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PoliticsSeptember 4, 2020

The memeing of life: An interview with digital campaign whizzes Sean Topham and Ben Guerin


They’ve received acclaim and opprobrium for digital media campaigns for everyone from NZ’s National Party to the Australian Liberals and Boris Johnson’s Brexiteering Tories. Topham Guerin worked, too, for the NZ government Covid response. But, New Zealand’s international digital campaign wunderkinds tell Henry Oliver, their agency’s future is not political.

In these politically polarised times, many of us tend to see the people we agree with as human — well-meaning but fallible — and those we don’t as either dumb dupes or evil geniuses. Donald Trump, as an obvious example, is to detractors either a mentally compromised buffoon creating domestic and global policy on a whim, or a strategic genius, whose supposed gaffes are really just one more move in a game of chaos theory 4D chess. Closer to home and on the other side of the spectrum, Jacinda Ardern’s antagonists critique either a shallow celebrity whose only real skill is garnering the attention of international press, or the head of a conspiracy to get a teenage socialist into the highest office in the land and turn our great nation into a retro-Soviet hellhole.

As far as #nzpol Twitter is concerned, there are few political actors who hold such shadowy renown as Topham Guerin, the digital communications and creative agency founded and run by New Zealanders Sean Topham, 29, and Ben Guerin, 25. In the last year and a half, Topham Guerin has built its reputation working on Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party’s improbable victory in Australia and Boris Johnson and the Conservative’s decisive victory in the UK. 

Working for Johnson’s campaign director Isaac Levido (a former protege of the infamous Sir Lynton Crosby), Topham Guerin helped turn the election into an impromptu second Brexit referendum where the only two options were Brexit or more arguing — “dither and delay”, as the campaign repeated over and over” — about Brexit. Admirers of Topham Guerin’s work might point to its video of Johnson parodying a scene from the plays-on-BBC-every-Christman British classic Love Actually. It is social media fodder for middle-aged centrists, playing off a particularly British nostalgia for the Blair years, portraying Johnson as an everyday Brit who just doesn’t want you to have to think about Brexit any more. It’s incredibly well-made and resourceful, shot quickly on an iPhone to take up as little of the leader’s time as possible and to get into the algorithmic churn almost immediately.

But those who see Topham Guerin as part of a new, more toxic political landscape, accelerated by the social media platforms where they do their best work, are likely to point elsewhere. During a leaders debate, Topham Guerin changed the name of a Conservative Party Twitter account to “factcheckUK”, which (with a blue check next to its name) attacked Jeremy Corbyn and Labour at every opportunity. While the account’s bio did read “fact checking Labour from CCHQ” (the Conservative Campaign Headquarters), few reading the widely shared Tweets would have read the disclaimer. After a non-partisan political fact checking service complained, Twitter issued a terse statement: “Any further attempts to mislead people by editing verified profile information – in a manner seen during the UK Election Debate — will result in decisive corrective action.”

Call it the dark arts of campaigning, mischief or disinformation, such tactics have seen some lump Topham Guerin in with more technically deceptive operators such as the disgraced and deceased Cambridge Analytica. It’s made the young firm a Candyman figure to many on the left – shorthand for a certain kind of digital dirty politics. But while the effectiveness of the work speaks for itself, I’ve always wondered – are the two young men behind this seemingly out-of-nowhere success story really the evil genius ideologues they sometimes get painted as? Or are they merely pragmatic, savvy operators that go where the money is, and it just so happens the money tends to be found most readily on the pro-car, low-tax, big business side of the crude political divide?

On a Zoom call with Topham and Guerin from their London homes, the pair best known for their political work quickly make it clear they’re not in a mood to talk politics. Up against both the clock and the restraints of video conferencing with two people in different rooms on the other side of the world, the conversation tends to come to a halt just about every time it tilts towards the firm’s brushes with controversy. Like the most disciplined of the politicians they help communicate with their voting public, they find a way to lead almost any question towards something broad, safely wrapped in the corporate comms jargon of “spaces”, “synergies” and “strategies”. When asked a question that can’t be led astray, Topham simply raises his arms to his laptop camera as if to physically block it.

