WILL Atkinson is in a thoughtful mood, contemplating the size of challenge facing Yes Scotland as the referendum creeps ever nearer.
As one of a tiny band of experts masterminding the advertising campaign for independence, it is a subject that Atkinson has mulled over again and again, and examined from every angle.
“The Pope said No. Obama has said No. Hillary Clinton has said No,” Atkinson said. “The entire British Cabinet has said No and most of that has been by distorted truth.”
The creative consultant – previously with Williams Atkinson Mills (WAM) and formerly creative director of The Bridge, in Glasgow – is clearly relishing a dust-up with a No campaign backed by international heavyweights, not to mention JK Rowling and David Bowie.
“We are coming against a very huge pressure group, most of which is actually coming from outwith our own borders, which is a strange but expected fact. That is the push [we need] to get across,” he said.
Atkinson, an advertising man of 30-years standing, is one of the key people involved in a political battle which takes in the highly sophisticated, marketing, advertising and branding strategies that attempt to influence the outcome of the referendum.
He may not be as well-known as other senior figures in the pro-independence campaign. But behind the scenes, he has been a hugely influential figure in the recent rise of Scottish nationalism, which has put the SNP in power in Edinburgh while flushing out the recent spate of high-profile opponents of independence.
Faced with what he sees as a hostile mainstream media and going toe-to-toe with a Better Together campaign which has recently hired global player M&C Saatchi, it would be tempting to portray Atkinson and his colleague Jim Downie as the underdogs in the advertising battle for Scotland’s future.
That, however, would be an over-simplification. As freelancers Atkinson and Downie have worked with the SNP since 1992, heavily involved in their Scottish election triumphs of 2007 and then again in 2011, when Alex Salmond built on his first victory at the polls to achieve an unprecedented parliamentary majority. Examples of their most recent work can be spied all over the country, most notably the giant blue Yes Scotland billboards emblazoned with the word “Can’t” with the “t” crossed out in red ink. It is a straight forward and eye-catching message, which captures the sort of “can-do” attitude the Yes campaign wants to promote in what is gearing up to be the biggest advertising battle Scotland has ever seen.
Developing into a fascinating contest, the battle of the adverts pitches guru against guru while the ground war involving activists on both sides is waged underneath.
For both sides, the relationship between the advertising strategy and the grassroots is vital as they fight over the same territory – the undecided voters.
While Yes Scotland was content to stick with the SNP’s tried and tested advertising experts who have operated under the radar, Better Together have hired the big guns.
Earlier this month, in an unheralded move, the No campaign hired M&C Saatchi – the famous London advertising agency which has a long track record on the political stage.
But in an era where the message is everything, it was difficult to ignore the fact that for Better Together’s opponents, this link-up sent out a message of its own.
Founded by the Tory peer Maurice Saatchi and his brother Charles, M&C Saatchi came into existence when they were ousted from Saatchi & Saatchi in the early eighties.
The brothers’ best-known client was Margaret Thatcher, who they helped to power with their epoch-making ad which depicted a dole queue with the slogan ‘Labour Isn’t Working’.
Better Together’s calculation is that the company’s undoubted political nous will override any negative connotations of their long association with the Conservatives.
Already, M&C Saatchi has made its mark by attempting to overcome a difficulty that many people believe has dogged Better Together ever since an independence referendum was first mooted.
With a ballot paper asking voters to answer Yes to independence, Better Together have a challenge in framing a No vote in a positive way.
With 100 days to go to the big vote, Better Together paid for a full page press ad dominated by a new “No Thanks” logo.
“No Thanks, 64 per cent of young people want to say in the UK; No Thanks, Most Scots want to keep the UK pound; No Thanks, Most Scots want to keep an extra £1,400 each for public services,” said the advert.
Better Together believe that this well-mannered approach to rejecting independence will encourage people into ticking the No box on 18 September.
“No is a negative proposition, but No Thanks is a very polite way of saying I’ve considered it, I’ve thought about what you’ve put forward, and I don’t want that very much,” said Rob Shorthouse of Better Together.
“Better Together is not on the ballot paper. We need to be No. We tested No Thanks over several months in focus groups and it tests off the charts. People love it. It is a polite way of saying No to something you don’t want, which is pretty much independence.”
Shorthouse is in charge of Better Together’s advertising strategy along with Blair MacDougall, the campaign director, and Douglas Alexander, Labour’s shadow foreign secretary.
