Today we’re joined by Sean Topham, co-founder of Topham Guerin, a global creative and digital agency. Sean and his team have worked on campaigns around the world, from Australia to the UK, where they’re always bringing cutting edge, envelope pushing creative ideas to the table.
Sean’s fresh off a big win in his native New Zealand where TikTok played a major role in the political conversation. We learn more about the New Zealand National Party’s victory, what Sean and his team learned about tiktok, and how conservatives can apply these lessons in the united states.
00:00 Introduction and Background
01:13 State of Play in New Zealand Politics
03:13 The National Party's Strategy for 2023 Elections
06:17 The Importance of TikTok in the Campaign
10:11 Overcoming Challenges and Embracing TikTok
16:08 Types of Effective Videos for the Campaign
21:32 Results and Impact of TikTok Strategy
25:57 Addressing Security and Policy Concerns
29:27 Advice for Republican Candidates in the US
32:09 Conclusion and Call to Action
Eric Wilson (00:10.075)
I'm Eric Wilson, Managing Partner of Startup Caucus, the home of campaign tech innovation on the right. Welcome to the Business of Politics show. On this podcast, you're joining in on a conversation with entrepreneurs, operatives, and experts who make professional politics happen. Today we're joined by Sean Topham, co-founder of Topham-Garren, a global creative and digital agency. Sean and his team have worked on campaigns around the world from Australia,
where I first met him to the United Kingdom, where they're always bringing cutting edge ideas, pushing the envelope creative to the table. Sean's fresh off a big win in his native New Zealand, where TikTok played a major role in the political conversation. We're going to learn more about New Zealand's national party's victory in the 2023 elections, what Sean and his team learned about TikTok and the lessons that we in the United States and elsewhere.
can take as we head into 2024.
Sean, before we dig in, we need to give a crash course on Kiwi politics and some of the finer points. So it's a parliamentary democracy. There's just one chamber called the House of Representatives and you have mixed member proportional representation, which means that voters actually cast two votes, one for a party and one for the local MP. You're a member of the National Party, which is the right of center party in Wellington, and you're coming off of a big win.
So give us the state of play of New Zealand politics and heading into 2023.
Sean Topham (01:48.874)
Yeah, well, it sort of goes back a little bit to the last election in 2020, where the incumbent government led by Jacinda Ardern won a massive victory at the time. It was obviously in the midst of the COVID response and that sort of news cycle. And they achieved a rare supermajority effectively.
Major parties in New Zealand don't get outright majorities or haven't for many, many years since the 90s.
because of our proportional representation system. And that's resulted in lots of coalition governments with minor parties coming together to help the major parties get enough seats to command a majority in the House. So with 2020 winning a massive majority for the Labour Party and Jacinda Ardern, the National Party got one of their worst ever electoral defeats. So quite a low result for them in the mid 20s, 25, 26%,
and only get 25, 26% of the seats in the parliament. So that sort of set the party on course for having to affect a massive shift, a massive turnaround over the next three years. Obviously one of the bigger events within these last three years to get to 2023, the party elected a new leader.
a first term MP, the former CEO of Air New Zealand. He's a former CEO of Unilever in North America. Really incredible sort of background experience.
Sean Topham (03:25.29)
but obviously pretty new to politics, having only been in the parliament for a few months before he became the leader of the party. And subsequently, he's in an election cycle in 2023. And we had a conversation with him and with the campaign director, Joe DeZue, sort of 12, 18 months ago about coming on board, knowing that digital and social media was gonna be exceptionally important. Because when you're in opposition with only 25% of the resources
seats, the cut through that you get, both in the mainstream media and just generally because of your size and footprint being so small is really low and they needed to rely more heavily.
sooner on digital and social media to amplify their work and their messages, their policies and all of their activities really, and to raise his profile as a political leader in the discourse. So that was sort of the overarching principle going into 2023.
Eric Wilson (04:27.347)
So lower than low in terms of electoral success, I think fair to say that Jacinda Ardern was kind of a global superstar. Everyone just assumed that she would cruise to reelection, but then we started to see the polls where she was slipping. People weren't happy with her COVID response. But to go from taking a brand new MP, new party leader,
and making him a prime minister in the course of one election cycle is pretty impressive. So give us the ending of the story first. Where did things end up?
Sean Topham (05:11.114)
Yeah, well it resulted in the biggest, I think it was the biggest swing in New Zealand electoral history. Yeah, the Labour Party go down from 50% of the vote to...
