Startup lessons in strategy & execution from Led By Donkeys

Well, January 31 came and we left the European Union, and already the schism between Boris Johnson and Michel Barnier on constitutional, economic and cultural consequences is apparent. Putting aside your political views, one aspect of the Brexit campaign that start-ups can learn from is the stunning communication strategy of one political lobbying group, Led By Donkeys, itself a startup venture formed to join the Brexit debate.

Formed in December 2018, Led By Donkeys is a British anti-Brexit political campaign group which used satire targeted at pro-Brexit politicians, calling out ‘thermonuclear hypocrisy’. Led By Donkeys’ main campaign consisted of billboards containing past tweets by pro-Brexit politicians, which appeared to undermine the politicians’ current political position, or clearly have not stood the test of time.

The campaign was initially run as a guerrilla marketing operation, in which Led By Donkeys posters were plastered over existing adverts. It was then expanded into a crowdfunded campaign, which purchased advertising space on hundreds of billboards across the UK.

Later the group staged real-life stunts, including projecting messages on iconic places such as the Houses of Parliament and the White Cliffs of Dover, carving giant tweets and messages on beaches and fields, and directing crowds to unfurl huge flags at marches. The videos of these stunts were subsequently viewed millions of times on social media. Led By Donkeys won the award for Best Social Media Campaign in the 2019 ‘Social Purpose Awards’.

In December 2018, two years after the Referendum, four friends were discussing their frustrations with the Brexit situation in the pub. The four founders – Oliver Knowles, Ben Stewart, James Sadri and Will Rose all have a connection with environmental campaign group Greenpeace. In the Referendum, they had all voted ‘remain’. They were laughing in disbelief as they passed a phone around displaying a David Cameron tweet from 2015, saying Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband.

While brainstorming how the tweet could be preserved, one of them noticed a billboard outside. They decided to print it out and paste it up. Each of them then chose a pro-Brexit politician they despised the most and looked for their ‘most offensive lies, lunacy and hypocrisy’ to go on billboards too.

Rose designed the posters, whilst Sadri came up with Lions led by donkeys, a phrase referring to soldiers in WWI who were sent to their deaths by incompetent and indifferent leaders. They thought it described the relationship between the British people and their Brexit leaders well.

Rose shortened it to #LedByDonkeys. The activists bought a ladder, high-visibility jackets to look legitimate, a bucket, a roller and wallpaper paste, and late at night on 8 January 2019 they illegally plastered the David Cameron tweet over an existing advert on a billboard. They posted a photo of the billboard to their new Twitter account and asked The Guardian journalist Marina Hyde to retweet it – resulting in #LedByDonkeys trending. Within a day their billboard poster was removed.

The group then illegally pasted the other four original tweets on billboards around London, aiming to spark a discussion about the promises of leading Brexiteers. They chose Dover, a pro-Brexit constituency, as their next location. They selected four additional historical Brexiteer statements, among which was Dominic Raab’s 2018 statement I hadn’t quite understood the full extent of this but … we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing.

On 16 January 2019, they tweeted photos of the four Dover billboards, along with the message A busy night on the Brexit frontline. We’ve covered Dover in the historic quotes of the people responsible for this chaos. Britain is a nation #LedByDonkeys. This was the moment when they went viral. The next day all four posters were removed by the billboard company.

The activists deplored the tribalism triggered by Brexit and agreed that going national was needed. Their followers suggested that they set up a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to legitimately fund billboards. Initially the group resisted this, believing that their acts being illegal was an important part of the activism of the project.

They also feared they would have to give up their anonymity, but crowdfunder.co.uk confirmed they could stay anonymous, and set a fundraising target of £10k. It was reached within three hours. By November the group had raised £500k and became the biggest crowdfunded political campaign in UK history.

But their campaign of holding pro-Brexit politicians accountable for past promises and exposing their flipflopping views did not achieve their goal. The pro-Brexit parties won the majority of seats in the General Election, and the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020. That day, Led By Donkeys projected a video message to the EU on the White Cliffs of Dover featuring WWII veterans expressing sadness about leaving the EU and hope that one day Britain will be together with Europe again. The video of the projection was seen a million times on Brexit Day. Follow this link: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1_zs2ezzvpiR26ZiEqj4l9PsX55PalHj5

As a startup, Led By Donkeys made its mark. The creative thinking was brilliant in its meditative simplicity, the campaign was witty and subversive. In just twelve months, four blokes armed with a £90 ladder from B&Q, four hi-vis jackets and a bucket of wallpaper paste reached over 300 billboards and an audience of 30 million – what are the lessons for other startup ventures?

1.     Have a purpose

Britain voted ‘leave’ in June 2016, since when the UK political system has been in turmoil. Like many others, four everyday blokes had a chat about it in the pub, but rather than just getting angry, they decided to do something about it.

