5th September, 2004  Volume 11, Issue 8

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    


War of words over UNP's media disaster

By  Vimukthi Yapa

It isn't every day that the quarterly review of an ad agency leads to pitched battle, the air thick with brickbats. But that is precisely what the upshot was of Phoenix Ogilvy's June 2004 issue of Agency News. While much of the review focused on patting itself on the back for emerging as the overall winner of the 2004 Sri Lanka Institute of Marketing (SLIM) Awards - carrying away no less than 30 medals - tucked away in pages 22-24 was an inconspicuous article, "Election campaign: a postscript."

Inconspicuous it well might have been, packed to the brim as it was with home truths on what went wrong with the UNP's advertising blitz for the April 2 election campaign. But it could not fail to invite comment from those on whose lapels was pinned uncompromising blame for the debacle.

The article, attributed to Phoenix Ogilvy's ebullient Chairman, Irvin Weerackody, pulled no punches. As the UNP campaign ("a recipe for defeat") unfolded, he said, it was simply a case of "screwing it up on a daily basis... The party succumbed to self-inflicted wounds." It is difficult not to nod assent at Weerackody's masterful post mortem, for the UNP's bizarre campaign left not only ad agencies but even the media, the public, and probably worst of all, the UNP's staunchest supporters, in a state of utter bewilderment.

Reproducing the plethora of the UNP's extravagant full-page ads that backfired - including the hilarious denim-clad farmer sitting in a paddy field and touting the virtues of peace - Weerackody invited contrast to the simple, direct and focused Rata perata and kawda mevata vaga kiyanne? messages of the UPFA, brainchildren of Varuni Amunugama (daughter of Finance Minister Dr. Sarath Amunugama), who heads the Triad agency, which handled the PA's brilliant and pitiless attack on the UNF government. "The UNP campaign," Weerackody wrote, "lacked theme, depth, and in most instances, the all important single and particular message to be conveyed... it is counter-productive to disseminate or publicise half-a-dozen different messages in one particular issue... The UNP also failed to come up with a meaningful and appealing punch line or slogan."

Labelling the UNP campaign "an obscene waste of money," Weerackody compared the party's campaign management to "vultures feeding on a carcass." Ouch! The cap was clearly intended to fit someone, and the individual who chose to put it on was John Earl, a British national with a Conservative Party background, paid handsomely in Sri Lanka during the UNP tenure through World Bank consultancies and other sources.

Clearly hurt by Weerackody's scathing attack, Earl chose to defend his role in the UNP's disastrous campaign by e-mail.  Earl it transpires was sent a copy of the article by a 'well wisher' and he chose to make his thinking known in a letter to former Minister Milinda Moragoda and of course as a courtesy copied it to Weerackody. We reproduce his message to the Phoenix Ogilvy Chairman in full below, together with Weerackody's no-holds-barred response, inviting Earl to debate the issue with him, all expenses paid. To no one's surprise, Earl has ignored the offer with true British disdain.

That said, it is no secret that Earl, whose role in the past three UNP campaigns has been espoused by Milinda Moragoda, has (or at any rate, had) the ear of Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Many UNP supporters attribute the blame for the party's losses largely to his vain attempts to infuse Western thinking and ideals into advertising campaigns that have lacked indigenous flavour. Come the presidential election, it would be interesting to see if Earl will be back in circulation, for the challenge then would be to pass the lounge-suit-and-silk-tie clad Wickremesinghe off as a credible leader of the rural masses, against Mahinda Rajapakse, who has built for himself an indelible traditionalist image. The exchange between Earl and Weerackody might therefore portend more than just words in hindsight: it could well determine the flavour of Sri Lanka's political future.


Where is loyalty?

Dear Milinda, 

In the post today someone very kindly sent me a copy of the Phoenix Ogilvy Quarterly Review for June 2004, pointing out pages 22 onwards. They sent it to me as 'one of the architects of the UNP debacle.'

I read the review of the 2004 General Election with interest. I would make the following comments:

By and large I think it is an accurate description of the advertising campaign. There were far too many people each doing their own thing without any coordinated central effort. This did lead to a lack of focus, cohesion or consistency to the campaign.

In future I do think that there should be much greater control over the advertising agencies, but more importantly over who is sanctioned to approve and distribute copy - and that should be limited to one person who takes overall responsibility. Ultimately what is needed at the beginning of the campaign is a clear strategy which is then followed ruthlessly and where new ideas appearing during the campaign either conform to the central strategy or get thrown out.

