The European Parliament and Danish agency &Co explain how they learnt from the populists to reverse a 40 year decline in voters, writes LBB’s Alex Reeves
The European Parliament is a vast, whirring machine and its communications department is a significant cog in the Brussels juggernaut. It has a big comms department. “Our concern about communications goes back many years,” says Stephen Clark, director for the European Parliament’s liaison offices.
It has a procedure. Before the European elections, it runs an awareness campaign to try and boost voter turnout. He and his team didn’t deviate from that model this year. “So far so standard,” he says. But looking around at the environment Europe was facing, he knew ‘standard’ wasn’t going to cut it this time. Voter turnout has been consistently declining in the European elections ever since they began and with the threat of the populist wave looking like it was going to continue that trend. Stephen realised they had to do two things:
“We needed to mobilise people to be the voice of the campaign. So it wasn’t us talking to everybody else,” he says. The anti-Europeans would have a field day if the campaign was too top-down. It had to inspire the grass roots.
In terms of tone, they knew it had to learn from the populists too, using an emotional approach that would stir people up. “That’s what’s going on in the world and, frankly, that’s what was needed right now,” says Stephen. “We’re in a world where suddenly a lot of things are up for grabs. All these difficulties and crises going on, questions are being asked about Europe, even about things as fundamental as democracy.”
The stakes here weren’t about policy. No fiddling around the edges. They were about the soul of the European Union. “Now is the time we really have to stand up and do something about the core of Europe - its values, democracy, elections, participation, togetherness,” says Stephen.
Another EU tradition Stephen’s team decided to break was not to partner with a big full-service agency for the campaign. Their hearts were in it and so they wanted to run the campaign themselves, but with the input of a creative agency shaping the message. “We could go a bit more niche and look for the really good people,” he says.
They turned to several agencies to come back to their brief and were bowled over by Copenhagen hot shop &Co. The European Parliament team were already fans of the agency, having loved their heartwarming ‘All That We Share’ campaign for TV2.
&Co took this chance seriously. As account director Trine Aagaard Eisinger puts it, the European Parliament has target audience of 400 million people. Those chances don’t come along very much for a Danish agency like &Co. And the brief itself was about things the people at the agency felt deeply about: “To work with the foundation of our world: democracy. I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it,” says Trine. “We feel so proud to have been part of this project.” Their passion won them the job.
The brief was advanced, but it could be distilled down to something U2 frontman Bono said in October 2018: that Europe is a thought that needs to be turned into a feeling. “That was a great brief,” says creative director Thomas Hoffmann. "It’s what we’ve tried to do.”
&Co knew children were key to their idea from an early stage. It was obvious to Thomas to talk about building a future for Europe by focusing on the people with the most vested interest in the future. “Children are being born right now and the decisions you make are going to influence these kids in the film,” he says.
Also, in a time of division, the idea needed to be inclusive of all views. No matter your politics, it needed to speak to you as a human who believes in democracy. “It’s elevated above it,” says Thomas. “What type of future should we give these children? We forced people to think long term instead of which side they are politically. It was ensuring that in Europe if we stand together we stand strong. Everybody is trying to divide us. We have enemies all around - China, Russia, Trump.”
Eventually the idea ended around babies as soon as their born, and they were going to be real babies, captured on film as they entered the world. “Let’s make it really difficult for ourselves,” Thomas laughs. “It wasn’t a Spielberg childbirth movie. It was real people.” In fact, when the client said yes they had no idea how they were actually going to do this.
Stephen and his team said yes, but they were way out of their comfort zone. They just had to keep reminding themselves that the stakes were too high not to make a bold choice. “We knew that not everyone was going to like it,” says Stephen. “It could be controversial and we would have to defend it. But also that was part of what we wanted - for people to talk about it as well.”
Widely beloved commercials director Frederic Planchon was to helm the spot and a huge production undertaking began, trying to put into place an environment where the team could be there for the births of children with the mothers’ permission.
Only two out of 15 women who ended up giving birth on camera were the women that originally said yes. Much of it was cobbled together on the fly. Frederic had to be permanently on during the shoot, working 18 hour days, Thomas recalls, with a DOP but also shooting a lot of footage himself. It was a very intimate and (even without the cameras there) stressful environment, so a huge crew was obviously out of the question.
After they had the actual footage, there was more worrying to be done. “Of course we were worried if they could accept being so close to an actual birth,” says Thomas. “You know how children look when they come out…”
But Stephen and his team were, again, committed to leaving their comfort zone. “We had to do something risky. We couldn’t play safe. But when you’re confronted with the pictures, which are very real, inevitably people are going to wonder if this is something the department can put out there. But we knew we had to hang on to the authenticity of the images. It had to be real, challenging, out of the safe zone.”
Even in a big machine like the European Parliament, with all its levels of sign-off, Trine remembers how impressed they were with the speed and conviction their client moved. “The agility of the organisation has been amazing,” she says. Everybody in the relevant departments mobilised.
Before long they had a powerful film together. It launched on Facebook and YouTube and they waited. The reaction exceeded expectations. Stephen remembers the “view counter was ticking very nicely.” Breakfast TV shows showed it. It got discussed in Italy, Greece and Slovakia on day one.
“We were rewarded with strong reactions,” says Stephen. Not all were good. YouTube comments “weren’t always a comfortable read”, but people began admitting that it moved them. It was republished in print media and the Parliament team began to let more of their worries soften. “Now we’re in business because it’s not only a count of views. It’s out there, in the culture.” The quality of the message even encouraged private TV stations to run it, even though they weren’t obliged like many public service broadcasters.
All roads led to election day though. And when the turnout figures started to come in Stephen and his team were shocked. Their aim had been to turn the tide and improve on 2014’s rate of 42.61. The dream was 43%, says Trine. In the end there had been a veritable surge. The majority of European voters had expressed a view - 51%. “We found it hard to believe our eyes,” says Stephen. And although he admits there are many factors to attribute that to, “we have to have been part of it. It didn’t happen without us.”
Trine always believed they were tapping into something. “It was amazing to talk into a dialogue that was already going on out there. With Greta Thunberg, the children get their voice now,” she says. “We’re already talking about if we dare put children into this world. It had a very broad appeal.”
“We did catch a mood, I think,” agrees Stephen. “Maybe we couldn’t have done this five years ago, but this is the right thing for the right time. There is this sense that it’s cold outside, there is this anxiety. We were in need of this moment when people reengaged with Europe as an idea, as a value. We’d lost that. It had been layered under all kinds of history and crises. There’d been this populist rise of questioning forces. We felt this is a time for the OTHER people to take a stand, so say Europe IS worth fighting for. It’s worth you deciding.”
This Time I’m Voting is becoming Together.EU - the website will be repurposed, so the people can mobilise to do something else. “We’ve got to talk to them about it. We don’t want it to be directive,” says Stephen “Things don’t need to come from experts, institutions and traditional sources of authority (this being the environment we’re in).”
“Is this a turning point. We can be idealistic and philosophical and say maybe it is. At least we have to try and make it one. What we did with this campaign is to help mobilise people, build a community of like minded people. Now we can’t leave that to ebb away because we’re not in this particular campaign anymore.”