Politicians had either been liberal with the truth or changed their minds so much that it was difficult to know where they stood. They aimed to fill the void that had opened up in the usually balanced UK political landscape. It was missing a nugget of truth and a splash of British humour.

2.     Know your strategy

The idea was simple: uncover the truth, in the format of a Tweet you can’t delete. Going though the social feeds, interviews and articles of Brexit-supporting politicians’ to reveal their claims about Brexit in the past and contrast them with the stark reality we found ourselves in. These would be displayed publicly across the UK, focusing on pro-Brexit areas.

Led By Donkeys opted for a humble screengrab as their design of choice. These were displayed loud and proud on billboards, poster sites and digital advertising vans, plus later in the campaign, took projections to key locations across Europe including Westminster, Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, the Glastonbury Festival and the EU Parliament itself in Brussels.

3.     Be clear in your tactics and agile on timing

Led By Donkeys gave people a voice when they needed it most. They responded to events on a daily basis, consistently picking up the Leave protagonists with killer timing and wit, all of which galvanised their supporters and strengthened their reach, which in turn drove funding into their Crowdfunder cause.

Key locations around the country were identified: where Brexit tensions were at their highest, political leaders were based or key Brexit events were taking place. Meanwhile, at the People’s March in central London, their massive banner became the defining image, making headlines worldwide. When the Brexit Party announced their intention to stand in the European elections without a published manifesto, the quartet dutifully obliged by pasting previous political statements on billboards across the UK.

As campaigners, they developed objectives and a critical pathway and a tactics to meet those objectives. They injected passion and edge into the national conversation, even if they admitted that the viscosity of their wallpaper paste was way off at times. The campaign was challenging, thought-provoking, timing and speed was of the essence. They hit the mark every single day.

4.     Focus on intelligent thinking to shape your content

They brought the Greenpeace ethos of the mindbomb of campaigning, where one single picture can shift people’s perceptions. Humour played a key part too, making fun of politicians broke through the partisan atmosphere.

They not only made fun of Brexiteers, they also ridiculed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for his ambivalent stance on Brexit with an empty billboard. They left three cans of spray paint and a stepladder by the poster as an encouragement for passers-by to write their own comments. They also worked with artist Cold War Steve to collaborate on a billboard site at the Glastonbury Festival.

When the EU were considering giving the UK an extension to the original deadline of 29 March 2019, Led By Donkeys used a giant projector to display a video on the White Cliffs of Dover. Their goal was to ask the EU leaders for much more time, so that there could be a second referendum. The video displayed an SOS in blue, with the ‘O’ made up of yellow stars, to mimic the EU flag. EU leader Guy Verhofstadt tweeted back the next day that it was “quite something to see the White Cliffs of Dover turn blue”.

In the final week before the General Election, they crowdfunded £250k within 24 hours to run anti-Brexit ads on Facebook. Three ads were each viewed more than one million times. The group organised the carving of a giant message on a Devon beach, with six doctors and nurses writing You can’t trust Boris Johnson with our NHS. GPS technology was used to draw the outlines of the letters and Johnson. The NHS staff filled it in.

5.     Adopt multi-channel communication

Led By Donkeys became the biggest crowdfunded political campaign in UK history, enabling it to have a huge impact in the crowded Brexit narrative.

  • 340,000 followers in total on social media. They follow no one.
  • Reach of 3m on Twitter, with over 1.5m retweets and 3m likes
  • Viewed over 2m times on YouTube
  • The physical poster sites have reached 30 million people.
  • Staggering editorial media reach of 1,400,000,000.

Their provocative marketing campaign flew in the face of modern media trends, using traditional ‘paper and paste’ billboards for illicit messaging, not fast-turnaround, digital screens. There is a trinity of outdoor imagery, online sharing and public interaction in local communities that was at the heart of their approach. Creating political street theatre up and down the country allowed them to hack the local and regional media and to get a conversation going on local community Facebook groups.

Led By Donkeys eschewed the civil disobedience-style approach of Extinction Rebellion but believed strongly in the value of participation to counter apathy and dejection. Their multi-channel communication approach ensured their reach, broadcast and social media footprint resonated with both original and user generated content.

It had its faults, but the EU was a stupendous economic, political and cultural achievement: peace, open borders, relative prosperity, and the encouragement of individual rights, tolerance and freedom of expression. That’s over, and for now the domestic agenda is English nationalism, set by Johnson’s Vote Leave cabinet of mocking grins, whose monument will forever be a special kind of smirk, perfected back from Led Donkeys.

They have vowed to continue their campaign to secure honest, democratic communication from our politicians. Make sure your startup adopts the vision, passion, strategy and tactics of Led By Donkeys, and who knows you’ll make your own mark too in under 12 months.