9 mins to read

Sir Bob Harvey remembers inventing modern election ads — and has advice for Cunliffe

Sun, 27 Jul 2014

RAW DATA: TVNZ Q+A Transcipt: Corin Dann interviews Sir Bob Harvey

Watch the full interview here.

SUSAN WOOD         Sir Bob Harvey was behind the transformation of Norm Kirk, and one of New Zealand's most popular Prime Ministers.  He also advised Bill Rowling, David Lange and Helen Clark, the latter as Labour Party President.  Wild Westie a new book about his life has just been released and Sir Bob joins Corin now.

CORIN DANN          Sir Bob thank you very much for joining us.  Reading your book I was surprised just how much of a role you have had in national politics, over the years, and the thing I wanted to ask you first was, what was it that drew you in?  Was it the big personalities that were around, or was it the politics and the policy?

SIR BOB HARVEY – Former Labour Party President and ad agency executive

                    I guess that I invented electioneering as it was and is now in New Zealand in 1969 with Norman Kirk.  I saw a real role.  Look I had a business and I wanted to grow that business and it was a very successful business.  And what was missing was a political spin, if you like, in this country.  Everything was forbidden.  You weren't allowed to treat no music, no slogans, no nothing really, no billboards, no TV of course.  And so I worked with a couple of pretty smart guys, Roger Donaldson, Dick Frizzell in the creation of what is the modern election campaign.

CORIN          Was it the politics driving you though, the desire for a change?

BOB             Well you had to believe in the client.  You know I'd come from a socialist background of course and so I went and saw Norman Kirk down in the Commercial Hotel and said look I've got some great ideas, I've just been to America.  I've got this great idea about a split screen technique, which was pretty new, I've got an idea about some music.  I've got an idea about pulling it all together.  And he heard that and said give this young guy a chance.

CORIN          But did you recognise also that you needed the raw talent, did you see that?

BOB             Of course.  Look when you talk about raw talent, this guy's 6ft 2in, and about 30 stone.  I mean is that raw talent?  I could see that.  I could see the potential of this phenomenal man in New Zealand politics.


CORIN          And I guess why I asked that is because we're coming into an election campaign, there’s a lot of interest.  Can anybody be made over?  Can  you sell any political party if you get the strategy right and the ads right?  I mean Labour for example right now with a leader who is struggling.  Could you turn that around with the right advertising campaign?


BOB             Yes, yes you can.  Yes you can.


CORIN          Any ideas?


BOB             I'm not, well I used to be in that business, and they haven't asked me lately.  But the fact is David Lange is probably the most – the classic example of that.  Bill Rowling was much loved in the party, and he was a terrific adorable man, but he hadn’t made it.  Mike Moore and I went out to a garage in Mangere and there is a very large person, David Lange, who we'd seen walking up town, was a lawyer, and he was out there.  And we spent an hour with David Lange who was about to go in and get his stomach stapled. Of which 50% died 10 days later.  It was a serious operation in those days.  And in the car back to Mike Moore's house, I said Mike he's it.  He has got a brilliant brain, he has got enormous charisma and the party didn’t think that, I think they thought he was a bit of a clown to be honest.  And he had those jokes, those running gags.  But I saw and so did Mike Moore, the brilliance, the leadership, the statesmanship in Lange.

CORIN          Do you see that – do  you see that David Cunliffe because I mean he's a smart guy, he's really struggling at the moment.  Do you think – what would your advice be to him?

BOB             I don’t know if the party would take it, but I'd say look get your act together.  They’ve got a great campaign and great agency Running With Scissors who are smart, and it's a different world than the Lange and Kirk world of course.  The whole climate is different, and you’ve got a very popular PM, and you’ve got a reasonable – well I think that we're bored.  We've been knocked off with election campaigns, and the media is fierce.

CORIN          So you’re a bit of a maverick

BOB             Of course

CORIN          So you’d throw the script out?

BOB             America’s Cup - we had it and then someone came back and took it away from us.  It's never over till it's over, and the campaign really hasn’t started.  I haven't heard any music, I haven't seen any slogans, I haven't seen any – sounds a bit cheap by the way, but branding, and I haven't seen the enormity of the social media.  You see that’s where I think it's at.  And we're looking at polls that are done by phoning people at home.  Who the hell is at home?  Who's in the phone book?  We're all on cellphones.  No one has been rung on a cellphone and asked who we're gonna vote for isn't it.


CORIN          Is this superficial though?  I mean if you're saying it can be won if we spin it right?


BOB             Yeah I'm saying that.  Because that is the way popularity grows.  If you come from behind.  Yes this is the world of buying and selling.  I mean the television studios, this is the very heart of selling us something, you sell it and there's a programme to look at next day, next hour.  This is the world of elections.


CORIN          Which is interesting because you're working in an ad agency and yet you were sort of associating yourself with socialism early on.


BOB             I'm still a socialist.


CORIN          You don’t see any conflict between those two?


BOB             Why would I?  This is what the book is about.  This is like how there are terrific brains around.  They're not often in here, but they're out there where you move opinions.  And I think that is important in elections.  I went and worked I remember with the Kennedy campaign in Los Angeles to get ideas on campaigning with Ted Kennedy.  He didn’t stand finally but it was a terrific eye opener.  I brought some of the world's best techniques together for Lange and for Mike Moore.


CORIN          So your message to David Cunliffe is not give up hope, that he can get through.


BOB             Of course not.  I mean it's just starting.  There's things there, and of course you’ve got Dotcom lurking in the wings, and you’ve got all those other issues that can move things, a sea-change can happen overnight.


CORIN          Does he need to throw the script out though, because he's getting advice from all over the place.  Does he need to do something unpredictable that really grabs people's attention?


BOB             Well of course.  I mean the secret is being free, the secret is loosening up, the secret is talking to people, talking not at people, but with people.  This community, New Zealand is a very passionate, isolated, and very complex country and if you get that right, like Lange got certainly Kirk got, that’s what my book is about, and Clark.  You can't underestimate.  Helen didn’t have terrific charisma, but my God she had great management skills.  She was a phenomena, and working with her as President of course was a different world.  When I went from the world of Kirk and Lange where the party controlled the money the finances and the branding, I found a different world.


CORIN          You found it tough didn’t you as President?


BOB             I found it tough as President because my role working with the remarkable Rob Allen who was the Secretary at the time, was to bring the money together, and we brought about $2.3 million.


CORIN          And you were outspoken because you got in trouble for raising this idea that the CIA knocked off Norm Kirk.  You still believe that don’t you?


BOB             Yeah I do.  Well no I don’t actually – I'm not saying that – I'm not saying the CIA knocked off Norm Kirk.  I say Kirk I felt was removed, and I put a whole lot of dots together which thought in those times he was so outspoken about dealing with China, dealing with Russia, at a time of the oil crisis, and suddenly this robust man with enormous energy, starts to deteriorate within six months.  He is going downhill, he's getting seizures, I'm thinking what goes.  So if you put a whole lot of those things together on the table, we didn’t do enough work about the loss of a phenomenal Prime Minister.


CORIN          Sir Bob Harvey, thank you very much for your time.  Appreciate it.

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Sir Bob Harvey remembers inventing modern election ads — and has advice for Cunliffe