Justin Trudeau’s winning campaign

From a third-place candidate deemed 'not ready' to 24 Sussex Drive

Chris Powell November 01, 2015

David Rosenberg had the dream again last night. As he has nearly every night since Oct. 19, the Bensimon Byrne partner and chief creative officer woke with a start, a script for a commercial that will never be shot still bouncing around in his head.

As a principal on the team that oversaw the Liberal Party’s election advertising, the 78-day campaign had been simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating for Rosenberg.

He and the rest of his team at the Toronto agency have essentially been working seven days a week since being brought aboard by the Liberals in April. Workdays lasting 12-16 hours were commonplace; days lasting 16-20 hours weren’t unheard of.

“It’s something that pervades your entire life,” said Rosenberg a week after the election. “I’m still waking up in the middle of the night realizing that I’m dreaming about scripts and writing scripts in my head. It really does effect you from a physiological point of view, and it takes some time to decompress.”

Coffee was important. But, the team also made a point of eating as healthy as possible in an effort to counteract the stress and physical toll of the campaign. Since he wasn’t really sleeping to begin with, Rosenberg soon took to waking up at 5:30 a.m. to exercise.

There was that three-day “vacation” in the Muskokas, where he’d typically start working in the lobby at 6:30 a.m., then have a 9 a.m. breakfast with his wife Gillian before going to work poolside. “I was still working, but that kind of change of location was at least energizing,” he said.

All those long nights were quickly forgotten when Justin Trudeau swept to a majority government – 184 seats – in the Oct. 19 federal election. “You only do it because you believe in the candidate and you believe in what the candidate is all about,” said Rosenberg. “It is a work of the heart in every way.”

Over the course of the 78-day campaign, Rosenberg wilfully broke several heretofore unbreakable rules of political advertising, served as a stand-in for Trudeau on an escalator moving the wrong way (“exhausting”) and endured a 27-minute shoot with a testy “Hurricane” Hazel McCallion.

Oh, and he and his team also took a third-place candidate deemed “not ready” all the way to 24 Sussex.

The Liberals brought in Rosenberg and Bensimon Bryne in April, less than a year after the agency had led a campaign for the Kathleen Wynn Liberals that produced a majority government in the Ontario election. The agency’s Liberal credentials were impeccable, having also previously worked with federal candidate Paul Martin and provincial candidate Dalton McGuinty.

They inherited a client languishing in the polls. According to an Ipsos poll conducted for Global News in April, Trudeau was Canada’s third choice for prime minister with 30% support, behind Harper (38%) and Mulclair (31%).

As campaigning officially got underway, the Conservatives’ steady drumbeat that Trudeau was “just not ready” seemingly resonated with voters. In a Forum Research poll released in early September, 47% of respondents felt the Liberals and Trudeau were not ready to lead the country.

But, the agency also inherited a candidate with vigour, someone highly engaged with the campaign process. “He’s into it man,” said Rosenberg. “He’s got a ton of youthful energy – more than anybody I’ve ever worked with.

A big no-no in advertising is parroting the language your opponents are using against you (It would be akin to Pepsi saying, “No, WE’RE the real thing”) but Rosenberg’s team made a calculated decision early in the campaign to tackle Harper’s message head on.

The “Ready” ad showed Trudeau walking in the shadow of the Parliament Hill, telling viewers what he was not ready for: “I’m not ready to stand by as our economy slides into recession,” he said. “Not ready to watch hard-working Canadians lose jobs, and fall further behind.”

The ad debuted in August, and immediately… had no discernible impact on voter intention. Research showed it resonated, but the timing was lousy. “Hardly anyone was paying attention at all,” said Rosenberg. “All of the internal numbers about leadership started to score off the chart, but none of the voter numbers moved.”

Things finally began looking up with September’s Escalator ad. Trudeau’s indefatigability was embodied during the shoot, which required him to spend upwards of 90 minutes continuously walking up a down escalator. “It takes a lot of physical effort,” said Rosenberg. “I was the stand-in, and I can tell you having been on the escalator for a few minutes that it was exhausting.”

Political advertising tends to eschew set pieces that can be easily mocked or mimicked – both comedian Rick Mercer and Toronto NDP candidate Noah Richler created their own version of the ad – but Rosenberg felt it was a perfect metaphor for Canadians under the Harper government.

“It was a metaphor designed to show how stagnant the last 10 years have been under Harper, [but] it opens you up to criticism and parody. All of that attention worked in our favour.” The ad has been viewed more than three million times on YouTube, and Rosenberg credits it as one of the key pieces of communication in the campaign.

It also seemed to strike a chord with Canadians. A mid-September Ekos poll, not long after the ad appeared, revealed the parties were now in a virtual three-way tie, with 29.9% of respondents saying they would vote NDP, followed by 29.6% for the Conservatives and 27.4% for the Liberals, with Ekos predicting it would be “highly unlikely” for a party to form a majority government.

Trudeau may have been going the wrong way in the Escalator ad, but his campaign was turning around. The “Do I look scared to you?” ad that debuted in towards the end of the campaign proved particularly resonant with voters in the key Greater Toronto Area battleground.

The ad featured “Hurricane” Hazel McCallion, who served as Mississauga Mayor for 36 years, addressing the Conservatives’ claim that a Trudeau government would cancel income splitting for seniors.

The agency had already recorded a radio spot with Trudeau addressing the issue, but it hadn’t aired. Around 6 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 10, Trudeau advisor Gerald Butts emailed Rosenberg suggesting they create another ad. Could they perhaps use Hazel?

Sitting in his mother-in-law’s cottage, Rosenberg wrote the script in just 15 minutes. “It just poured out of me,” he said.

The shoot took place three days later in McCallion’s office. She gave the crew just 27 minutes before kicking them out, getting irritated when they asked to do re-shoots using different focal lengths.

“She was saying ‘What do you mean I have to do it again?’ We had to find a way to talk to her that would allow her to repeat the performance,” said Rosenberg. He was unsure he had the performance he needed until he got back to his office, gleefully watching as Hazel, close-up showing the lines in her face, uttered the words, “Do I look scared to you, Stephen?”

“It put the final nail in the coffin,” said Rosenberg. “It talks to the broader notion of deception in the Conservative government, and it was effective.”

In an Oct. 13 poll shortly after the ad appeared, an Ekos poll said there had been some “potentially significant” movement after the long weekend, with Liberal support climbing to 35.6%, a 2.5% increase over the previous week.

The final ad of the campaign was shot during an Oct. 4 rally at the Powerade Centre in Brampton, with 7,000 people in attendance. Rosenberg had been given an advance copy of Trudeau’s speech, and knew that it would be emotionally resonant.

There were five cameras on hand for the rally, three trained on Trudeau and two roving cameras designed to capture audience reaction. The 60-second ad builds to an emotional high point before fading to red, followed by a slow fade-in of the only word in the script: “Ready.”

“It was the last word that needed to be said in this campaign,” said Rosenberg. “It was completely self-evident after 78 days on the campaign trail, and how powerful this particular speech was and how we captured it, that this was a man who was ready for the job.”

After watching a rough cut of the ad, Rosenberg sent an email to Butts bearing the subject line “Sweet Jesus.”

The ad debuted Oct. 9 and appeared that weekend during high-profile programming such as Toronto Blue Jays games. Nanos Research tracking on Oct. 18, the day before the election, showed the Liberals with 37.3% support, which carried over into Election Day. This was no dream.