To illustrate his distaste for taxpayer-funded political advertising earlier this month, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott recalled the Howard government’s infamous GST ads showing metal chains falling off ordinary Aussies as Joe Cocker wailed Unchain My Heart. 

“I didn’t think it was very effective,” Abbott said of the $362 million campaign. “There will certainly be no Joe Cocker ads under a government I lead because even I think they’re passé.”

Nevertheless, the chief co-ordinator of the GST extravaganza — South Australian marketing strategist Mark Pearson — is expected to lead the Liberal Party’s election advertising campaign this year. The low-profile operator has been a key member of the Libs’ in-house election advertising unit – known as the “blue team” – since John Howard’s first victory in 1996. Other members include Coles and Jetstar ad man Ted Horton, direct mail boss John King and colourful marketer Toby Ralph.

Liberal Party sources say federal director Brian Loughnane is sounding out the campaign veterans to come back this year, with Pearson at the helm. That’s despite media buyer Harold Mitchell calling them the “blue rinse team” for their advancing years.

Pearson, a former managing director of Sydney firm Ammirati Puris Lintas, is a secretive character — there’s no evidence of him ever granting an on-the-record interview and he hung up quick-smart when The Power Index called. Now based in South Australia and semi-retired, he’s said to be have strong grasp of realpolitik and a tight relationship with Liberal Party head office — if not exactly a reputation as a creative genius.

“He’s good at organising things, but he’s not a killer creative,” a Liberal insider told The Power Index. Said a former Labor Party campaign operative: “His work is always pretty standard cookie-cutter stuff. It’s dull but effective.”

Loughnane has praised the Libs’ 2010 minimalist “real action” ads for resonating with voters — even though one top media buyer panned them in the press for resembling an “infomercial you’d see on Foxtel selling a funeral plan”.

Ted Horton, who designed the L-Plate ads that damaged Mark Latham’s chances during the 2004 campaign, is seen as more of a creative star. But, despite reports to the contrary, he didn’t participate in the last campaign and may not this year.

If the polls remain where they are, of course, the Libs won’t need a flashy, risky campaign; slow and steady should win this race. The Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s decision to announce the election date eight months in advance has also handed the opposition team an unprecedented advantage: they’ve got ample time to road test ads, hone the slogans and plan the ad spend.

Importantly, Pearson and company understand the difference between flogging Coke and running an election campaign.

“His work is tight, disciplined, strategically-focussed,” one leading ad man said. “[T]hat’s better than going to a big agency and getting something that looks amazing but is off strategy.”

“They realise union money and union effort is the one thing they’ve got going for them.”

That seems to have been exactly Labor’s thinking for this year’s election. In October the ALP signed gun creative Mark Collis — who has designed high-profile campaigns for Earth Hour and McDonalds, and was recently head of innovation and creativity at Telstra — to lead its ad campaign. But the relationship broke down around two months ago and Labor has assembled a new team of true believers.

Essential Media Communications, the progressive polling and campaigning outfit behind the Australian Council of Trade Unions’ 2007 Your Rights at Work campaign, is now running the show. Film producer Richard Keddie, who also worked on Your Rights at Work, is also on board. So is Dee Madigan — a vivacious Gruen Transfer regular who once worked under Mark Pearson at Ammirati Puris Lintas. Labor sources say the crew is already working hard at EMC’s Sussex Street HQ, with ALP assistant national secretary Nick Martin overseeing efforts.

While TV and radio remain the crucial battlegrounds, digital is again expected to grow in importance this campaign — with Facebook, rather than Twitter, seen as an influential platform.

One top ad creative describes the switch from Collis to EMC as a “reversion to the base” — a sign sandbagging existing seats, rather than winning new ones, is the name of the game. “They realise union money and union effort is the one thing they’ve got going for them,” they said.

With donations apparently down dramatically, the Labor team can be expected to again work closely with the ACTU and other unions. As Loughnane explained in his 2010 post-election speech:

“It is clear the ACTU, unions and other left-wing groups were fully integrated into Labor’s campaign … There was a period of 10 days — a lifetime in a political campaign — in the first half of the election in which Labor did not advertise at all except for a minor buy in one state. But during this period, the ACTU and unions were on the air attacking Tony Abbott and the Coalition.”

The appointment of Madigan has led to some furrowed brows, given she worked as a key creative on Labor’s disastrous 2012 Queensland election campaign. Madigan was the brains behind the controversial “Campbell’s web” ads which highlighted Campbell Newman’s connections to a series of allegedly dodgy deals.

Labor veteran Bruce Hawker, who worked on the Queensland campaign and rates Madigan highly, told The Power Index the ads were “very effective” early on. But the strategy was later seen as smear when the Crime and Misconduct Commission cleared Newman of wrongdoing before election day.

That doesn’t mean a scare campaign about Abbott — and his supposedly dastardly plans to cut workplace entitlements and government programs — will be off the cards this time around. As one Labor campaign insider said ominously: “Everyone says they hate negative advertising, but it works.”

Peter Fray

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