According to Shorthouse, the big spending on advertising has been done. Now that the campaigns have entered the regulated period – the time frame which restricts each campaign’s spending to £1.5 million – advertising will have to be done in a highly targeted manner.
To be fair, however, that has always been Better Together’s approach.
Before the regulated period began at the end of May, Better Together had a six-week-long outdoor poster campaign.
The posters were located where Better Together believed they would be seen by undecided voters – the key group that the campaign has spent the last 18 months trying to identify.
“We plotted out where we think the undecided voters live they overlaid that with a map of where the posters/billboards are. So we only took billboard advertising in areas were we were pretty certain there were a high concentration of undecided voters,” Shorthouse said.
“That’s what we do, our entire case is different from the Nationalists in that they are having these big public meetings getting lots of people in a room that already agree with them. Whereas we are being very, very targeted in everything we do.
“All our communications, all our marketing, all our advertising is being geared towards the undecided voter. So we have also done an analysis of what media undecided voters use, what they read, what they watch, what they listen to. So again all our advertising is based on that.
“We would never use big, massive advertising campaigns just for the sake of it, we will do it in areas where we are pretty sure that undecided voters are going to see it.”
The last half of May also saw the No campaign take full page adverts with 62 newspapers – local and national. That press advertising campaign saw the distribution of 2.5 million of Better Together’s “facts leaflets”, which outlined their arguments for staying in the United Kingdom.
On the finance front, it is estimated that this push cost in excess of £1 million pounds – a substantial amount of money for even a well-funded campaign like Better Together. Yes Scotland was more coy about the amount of cash it has spent on advertising so far, although both campaigns reckoned they were being outspent by the opposition.
One of the most expensive advertising outlets – the cinema – is no longer in play. Cinema chains banned referendum adverts after being deluged with complaints by film goers, who sat through Better Together productions before the main feature.
The ban, however, will affect both sides as Yes Scotland were also planning to bombard the cinema-going public with its politics.
One area where campaigning can take place, unfettered by cinema chains or almost any rules altogether is cyberspace – an area which is growing in influence daily.
For both sides, this is a key, if potentially risky, battleground. The foul four letter attacks on JK Rowling and others who dared to speak out against independence have done little to help Yes Scotland’s cause. Nor have the death threats against Nicola Sturgeon or Alex Salmond’s father helped Better Together.
Blue State Digital, the social media experts who helped elect Obama, has been drafted in to help Better Together’s strategy to reach the two million people with Facebook accounts in Scotland.
The Yes side has its own Twitter/social media guru – Kirk Torrance, a key backroom figure who is credited with transforming the SNP’s social media operation.
Unlike Better Together, Yes Scotland does not have the complication of persuading the electorate to vote for a negative answer.
According to Atkinson, the next weeks and months are about hammering home a message that is already familiar to those following the Yes Scotland advertising campaign: Scotland “can” be independent, “should” be independent and “must” be independent.
It is a message that Atkinson hopes can rise above the high-profile No endorsements, the doubts about currency and whether an independent Scotland will gain automatic entry to the European Union.
He expects little assistance from editorial content of the mainstream media, which, he believes, is inherently biased against Yes. “A lot of what we do in terms of advertising has to get across our messages in paid-for media, because we are not getting that off the media, because the media is biased,” Atkinson said.
“Secondly what we are trying to do is give something out to our grassroots people, because they are the people who will ultimately win this for us. In terms of an advertising strategy, you are starting from a lower base, because media-wise everything we do the media will then denigrate.”
There may be no love lost with newspapers, but over the coming weeks newspaper readers can expect the key messages of the pro-independence case to be supplemented with fine detail, in a different phase of press advertising.
“We need to get more detail out there,” said Atkinson. “The work we have done to date – at least it is distinctive, straight-forward and simple as opposed to cluttered messaging [of Better Together].” For one observer from the advertising industry, the side which manages to cut through the clutter and appeals to emotion is likely to be the one which succeeds.
As Mark Gorman, of Edinburgh-agency Think Hard, puts it: “In an ideal world there would be a series of facts that were indisputable and they would either point Yes or No. But the fact is that there isn’t, so I can’t see how a rational argument is going to win the day.
“Brands are built on rational platform and emotional platforms. At the start of this I thought rational arguments would win the day – things like the oil debate and being part of Europe, but they all get mired in Yes/No/maybe.
“It is really difficult to get that argument across, so to me it has got to be that emotional vote that’s going to win the day. Whoever can reframe the emotional context most effectively will be the one that makes the connection with the undecideds.”