What I learnt from Led By Donkeys

Last night I went to a Q & A with the political campaign group Led By Donkeys [Twitter link, they don’t have a website]. They are the people responsible for posting tweets by politicians on billboards, projecting messages onto Buckingham Palace and raking huge embarrassing messages in the sand.

This event was organised by D&AD, the design and advertising people. I was invited by D&AD winner and judge Joe Coleman and the event was held in Gorilla. I always expect the events to be in a more swish place – Gorilla is well grungy – but a venue normally used for gigs gives it a more intimate, chilled vibe. The lights did my head in a bit though.

Craig Oldham (standing up in the picture above) introduced the event and writer Ellen Ling hosted the Q&A. James Sadri (grey hoodie) and Will Rose (red shirt) were the Led By Donkeys members who came to talk to us.

About Led By Donkeys

Led By Donkeys started about a year ago.

I always thought they were a massive, slick political campaign organisation, but they’re actually four blokes and a WhatsApp group. In fact, they don’t describe themselves as political, although they very obviously hate the Tories, and are fiercely anti-Brexit. They said their campaigns are more about holding people to account – and they point out they included Jeremy Corbyn in their anti-Brexit campaign (for being silent).

They didn’t expect to get this big. They were annoyed with Brexit, and when they were talking about it in the pub, they decided to do something about it, just to vent! I thought it was interesting that the whole campaign came about because they wanted to do something for themselves, to make themselves feel better, rather than for other people. It shows that not everything good has to come from a purely altruistic perspective.

They started with no funding and now they’re crowdfunded. They all have day jobs and families (no, I have no idea how they fit all this in either).

“Led By Donkeys” comes from a quote from a German officer watching British troops in the First World War. The full quote is “Lions Led By Donkeys” but the hashtag was too long.

Campaigns by Led By Donkeys

Their first campaigns were guerrilla ones, which means they were anonymous and they didn’t pay for the billboards they used (which I didn’t realise before).

They made up the posters of tweets by various politicians and had them printed in Northern Ireland on 48-sheets. A billboard is called a 48-sheet but is actually made up of 12 pieces of paper. These 12 pieces were posted to Led By Donkeys, and they snuck out at night to put them up on billboards. They started in London, then gradually expanded to different locations.

One of the group encouraged them to “own the space” which means looking like you’re supposed to be there. They showed us footage of them putting up the posters and I thought they were being done by proper professionals at first – because they had all the hi-viz gear and looked like they knew what they were doing.

They didn’t. They told us they looked for YouTube videos on how to put up billboard posters, and said you can find a YouTube video on everything – except that. But they worked it out eventually and got their posters up.

The actual billboard was only a part of the campaign. Getting it to go viral online was essential to reach more people, and this was done not only by locals snapping a photo and sharing it, but also by getting local media involved as well.

After they were Crowdfunded (they told us Crowdfunder actually approached them, not the other way round, and also kept them anonymous at first), they started doing other stuff, like raking messages on beaches that you could see from space, and producing crowd banners to put over people’s heads at demonstrations. They got more people involved as well.

Political attitude

One thing I really liked about Led By Donkeys was their political attitude. They don’t come across as very radical, and they’re not supportive of any particular party.

They stated several times that this was about “holding people to account”. For what these politicians said, the disaster of Brexit they inflicted upon us, for lying. It was more about this – and about caring about things like the NHS – that motivated them, rather than hate or tribalism that you seen in other parts of the political landscape.

On the Leave march, they put up billboards for the marchers to walk past, as well as mobile billboards to park in front of the open-top bus. Most of these were embarrassing tweets by Nigel Farage but one also asked “Where’s Nigel?” (he wasn’t on much of the march). They took a photo of the marchers outside the Unicorn pub and were about to post it online, but then remembered – this was never about tribalism. It wasn’t about attacking people. And they didn’t want to post a picture of the marchers to make fun of them, or in a context where they might be made fun of.

I thought it was really brave to admit this – and to pull themselves back in the first place. On both sides of the political spectrum – left and right, Brexit and anti-Brexit – I see so much vitriol, nastiness and a fostering of a “them and us” attitude. Which doesn’t help anyone. So that was an interesting and valuable thing to learn.

What I learnt from this talk

Which brings me to the point of this blog post, which is “What I learnt from Led By Donkeys.”

People can’t argue with their own words

One of Led By Donkeys big strengths is that they didn’t start with a big political, simplistic statement. They just put people’s own words up – originally Tweets but later moved to things politicians said in the paper or in Parliament.

It’s really hard to start an argument or have a go at people when you’re just sharing things they said, without comment.

They had support from each other and their families

This was a big one. They all have young kids – in fact, one of them was at Paw Patrol Live when they did the big crowd banner in Parliament Square!

They were keen to emphasise that they couldn’t have done this without their partners’ support. They also admitted – and this was a bit of a tough one – that their kids had suffered as a result of their campaigning. Not directly but as a result of Daddy being stressed, or depressed, or just being away. They acknowledged the sacrifices they’ve made, but as Will said “There is too much at stake just to give up.” They care about their kids’ future – and our future – which is why they keep going.

The group all understand that each member has family commitments. They stated there was an “unspoken understanding, compassion, sympathy” for people’s needs outside campaigning. James said how much he loves working in that environment and I think that “unspoken understanding” thing is something that should be applied to a lot of work places.

You can do this too

This was far and away the biggest takeaway for me.

I have so much in common with these guys – I have a day job, kids, a deep-seated anger about Brexit and some pretty crazy ideas. But I’ve never crept out at night to illegally put profanity on a billboard (this was the Boris Johnson quote “F*** business” which they were in two minds about because of kids seeing it and stuff, but ultimately went ahead with).

They were totally upfront about the fact that they didn’t know what they were doing. It was all seat-of-the-pants stuff – with the Parliament Square banner, they had the idea on Monday, got the banner printed by Friday (it was massive and heavy) and the march was on the Saturday. They even hired a helicopter to film it from above!

They didn’t know how to do any of this stuff when they started. They googled it, they learnt as they want along, and after a while, they found other people to work with who knew more than they did.

I found that massively inspiring. I have always stopped myself doing stuff because I don’t know how to do it – and it’s not just the finding out, cos y’know, I have the google. It’s more about putting those limitations on myself, worrying that other people will think I’m an idiot for blundering on without fully appreciating the enormity or complexity of the task.

This was my favourite quote of the evening:

“We have no skills, talents or ideas that are better than anyone else’s in this room.”

James Sadri, Led By Donkeys

That’s just incredible. They followed that up with this advice:

“Just do it, give it a try.”

Will Rose, Led By Donkeys

They truly believe that if they can do it, any of us can take a stand about the things we care about too.

My personal feelings about Led By Donkeys

Before this evening, I obviously already liked Led By Donkeys as a campaign group. I thought they were cool, brave, well organised and I really liked their name!

I like what they’re doing. I like how they make fun of the people who are doing such a terrible job of running the country. I love how inventive they are – I’m a sucker for a good stunt. I like how they’ve got so many people behind them. And most of all, I like how they have given us hope.

Having seen them in real life, I now find them incredibly inspirational. They are just ordinary people – albeit those with great courage, commitment and passion for what they do. They were so humble as well! I met them in the bar afterwards to say thank you for everything they’ve done. Like truly humble people, they thanked me for turning up to their event.

It was an insightful, funny and inspiring evening. I’m off to buy myself a hi-viz jacket and a ladder now…

You can read more about Led By Donkeys on their Wikipedia page, and follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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