Sean Topham in Wellington. Photo: supplied

And yet Topham is warm, funny and charming. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has met him says they liked him immediately, including those who recoil at his client list (in addition to the centre-right parties, Topham Guerin has worked on the Taxpayers’ Union opposition to the capital gains tax and has reportedly been a subcontractor of Crosby’s CTF Partners, a lobbying whose clients include almost satirically villainous causes like pro-coal and anti-cycling). Guerin is sharp and analytical, moving at pace between discussing intricate matters of contemporary marketing, the regulation of social media (I’d incorrectly assumed he’d be against it) to wider societal issues in the digital age. 

While laughing at the mere mention of their previous membership of the Young Nats (Topham was its president from 2012 to 2015 and considered by some to be an almost-inevitable future prime minister in the John Key mould), they insist that Topham Guerin is not a political consultancy but a young agency that is agnostic when it comes to the sector. They talk a little like defence attorneys, whose job it is to pursue any legal tactic to get the best outcome for their client, whoever that is and whatever they’re accused of by the opposition. “The agency is not political,” says Topham. “We work for our clients and deliver the best possible work that we can. We’ve obviously had particular clients in that [conservative] space and that’s par for the course. Some people will suggest there’s some narrative there, but I don’t think that’s accurate.”

In little over four years, the pair have gone from building websites for family friends’ businesses to working on some of the most high-profile election campaigns in the world while also having their work on ovarian cancer awareness on the biggest billboard in Times Square. In the last year, they’ve grown from a team of 11 to over 30 with offices in Auckland, London and Sydney. “The whole thing’s been quite crazy,” Topham says. “Four years ago it was just two guys and a couple of Macbooks back in Auckland.” 

Topham and Geirin both grew up very online, building websites and teaching themselves the tools of the trade. Ben made posters for school events on pirated Adobe software. One of their first clients together was for a call centre. Then a kiwi sanctuary and a hairdresser. They see those beginnings, working as a small one-stop-shop rather than as minions at large agencies, as laying the foundation of what’s made them especially successful in digital environments where speed is more important than perfection. “When you’re used to doing it all yourself, you build up a culture where you just get shit done,” Guerin says. “Our team is used to making stuff happen. Whether it’s quickly editing a video or making a graphic, we’re excited to do the work we’re doing and can do it quickly and at a really high standard and come up with really bold, creative ideas.”

The nature of digital campaigning is largely unrecognisable from the previous orthodoxy, he says.

“In the 80s and 90s, you’d have a campaign of a really memorable TV ad or a poster – a couple of big set pieces of creative that would stand out. What we describe these days is instead of having a big bonfire in a campaign, you have lots of little fires, lots of little messages that all support broader narrative but have a range of different creative approaches, a range of different styles, and that’s what social does really well. If we have lots of content all saying the same thing, in lots of different ways that appeals to different people.”

One of the tactics that Topham Guerin has become especially known for are “shitposts” – a meme of obvious and usually ironic bad quality to troll its reader. During the UK election, Topham Guerin made a series of shitposts around the Conservative’s core message, “Get Brexit Done”. The most famous example was a Tweet with “MPs must come together to get Brexit done” in Comic Sans, which, of course, went semi-viral with people all around the world falling for its obvious trap: the algorithms don’t care if you’re share something disapprovingly, you’re still amplifying the message.

But many weren’t so obvious. Rather than the cliched badness of Comic Sans, many were just slightly off or slightly shitty or almost accidentally hip – things that wouldn’t have been questioned if your cousin’s cover band made it, but caught the eye when a major political party did, especially a conservative one. “The internet determines what is a shitpost now,” says Topham of the blurry line between the aesthetic designed to make Baby Boomers feel nostalgic and comfortable, and graphic-design-is-my-passion trolling. “We’ve had to pick up the pieces of some graphic designers from time-to-time who have not intended to make a shit post”.

