pretty horrible stuff. I think there’s a level of saturation with that stuff. When something different comes along , whether that’s a very smart, on-point contrast piece or whether that’s a wholly positive, optimistic approach after 10 years of negativity and divisiveness – certainly that was the case in Canada and that’s what we were able to leverage – then obviously it can work. I do think it’s situational, and we were able to take advantage of the situation in a very effective way.

What lessons do you take from working on a political campaign that you use for general branding?

I think elections are the epitome of what it means to be an “always-on” marketer. You’re continually adjusting your message, you’re continually optimizing your message in an effort to put the most positive halo possible on your brand, in this case your candidate. I think there are lessons, certainly, in this modern age of marketing and digital and social for brands who are engaging with consumers on a 24/7 basis. Elections really teach you to learn to take advantage of every little detail at every single moment of the night or day. Certainly that’s contributed to how I think about how we advertise brands and how to adopt those same kinds of principles.

The other thing coming from Trudeau’s positive approach is that when properly done – whether in an election or for brands – I do think there’s power in positive messaging. “Sunny ways,” a positive approach, can be a sledgehammer when deployed properly. That’s another thing I’ve begun to talk about more and more as we approach brands.