What I find amusing about the article is the lack of any comment about the Phoenix Ogilvy contribution to the campaign. Their advertisements do not appear as part of the condemnatory report on lack of cohesion or continuity. Even more surprising when you consider that Irvin sat in on most of the meetings where the advertising discussions took place.

But the article misses out two more important elements which should be considered as vital in any election campaign - teamwork and loyalty. Perhaps greater teamwork with the other advertising agencies on the  part of Ogilvy Phoenix might have helped, although it would not have allowed them to be slagged off after the event in this Quarterly Review.

As for loyalty, using a review of the 2004 General Election for short  term commercial gain and against the best interests of the leader of the party shows a scant disregard and disdain for loyalty both to the leader and to colleagues in the same industry. Unlike the Quarterly Review, I will refrain from sending out my comments to all and sundry but instead limit it to Ranil. Also I felt it only courteous to Irvin to let him see my comments too.

cc: Irvin Weerackody


Irvin on a foreigner of yesterday

Dear John,

I write in response to an email you have sent to Milinda, copied to the leader of the United National Party and myself. I found most of its contents hilarious, but there are parts of it that leave room for concern owing to distortion and misrepresentation of facts. I want to put the record straight.

I am pleased with your comment that the article is an accurate description of the advertising campaign and that there were far too many people each doing their own thing without a coordinated effort, which led to lack of focus, cohesion or consistency of the campaign. These observations constitute what we natives refer to as a "goondu"; a latent attempt to absolve yourself (who was responsible for organising, coordinating and achieving focus and cohesion) from any blame in the failure of the communications effort.

It is indeed strange, for example, that you have advocated greater control over advertising agencies and the appointment of a single person to approve and distribute copy and take overall responsibility, when you are well aware that there was a person who had overall responsibility in coordinating this campaign. I need not remind you that this person was none other than yourself.

Your observation that the article lacks any comment about the Phoenix Ogilvy contribution to the campaign and that our advertisements have escaped condemnation of lack of cohesion and continuity, maybe amusing to you, but I consider it a snide comment and a distortion of the truth.

The fact of the matter is that our contribution was less than 5%, in terms of space, airtime and, of course, cost. Since you bring up the point, I would like to state that although comparatively small, it was nevertheless a campaign that had a strong and clear message, theme, and synergy in terms of tone of voice, typography, photography and even layout. You have also misrepresented the facts when you say that I sat at "most of the meetings where advertising discussions took place." The truth is that I attended only six morning meetings during this specific period and that I deliberately avoided attending most of the subsequent meetings because they lacked focus and were often marked by insufferable verbiage on your part.

I remember vividly the very first meeting I attended where you enthusiastically volunteered to present the theme of the campaign we should adopt to see the party successful in the hustings to come. Your slogan was: "Marx or market." Unfortunately, the electorate did not  identify the JVP with Marx nor did they believe that the PA was anti-market.

The dichotomy, although logical as in an argument regarding alternatives, is a non-issue in political reality. Your clever and passionate slogan might as well been; 'Groucho Marx or sanity' where the voters were concerned.

You have also raised questions about the need for teamwork and loyalty together with another sarcastic aside about "greater teamwork with the other advertising agencies on the part of Phoenix Ogilvy." Phoenix Ogilvy means me, and I can boldly state that me working in a team went out of reckoning when you gave me a memo indicating that you have assigned others to work independently on specific subject areas such as peace, economy, etc. Thus the very notion of teamwork was subverted at the very onset of the campaign.

Let me elucidate further on the subject of teamwork for your edification. Teamwork on a party communications exercise is possible only when people who are cognisant with the fundamentals pertaining to political communication and those who can assess accurately the temper of a political movement come together. For the record, I did point out very early in the campaign that the UNP campaign was a mishmash, had no impact or brunt and moreover was counter-productive. My warnings went unheeded, possibly due to your allegiance to other advertising companies.

For example, the entire anti-JVP drive in the campaign displayed a clear lack of understanding with respect to popular perception of history, event and party. This is of course not to say that the JVP should not have  been attacked. I suggested that the proper strategy would be to target the moderate and hardcore SLFP supporter, warning him/her about the threat represented by the JVP to that party in the first instance and subsequently to democratic institutions in general. Let me quote from a memo I sent  the prime minister, copied to you among others, outlining a five-point communications strategy for the campaign.

"A campaign directed against the JVP should not focus on their  killings and the destruction. This is old hat. In this campaign we should equal the JVP to a parasite which will, in time, consume the SLFP and thereafter threaten the other democratic institutions." You disregarded my proposal.