26, 27% of the vote, and he had national go from 25 to 38% of the vote. So a huge swing, and obviously once we added in the coalition partners, the smaller parties, we were able to form a government with the support of two minor parties. So yeah, to go from a lower than low result and a first term MP and leader turning that
Sean Topham (05:52.388)
a new government being sworn in, very, very impressive from all of the team that worked on the campaign. And it was particularly special to see that they were so invested in the campaign operations and building like a world-class team in a short space of time in, let's be honest, a very small, tiny country at the bottom of, or at the bottom of planet Earth. Yes, exactly.
Eric Wilson (06:17.423)
a very beautiful country at the bottom of the planet. And so one of the opportunities that you identified was TikTok. So why was that strategically important for the nationals?
Sean Topham (06:33.022)
Yeah, I would go as far to say from a social media comms perspective, TikTok was the most important decision we made early on, about 12, 18 months before the election, that we needed to be on the platform. We needed to be on the platform. We needed to be excellent.
Eric Wilson (06:47.815)
So that early, wow, okay.
Sean Topham (06:52.274)
on the platform in terms of the content and the way we engaged on the platform. We had to follow the aesthetics and trends. We needed to embrace the sort of TikTok community and...
the way influencers and content creators themselves use the platform. And we wanted to make sure there was genuine buy-in from all of the team who were gonna be working on it. Right from the leader, through the deputy leader, through to anyone who was working in the press team and stuff, everyone was really on board. And they learned and understood the platform and the community that was on it over time. But that investment started sort of 12 months ago because the key factor for us was like,
It's a big commitment of resource because on TikTok, you cannot run any paid political ads. You can't throw 100 grand behind something just so it can be seen by more eyeballs. You have to create good content. And creating good content obviously takes time and planning. And when you're working with people who don't have a lot of time to give, because they're busy, they're on the road, they're traveling, doing events and debates and debate prep, you have to make that time you use them for to develop that content.
that's really, you know, was of major importance to us. So we factored that in sort of 12 months ago. We said it was really important for two reasons, TikTok. One, younger voters. We didn't want to turn away from the possibility of reaching out to younger voters. We didn't want to buy into the sense that just because you're a conservative party who's unlikely to win younger voters doesn't mean you should completely ignore them or take them out of the message. In fact, if anything, Chris Luxen,
the leader and Joe DeZoo, the campaign director, were really committed to making sure that the campaign addressed a very wide audience and young voters were included in that. So TikTok.
Eric Wilson (08:45.275)
And what does turnout like in New Zealand? Is it very high? Yeah, so these young voters are gonna show up. It's not an issue of like trying to get them to turn.
Sean Topham (08:48.554)
Yeah, very high, around about 80.
Sean Topham (08:54.426)
Exactly, exactly. So that was the first reason that it was important to just generally as a social media platform, its organic reach, virality, ability.
for it to get immediate cut through on things when they perform really well is much stronger than any of the other social media networks from what I've seen in recent history in terms of getting cut through, getting a video out there, amplifying it if it's performing well. So that was why we just had to double down on the platform. It became our number one.
tool for the whole campaign. It actually reoriented the way we supported that campaign. Everything was video centric. It was a video centric strategy. In the past when you'd have a row of graphic designers working on a campaign, now you needed a team of video savvy people and yet all the young guns who were working on the videos and stuff, they can all edit them on their phones these days. You don't have to have a big computer and Premiere Pro rendering out.
Eric Wilson (09:50.367)
Sean Topham (09:57.773)
mash these videos up pretty quickly and smash them out. So that was sort of how the whole campaign had to, the digital team had to respond to that, to our decision to make TikTok the priority platform.
Eric Wilson (10:11.231)
How much of that decision came out of the necessity, being the mother of invention, with the party?
infrastructure was kind of weakened. You didn't have your local units as robust as they might have been because they lost their MPs over the previous election. And so you did have to look for that really high leverage thing that was going to get the cut through, reach right across both islands of the country.
Eric Wilson (10:45.875)
How much did that play a role in sort of saying, look, we've gotta try something new and different if we're gonna get outsized results?
Sean Topham (10:53.118)
Yeah, I think it did because we were struggling to get cut. You know, you'd make announcements and you'd do press releases and stuff, and you'd get maybe 15 seconds on the news and the government would get, you know, two minutes on the news, so.
your proportion of coverage is just so low. And whilst you're getting 15 seconds, the minor parties are getting the same sort of platform and the same level of focus from the media. So you kind of have to make your own way. And if we were gonna cut ourselves out of platforms or opportunities to talk to voters and to get our guy or our team in front of voters, that would be a real mistake for us because we were struggling to reach enough people with our message.
