The devil is on the doorstep

A conversation with a friend about local politics reminded me what strategy really is, and why it’s so damn hard.

A Green Party candidate canvasses a Conservative household in 2009. The title of this post doesn’t refer to him or how I feel about the Green Party.

The conversation.

We had friends round for dinner last weekend. They left London themselves a few years ago and now we’ve moved as well they live about half an hour away. For all the friends we feel we’ve left behind, it’s brilliant to feel reunited with others.

They live in Stroud, Gloucestershire, near where my wife and I grew up. It’s an interesting, slightly schizophrenic place. An old mill town in the heart of the country, but oddly bohemian too. Politically it’s all over the place. I remember in 1997, when Tony Blair had his electoral landslide, Stroud was part of the shift. It had been heartland Tory, but became new dawn New Labour before switching again in 2010. I imagine it’s a classic swing seat.

Our friends have always been politically active. One of them does quite a bit of volunteering for the Labour Party and she’s already been canvassing for the election. Talk inevitably turned Labour’s chances this time round, and her experiences knocking on doors.

It’s a thankless task. You take time out from work, family, and life to initiate conversations that people haven’t planned to have, or maybe don’t even want. It takes application and guts. For all that Twitter has fuelled our entitlement to broadcast our opinions at everyone, divulging how we vote to friends and colleagues still has a frisson of intimacy about it. Imagine knocking on someone’s door as a stranger, then, and finding a way to ask them the potentially invasive question, how are you going to vote?

So how do you go about it?

Well, as it turns out, it’s complicated.

Let’s go back a bit.

Last year Ed Miliband appointed David Axelrod, Obama’s advisor, to a Labour Party role. Obviously they had something major in mind. But even before that, the MP in charge of Labour Party election communications had explained their big new idea. This is from an interview in The Independent in 2013:

Instead of targeting demographic groups like “Worcester woman” and“Motorway man”, the new buzzword at Labour HQ is “attitudinal”.

Mr Dugher explains: “You can’t compartmentalise people according to background and where they live. You can’t stick labels on them. That is why you must have a conversation with them.”

He claims the digital era has diluted the Tories’ other historic advantage — the newspapers. And attacks on Mr Miliband will be answered immediately on social media.

To anyone who has worked in media, advertising or digital, the tropes hinted at here will be achingly familiar.

Defining your audience through what they care about rather than outdated targeting? Check.

The decline of traditional, broadcast media channels? Check.

Using social to signal how innovative you are compared to your competitors? Check.

Direct, unmediated contact with your audience? Real-time, two-way contact? A conversation? Check. Check. CH-BLOODY-ECK.

The familiar stuff is all present and correct. It seems that Labour in 2013 finally got round to looking at that Obama case study we were all quoting back in 2009.

But, they do think they’ve improved on it. The journalist follows up:

“We are going slightly further than the Obama campaign.”


By making contact with the public more individually tailored ahead of what will be the most personal election ever, he replies.

Now, if you work in media or advertising, you know that this is as hard as it is vague. Individually tailored contact, focusing on personal stuff. You’d forgiven for rolling your eyes. It sounds great but is difficult to carry off in practice.

So if that’s the strategy, how’s this actually working on the ground?

Back to the story.

When my friend goes out canvassing she often doubles up with someone else. Recently, she and another woman each canvassed opposite sides of the same street, starting at the same time.

The other woman followed the individually tailored, personal contact strategy. She knocked on the first door and asked questions to uncover the issues bothering the person who lived there. She tried to identify the “attitudes” around which she could build a “conversation.”

It was incredibly successful. She was with the owner for ages. She understood everything this voter cared about. Eventually, wanting to know more about the challenges facing the community, she moved on to the next house. She looked across the road to see how my friend was getting on.

My friend had reached the end of the street.

She’d been to every house. She was done.

My friend, you see, wasn’t following the central strategy at all. She had a very clear idea of what she wanted to do, and it didn’t involved trying to start a conversation.

She was collecting data.

It’s not that she’s not interested in people’s problems or what Labour can do to help. Quite the opposite. But to achieve that she thinks it’s important to use resources efficiently.

