OPINION: Looking into the local advertising world's dirty secret — political campaigns

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Advertising agencies are masters at promoting themselves, showcasing their work at events, conferences, and publications. Every three years, however, Philippine advertising portfolios omit some of the biggest accounts in the industry: election campaigns. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Editor’s Note: Micheline Rama is a designer, writer, artist, and activist working to promote human rights with her organization, DAKILA. She has a BFA in Visual Communication from UP Diliman, and completed a Design for Social Change Residency at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She has an MSc in Social and Public Communication from the London School of Economics and Political Science as a Chevening Scholar. The opinions expressed here are hers and not of CNN Philippines.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I’m a self-confessed escapee from Philippine advertising. The long hours, unreasonable deadlines, and high-pressure environment drove me to a different profession: human rights advocacy. On any given day, the latter industry would predictably be the subject of a shocking amount of hateful public comments.

But post-2019 elections is a different story.

Hours after election returns showed the impending victory of many administration candidates, social media was awash with angry tweets and posts.

The target? TBWA\Santiago Mangada Puno (TBWA\SMP), a top-tier advertising agency rumored to be linked to the senatorial campaigns of administration candidates Bong Go and Bato dela Rosa. In 2018, TBWA\SMP was also named by Pompee La Viña, former chief social media strategist of President Rodrigo Duterte, as the advertising arm of the 2016 presidential campaign of the Chief Executive. Managing partners, Jimmy Santiago and Melvin Mangada — the “S” and “M” in TBWA\SMP — were said to have spearheaded Duterte’s successful run for the country’s top post.

Those critical of Duterte and his cronies — Go and dela Rosa — were quick to question the agency’s ethics for supporting the two senatorial candidates despite their role in the administration’s controversial war on drugs, and called for boycotts and resignations. Mentions of TBWA\SMP on social media are now dominated by threats and invectives, drowning out the congratulatory posts on the agency’s award-winning campaigns like the “Correcting History” viral video on martial law historical revisionism, and its 2019 Agency of the Year wins from both Adobo Magazine and Kidlat Awards.

TBWA\SMP brands itself as “The Disruption Agency” — an appropriate moniker given how its public political intrigues have broken the seal of silence around the dealings of advertising agencies and electoral candidates.

Advertising agencies are masters at promoting themselves, showcasing their work at events, conferences, and publications. Every three years, however, Philippine advertising portfolios omit some of the biggest accounts in the industry: election campaigns.

The secrecy

Many of the advertising professionals contacted for this piece acknowledged that ties between certain agencies and candidates are open secrets within the industry — circulating as professional gossip or conjectures based on previous work with the various businesses of candidates — but would not disclose such dealings. Some pointed to Yoly Ong of Campaigns and Grey Philippines, the supposed architect of “Daang Matuwid” who was personally thanked by former President Benigno Aquino III in his final State of the Nation Address.

“Most agencies, lalo na ‘pag big ones, don’t want to be associated with politicians,” said Jayde*, an advertising creative who worked on a well-known candidate’s national campaign in 2016. “Sometimes kasi, politicians rin ayaw ma-associate with a big agency kasi siyempre ibig sabihin they had the budget to go to big agencies.”

The mutual motivations for secrecy may explain the lack of transparency not just with the public but even within the agencies themselves.

TBWA\SMP insiders, Dominic and Alex* who agreed to share their thoughts and experiences on the 2016 Duterte campaign on condition of anonymity, said that they could not speak about the 2019 Go or dela Rosa campaigns.

“I have no idea about what’s going on in Team Bato,” Dominic admitted. “I know some work was done but ‘yun lang.”

According to Dominic, TBWA\SMP teams working on political campaigns were kept apart, which was not the case with other accounts.

But Alex said this was also what happened with the Duterte campaign three years ago.

“The rest of the agency wasn't as privy to the [Duterte project] as those who were actually involved,” she noted.

The TBWA\SMP staff had some foreshadowing that the 2016 Duterte campaign work was coming.