In your letter, there is an indirect suggestion of my disregard and derision towards some others in the profession. This impression stands uncorrected by me since I have good reason to think of them as opportunist bounders.

The party and the leadership are well aware that I once led the UNP communications taskforce (1994 - 1999) when the party was in opposition. It is an anathema for a head of an advertising agency to openly align himself and his organisation to an opposition political party, especially in this country. I stuck my neck out, the PA government and CBK were annoyed and I was attacked on the floor of the House to the delight of some in the profession who exploited my dilemma and influenced the PA government to clip my wings, for example by grabbing the lucrative SriLankan Airlines account. I have never once complained about such matters, taking all this in my stride. So much for your allegation about me seeking short-term commercial gain by publishing this review of the election in the Phoenix Ogilvy Quarterly. For the record, my commercial gains have been obtained principally from the reputation I have earned over the years - a  reputation that has served me well, regardless of my political affiliations.

I find it extremely offensive that you, a foreigner of yesterday,  should have the audacity to question my loyalty to Ranil Wickremesinghe. That  is a matter best left to him and the party. I have confined my observation and comments thus far with reference to  your letter to Milinda. Let me now briefly comment on your role as the communications panjandrum for the United National Front (UNF) government.

Your work was certainly not limited to the period February 8, 2004 to April 2, 2004. Your contribution or otherwise has to be examined, in fact, from December 2001 to April 2004. During this period the Ranil Wickremesinghe government took some bold steps in the area of peace, economy and restructuring certain institutions with the signature proposal being the peace initiative.

A comprehensive and unrelenting propaganda exercise spotlighting primarily on the peace initiative with the other innovative proposals of the prime minister also in focus, sustained up to crunch time, would have played a significant role in building public opinion in favour of the government. Of these, you will no doubt agree that peace was the signature initiative of the prime minister. No one will dispute that the opposition  exploited the doubts that were raised about the outcome of the peace process and indeed the process itself. I believe that this was made possible in no small measure because there was no comprehensive, focused and strong communications exercise on the peace initiative. I leave it to you (who held sway over the government communications and Peace Secretariat) to enumerate your contributions or lack thereof in this matter. You could go further and educate all concerned about your contributions (and if you did contribute, to what effect) with respect to other important issues. You could also say something about how familiar or unfamiliar you were with  the nuances and undercurrents regarding event and process in the complex terrain called the political, as it pertains to Sri Lanka.

I observed during this period that you were averse to any strong opinion which was more profound than your thinking. Let me remind you of one occasion when you displayed this insecurity quite blatantly. One day, Milinda and you were having a meeting with me at my house. At this meeting, when Milinda mentioned that Peter Mandelson was in town, and that he had met the PM, your response was to condemn the man. As for my part, I asked Milinda whether there was any chance of getting his expertise at a substantial level, which was not at all to your liking. Mandelson, as you are aware, is a brilliant communications expert with a strong track record to back him. You might also recall your condemnation of Bell Pottinger, another instance where you revealed a certain sense of insecurity. I have great respect for Bell Pottinger.

A senior leader of the UNP recently told me that if you were to come back to Sri Lanka, you would probably have to be taken to the Accident Ward of the Colombo General Hospital straight from Katunayake, a statement very uncharacteristic of this person. I, on the other hand, being a firm believer and practitioner of "ahimsa," do not condone such things. I would suggest something more constructive.

I believe that the questions and issues raised are of critical importance to the party as it rebuilds itself and attempts political recovery. These should be debated at length and in a more comprehensive manner. I firmly believe that the party would benefit from a critical self-examination of its performance in the sphere of communication, which is the issue at hand. I therefore respectfully propose that the matter be debated at an open forum because such an exercise would give the party leadership insights that might prove to be useful.

I suggest two options. You and I could debate these issues in Sri Lanka, at a venue of your choice, of course before an audience. For this, with no insult implied and no indictment on your financial resources, I will be glad to provide you with a Business Class return ticket, London/Colombo/London.

Alternatively, I could arrange to have the debate in London, where both you and I would feel at home, under the aegis of the Sri Lankan Professionals Association in London. The advantage of the first option is of course that we could elicit the participation of a wider audience, and one that is very well informed  about the campaign as well as the particularities of the Sri Lankan political context. It would be my pleasure to handle the logistics.

Considering your role in the campaign and the strong feelings you  obviously have about the effectiveness of the exercise, I trust you will, without hesitation, accept this proposition.

Irvin Weerackody
Chairman/Managing Director,
Phoenix O&M (Pvt) Ltd.

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