Topham learned about the power of the meme firsthand when, working on the University of Auckland’s Law Review in 2014, he helped make the now-infamous Patty Gower “This is the fucking news” video. “That’s where I caught the bug on meme content,” Topham says of the video that still circulates and is still mistaken for an actual outtake from the nightly news.

But, other than a flair for virality, Topham Guerin’s work is increasingly difficult to pigeonhole, aesthetically and politically. Only a couple of months after its rumoured association with Simon Bridges-era National, Sean Topham returned to New Zealand to work on the government’s Covid response, working with various agencies and departments. “They really understood the importance of a really good communications campaign for responding to coronavirus,” says Topham. “They know that it would take in multiple layers of comms, of not just primary channels with the ‘Stay home, save lives’ message, but right across the board to reach audiences on social media.”

The work for the government included creating content that could be shared and published by non-political New Zealand favourites like Rachel Hunter and Dan Carter. “There’s been some questioning of the $16 million [the government] spent on comms during that period but I think that’s part of the reason why New Zealand’s in the position that it’s in,” says Topham, who spent his birthday in Covid response headquarters in Wellington where the police organised him a single slice of cake because no one could share food. “That investment is a fence at the top of the cliff rather than, literally, ambulances at the bottom, which is far more expensive at scale.”

“It was a real privilege to be able to work with Jacinda Ardern on the New Zealand response,” Guerin continues. “It’s really hard to imagine a more important project in New Zealand at the time. Obviously, we’ve got a bit of experience in helping messages get understood on the internet and the opportunity to be able to put those skills to use on such a forum, that’s above politics.”

Unsurprisingly, the firm’s next big job was back in the UK, working once again for Boris Johnson and the Conservative government on its Covid response. The UK government had handled its communications poorly in the early weeks of the pandemic, seemingly changing course frequently, going back and forth about whether or not it was backing a herd immunity strategy. As it did during the election campaign, Topham Guerin focused communications on repetition of key messaging, like “Enjoy summer safely”, a campaign in which the government collaborated with some of the world’s biggest brands to drive a message of hygiene and social distancing.

Topham Guerin’s appointment has attracted plenty of criticism, especially in The Guardian, which characterised the Covid contract as a dodgy backroom deal that didn’t go through the usual, pre-Covid, tender process. There was barely a mention, however, of the fact that Topham Guerin had not only worked on New Zealand’s acclaimed Covid communications, but had done so in collaboration with one of the publication’s most-praised world leaders. “It was a bit of a kick in the guts that they didn’t mention New Zealand’s world class Covid response,” says Topham. “One government is run by a Conservative prime minister and one by a Labour prime minister, we aren’t big on distinguishing those — we’re not a political firm, we’re a creative and digital agency.”

So, if Topham Guerin isn’t ideologically driven, if the National to Liberal to Conservative trajectory is just a young company taking the best next opportunity in their sights, would Topham Guerin work for anyone? Would they, let’s say, work for Trump’s reelection campaign?

Immediately but with a smile, Topham puts his arms into an X in front of his laptop camera. “I don’t think so,” he says. It’s unclear whether he’s answering the question or declining to. “If nothing else, I don’t think they’d want foreigners running their election comms,” Guerin adds, laughing. 

Topham says the group of mostly young people at the agency are in a lucky enough position to decide whether potential clients are people they want to work with. And, in today’s political climate, where any association with a perceived enemy makes you an enemy, and calls for boycotts rattle through social media, the world’s biggest and most prestigious brands are more careful than ever about who they will and won’t work with. Working for Boris Johnson might get you lucrative opportunities to work for other even more divisive, ideologically driven clients, but it probably won’t lead to Nike getting in touch about its new Serena William or Lebron James campaigns. Would Apple want to risk its aspirational shine being corroded by a link to any genre of the “dark arts”.

“You can’t make shitposts forever,” Topham says. “There’s got to be the next thing, something new on the horizon.”

Keep going!