“Nag-survey sa office on who would actually vote for him,” Dominic said, observing that by and large only those who indicated that they would vote for Duterte were brought into the team. “The rest of the office didn’t know.”

Electoral work may even be concealed from the head offices of Philippine agencies tied to international networks, according to Mario, an advertising executive who has worked on multiple political campaigns over several elections seasons. He explained that this is because “in most cases, these revenues are not reported by the local office to the regional as many global networks shun participation in elections.”

CNN Philippines Life reached out to TBWA/SMP regarding this but it has yet to comment on the issue.

The work

It is relatively easy to keep colleagues in the dark about political campaign work. Advertising networks can be composed of separate companies focused on different forms of advertising like above-the-line (TV, radio, print), out-of-home (billboards, posters), or digital (websites, social media, mobile, apps). These companies, in turn, are composed of teams working on accounts for different clients, and may also have a pool of freelancers or independent production houses engaged as needed. For corporate and political projects, advertising professionals may focus only on their assigned task, mostly oblivious to the other components that make up the full campaign.

“I just did the shoot,” said Sam*, a photographer hired by a candidate’s campaign team for the 2019 elections. “I turned over the [photo] files and got paid. I didn’t hear from them na after but later on, I saw my photos on posters and social media.”

In contrast, Marty’s* work for a recent aspiring senator required more coordination.

“I had to manage the content plan for both social media and PR, so I needed to be in close contact with the main campaign team, especially their on-ground photographer and social media manager. I tried to make sure that their messaging was consistent throughout the campaign, and pitched positive stories to the media,” she explained.

Dominic says that the TBWA\SMP team was tasked to create video and digital assets for use of other teams working on the Duterte presidential campaign. Dominic explained that the TBWA\SMP team never faked any content:

“Mahal siya ng mga taong bayan. So we got the content from [ordinary Filipinos talking about Duterte]. No one was asked to do anything that was outside their ethical boundaries,” he stressed.

Alex added, “Duterte wasn't as hated at the time, and most voters were basing his credentials on what he achieved for Davao and less on the manner with which he reached them.”

The TBWA\SMP team didn’t handle social media for the Duterte campaign, Dominic insisted. “May sariling infrastructure [ang core Duterte campaign team outside of TBWA\SMP] para doon; volunteers daw nila ang gumagawa [ng social media posts].”

The masterminds?

During the 2016 campaign period, Dominic says a certain Nic Gabunada was a constant fixture at the TBWA\SMP offices. He would stay in closed-door meetings with the TBWA\SMP management until the wee hours.

Gabunada never met with the actual staffers working on the campaign, and the TBWA\SMP team never got a big picture view of the campaign.

“The masterminds are not from the agency, galing sila sa labas,” Dominic said. “Kami lang ang nag-execute. ‘Yung volunteers naman sa social media.”

Last March, Gabunada was linked to a network of 200 social media pages, groups, and accounts taken down by Facebook for “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and “the use of fake accounts.”

“I really don’t know if our candidate used paid trolls,” Marty admitted, adding that because there was direct coordination with the campaign staff, “my team got a good idea naman of the strategy they were going for. If some of my questions didn’t get answered, I got the impression na it was for either security purposes or baka may tactical reason behind it.”

In contrast to Dominic and Marty’s accounts, Jayde described the lack of a “mastermind” in his electoral campaign experience: “Hindi lang isa ang kausap namin kaya may times na parang hindi single-minded ang gustong sabihin. Usually ‘di naman ‘yung kandidato kausap mo and sometimes those who are involved all have different agendas.”

The incentives

Come election season, voters are not the only ones selecting candidates to support. Advertising agencies also have to decide whether to enter into business dealings with political parties and electoral candidates. TBWA\SMP, for example, had to assess Duterte’s 2016 election rhetoric and weigh his threats of violence against his promise of change.

“He was a polarizing candidate; people were willing to ignore the red flags to bet on the hope that he would truly change the country,” Alex acknowledged. “I heard the partners personally met with him and flew to Davao to see things for themselves. Like everyone else, they saw the good. He appeared down-to-earth, and was seemingly a man of his word, capable of running a town with tapang at malasakit.”