In her view, it’s far too late for an issues-based conversation. Labour had the chance — an open goal, even. It was an opportunity to build a kick-ass narrative around bankers, austerity and a conflicted coalition. The insight and connections from that could have inform this year’s election pitch. But a conversation this close to an election looks cynical. Worse, it looks like Labour doesn’t know what it stands for, as if they’re looking for policy ideas from people on the doorstep.

But it’s too soon to really persuade people. Most people when canvassed say they’re “not interested in that sort of thing.” Others may they say they’ve always voted Tory — or Labour, or Lib Dem — and won’t consider anything else. Some are unsure about how to vote, and these are the ones who could tip the balance and help win the seat. But you need to find out which is which so you can have meaningful contact with the right people.

So my friend wasn’t looking to hear people’s concerns and she didn’t want to convince anyone. Her job was to identify the people it might be possible to convince the next time.

The metaphorical leap.

I started to imagine my friend as the Direct Response specialist. Based on attitudinal and behavioural data, she harvested demand where it was found. Her method seems smart and savvy in comparison to the brand conversation approach, which comes off as gimmicky, vain and naive.

But it’s more complicated than that. Brands create preference unconsciously, long before action is taken, and Labour, like any political party, is a brand. It is an idea that inspires years — generations — of loyalty. Voters remain emotionally invested in the idea even when leaders and policies change.

And smart brands change the ways they reach their audience — literally and emotionally. This is especially true for political parties at elections. Elections are powerful connection points. Voters manifest their relationship with the brand through action, and the brand needs its voters to show their support, otherwise the emotional connection holds little meaning for either. Voting is a genuine love mark.

So elections represent the moment when short-term messages unlock the value of the long-term relationship. They are the moment the conversation model is super-charged by DR tactics.

And the Labour Party needs both.

So what does this tell us about strategy?

This got me thinking about strategies I’ve come up with before and how encompassing — or not — they might have been. Accommodating everything that needs to be addressed is difficult. My friend’s story tells us how hard it is to join things up. It’s clear how easy it is to end up with something that is perhaps not-quite-a-strategy.

Here are some things that we sometimes mistake for a strategy.

A strategy is more than an agreed objective. I find it hard to imagine two people with greater common purpose than two women canvassing the same street for the same party for the same reason on the same day. They want the same thing. But they don’t share a strategy.

A strategy is more than using channels that your competitors don’t. This is self-evident, but I’m going to mention it anyway. Because when those channels involve social media platforms it seems we sometimes forget.

A strategy is more than saying something new. More, even, than saying it a new way. It is multi-dimensional, governing behaviour and decisions as well message. It lives in the real world, which is complex and subject to change, and must be nurtured if it is to have its intended effect. If it’s you developing a strategy you probably won’t be be there to see people keep to it. It’s very likely to be executed by someone else, and therefore needs to balance context, people, and the resistance to change that it will inevitably face. The people who carry it out should be clear what they should do differently, but also that they feel equipped and motivated to do so.

A strategy is more than an approach. An approach is a gesture towards strategy. It is a space where a strategy might be found, but it’s often used as a label for things that are not-quite-a-strategies. An approach requires purpose and won’t always naturally translate across disciplines or functions.

Labour’s conversation approach works well online, for example, where conversation is immediate and happening at scale. Access to politicians is easy and unmediated, so conversations can be meaningful. The currency of conversation online is ideas, so conversations can be potent and inspiring too.

The doorstep, however, is small. Conversations work differently there, where they are initiated by keen supporters, not the politicians. It’s a long way from Westminster — and not just geographically. The currency is people’s problems, or politician’s personalities, neither of which you can do much about. The conversation can come unstuck when it hits this world. The devil is on the doorstep.

So an approach is not a strategy. It is governed by strategy, and that strategy must account for the way events may play out in multiple places and situations. It should resolve the inherent tensions that exist.

A strategy is all these things and more. And it is more than each of these things.

So maybe we shouldn’t ask why a strategy isn’t being followed. Perhaps instead we should ask why so few are good enough to be adhered to.

A strategy should define a clear problem and an outcome, then co-ordinate a set of actions in many different areas that together can bring that outcome about.

It should bring clarity to multiple, complex situations and make decision-making an exercise in objectivity, rather than instinct.

It should account for the challenges that might arise in its execution — people, scenarios, money — without being beholden to them.

And, if it’s any good, it should be bloody hard work.