First published in the Sunday Times on 13th November 2016.
What conclusions should business draw from Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the American presidential election?
I don’t mean thoughts on policy or economic matters. Rather, I’m referring to the way in which an outsider took on the system and won — as happened here with the “leave” campaign in the EU referendum. What can we learn from these extraordinary upsets?
Each contest showed that an entrepreneurial group can beat huge institutional opposition. In the run-up to the referendum, a relatively small number of anti-EU activists and their backers was pitted against the entire political and business establishment, yet came out on top. The “remain” campaign had the government, the International Monetary Fund, President Barack Obama and the EU itself on its side, and still it lost.
This was an example of how a small, enterprising team can defeat a much better resourced opponent if their marketing, narrative and leadership are better. It is why entrepreneurs are able to succeed against multinationals in many markets. Innovation, adaptability and sheer determination can overcome long odds against complacent, slow-moving big business.
Trump smashed the Republican elite because he did not fight by their rules. He ignored the views of much of the metropolitan media and used radical means to communicate with the electorate. Both he and the “leave” campaign employed emotional, intuitive tactics to win hearts and minds.
Hillary Clinton and most of the “remain” side lacked charisma and felt fake to many, whereas Brexit figurehead Boris Johnson and Donald Trump came across as authentic, and utilised humour to engage with voters.
The Trump victory was a compelling reminder that television is still the most powerful medium for building a brand. Without his prime-time role in The Apprentice over 11 years and 14 series, he would never have had a hope of gaining the presidency. Trump is a massive star in America and has deployed that celebrity to devastating effect.
We all watch TV, but it was only during the six years I chaired Channel 4 — and dealt with a mini-crisis over the show Big Brother — that I saw first-hand how it captures the public’s attention like nothing else.
Many commentators have pointed out that the pollsters and experts got the result of the presidential election badly wrong, just as they did with the referendum. To me, this colossal failure of the big-data crunchers is no tragedy. I rejoice in the fact that gut instinct can still conquer computers. Politics remains unpredictable and very human. Artificial intelligence has a way to go before it runs our lives.
All this continues to create huge opportunities for bold, imaginative entrepreneurs who can outmanoeuvre giant corporates that are addicted to committees and spreadsheets.
Another obvious deduction from the Trump and “leave” victories is that you need to get out of capital cities to really understand what’s going on in a country. Clinton spent too much time among like-minded folk in richer, coastal areas. She never connected with the heartlands. David Cameron & Co were ensconced in London and insulated from the discontent in the regions. Similarly, to build a company you must truly understand your customers and spend time with them.
Trump and the pro-Brexit lobby benefited from not trying to convince Millennials of their merits. They knew the educated twenty and thirtysomethings were a lost cause, and judged correctly that the grey market is huge, with the likelihood of much higher voter turnout.
Several of my businesses are aimed at the latter demographic. Older people make vastly less noise on social media, but they hold the cards in an ageing society — economically and in sheer numbers. We all suffer from group think, but I suspect the Democrats and the “remain” campaigners listened too hard to their young tech gurus, whose opinions reflected their contemporaries.
And Trump and Ukip frontman Nigel Farage have shown that political correctness is deeply unpopular among large sections of the population. You may not like either man, but it played well to the galleries. The cultural elite sneered at those who supported Brexit and Trump, but this condescending attitude was a gift to the other side. When marketing to ordinary people, do not over-intellectualise the proposition — and if The Guardian and the BBC are outraged, all the better.
Ultimately, just as the “remain” camp lost the referendum they could have won, Clinton lost an election she should have won. She was overconfident and blew her chances. I saw the “leave” campaign first hand and in some respects it was shambolic, but the remainers made more mistakes.
You do not always have to fight brilliantly to win a battle; you just have to do better than the other lot. I have won bids and tenders because others were weak and played badly, not because I was strong or played especially well. In life, sport and business, you only need to be good enough.
Of course, winning the election is just the start. For Trump — and our government — the hard work has yet to come.