At a time when the political race appeared to be dominated by elitist oligarchs, TBWA\SMP chose to back the provincial underdog. But this idealistic stance was only part of a larger set of factors considered in deciding to take on the Duterte campaign.

In the Philippines, the advertising industry thrives because it is crucial for the sale of consumer goods and services. Contracts between brands and agencies are consistently in the millions. Political accounts are even more valuable because the clients usually pay in cold, hard cash with no paper trail. Advertising agencies of all sizes are known to distribute their staff to work under different legal entities in order to service competing candidates without conflict of interest.

Ad spending for each of the top candidates have been reported to reach hundreds of millions, and that’s just for buying media placements which are recorded in the ad placement data of Nielsen Media. The cost of production of the ads are not publicly available.

The alternative

Rather than the complicated and costly route of engaging an advertising agency, first-time candidate Chel Diokno opted to keep his senatorial campaign communications in-house, or more specifically, in-the-family.

“I have a background in media and advertising, and my brother has a background in social media,” Pepe Diokno, Chel’s son explained.

Backed by volunteers dubbed the “CHELdren,” they covered everything from the uncommon choice of teal or mint green as campaign color, to messaging and coaching for media interviews and debates. They designed campaign materials, and circulated the credentials, quotes, and stories of their “woke Lolo.”

“Family” is also a term that describes the team of Tiffany Mason Tagudin, Chief of Staff of Samira Gutoc’s senatorial campaign.

“[We] are a bunch of genuine supporters and staff clustered together by fate and circumstances,” Tagudin said, adding that they could not afford to hire an advertising agency. “We all have our strengths and we used them to our advantage. We multi-tasked a lot and worked long hours to get the job done.”

The solution?

With our country’s future at stake, the relationship between the advertising industry and politicians needs to be examined. Both Dominic and Mario agreed that there is nothing wrong with agencies taking on political clients as long as they disclose their partnership in the same way that campaign donations are declared.

“That’s the nature of the business, pero dapat may transparency involved,” Dominic said.

In the Philippines, election regulations are often more focused on the content and distribution of campaign ads rather than the business dealings behind the scenes. Even the establishment of mandatory caps on campaign advertising spending are futile against handshake dealings and untraceable cash transactions.

This has very real implications on our democracy. Advertising professionals can expertly manipulate information for political interests. If this expertise can be bought for the highest price without consequence, then our country might as well be up for sale to the highest bidder.

Currently, there’s little incentive for advertising agencies and political candidates to disclose their dealings. It’s a blind spot that can be exploited for shady dealings and a rich source of speculation.

“Kawawa ‘yung mga new hires, they’re being blamed but they weren’t even here in 2016,” Dominic said. “If there’s transparency all around, there’s no one to blame.”

Mario likewise bemoans the “crucifixion” of talented people who helped candidates win.

“We ought to respect and celebrate their works — and even learn — what they’ve done right and what makes successful campaigns tick,” he stressed.

After Duterte won the presidency, Dominic’s team was invited to the victory party. The other advertising professionals interviewed for this piece were not as lucky. (“Talo,” said one, simply. “We were just hired help,” said another.)

“Nagdadalawang isip na kami then,” Dominic recalled, “Hindi na sana kami pupunta. Pero ‘yun, we went. And just got drunk.”

Looking back, Alex still believes that the TBWA\SMP management made a risky but worthwhile decision.

“Things have certainly turned out differently now, but I don't think that's completely their fault,” she concluded.

In contrast, Dominic is wistful: “If I knew then what I know now about Duterte? I wouldn’t have taken it on.”

The Philippine advertising industry will have the benefit of hindsight when the 2022 elections come around. Given increased scrutiny from the public, and possible regulation from the COMELEC, advertising agencies may be unable to keep their political dealings under wraps for much longer. The way forward could lie in a principle dictating the practice of honesty and accountability in the industry: “truth in advertising.” When the stakes are as high as the elections that determine our country’s future, a little “truth in advertising” should not be too much to ask.