There was a tool that was sitting there available to us where we could talk to voters directly, get our message out there and have them engage with us and connect with us on that platform.
So you'd be nuts to sort of rule out a platform. And I understand, you know, I'm sure there's been plenty of commentary about why you should and should not use certain platforms. And, you know, we always we work in digital and social space. You take cyber security seriously for all of the platforms you work on. And I think in our view, we followed a pretty good process to make sure we were always safe and secure in the way we used all of the platforms,
TikTok and follow any sort of relevant local rules around the use of it on certain devices and whatnot. And so we're always really sensible about it. But that's where voters are. There are probably over a million Kiwis on TikTok in a country of five million people. It really makes a difference. And that was an easy decision.
Eric Wilson (12:38.696)
makes a difference, yeah.
Eric Wilson (12:45.779)
All right, so before we go on, I found this in my own conversations with my colleagues here in the United States, where as you alluded to, there's a negative opinion about TikTok. A lot of people are not familiar.
with the app, they don't understand what's on there. So give us a quick crash course on what the app is, how it works, what content goes there. You've already mentioned video, but what types of video, what do people need to know if they've never opened up TikTok before on their phone?
Sean Topham (13:17.218)
TikTok is a social media platform where...
all of the content or 99% of the content is video. It's all in the vertical form for most of the time. So it occupies the full screen size of your phone. You don't really even have to follow anyone or have any followers of your own to be able to use the platform and consume content on it. And over time, what the algorithm and the app is able to do,
the videos you like and it learns whether you like cat videos or dog videos and ultimately it will serve more of the videos you like to you over time and I know I'm sure many parents are aware that there's a risk of it becoming addictive because it's so good at serving the content that it learns that you like who you and it's easy to sort of scroll through and keep flicking them through there's no loading time or delays for videos there's no
Eric Wilson (14:11.883)
Sean Topham (14:20.832)
buffering you can just keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. It would be the same way TV just flows from show to show and ad break and show all blending in and you just keep watching.
TikTok has that very similar effect, but in a more bite sized, unique sort of way. And obviously on TikTok, you can consume everything from influences or content creators, you know, the Kardashians all the way through to news and information and sort of documentary style stuff for, you know, punchy videos on sports and whatnot. Music is a huge part of the platform.
diversity and it really depends on the type of content you like to consume. You know, TikTok will serve you what it learns, you know, what it learns from you basically and what you like.
Eric Wilson (15:14.087)
Yeah, and I think there are two things that I point out to people. One is what you described, that algorithm, the for you page, what people call, or for you feed. You don't need to follow anyone, it just starts serving stuff to you out of the box. So you don't have that sort of empty bar problem where someone signs up and they don't have anything to view. The second is, it's all video. There's no links, there's no, you know.
Sean Topham (15:21.815)
Eric Wilson (15:44.423)
chat functionality really, I mean, a little bit, but it is video and if you're not doing video, you're not gonna be successful on TikTok. So I think those are the two big things that I point out to people that make it particularly unique. You're listening to the Business of Politics show. I'm speaking with Sean Topham, co-founder of Topham-Garren about...
the use of TikTok in the successful 2023 New Zealand elections for the National Party. So Sean, walk us through some of the types of videos that you created that were most effective for the campaign.
Sean Topham (16:24.81)
Yeah, of course. Well, the overarching thing here is that whatever we were going to be publishing on TikTok always had to be within the sort of TikTok content space. So we weren't going to go and take a TV ad and drop it on TikTok. And any other sort of video content that wouldn't feel right on TikTok was stuff that we avoided publishing. That we wanted to be really consistent with the platform. Exactly.
Eric Wilson (16:49.567)
So it wasn't just a syndication for your other video content.
Sean Topham (16:53.606)
wanted to be really bespoke and consistent with the platform and the aesthetics and trends within it. And with that in mind, we sort of decided to...
take a look at our leader and our party and find a tone of voice that worked for them and basically say, well, what are the content creators and influences that everyone sort of follows or engages with? What's the sort of content that they publish? There's nothing stopping a political party or a political leader from mimicking and reflecting back those sorts of aesthetics and trends. Because at the end of the day, politicians are influences
in my view, not doing it as well as some influencers and content creators are. You know, they've got a real duty to show that they're on the platform, they're engaged. And I think when you use a platform and you do it the way other people do it and the way it should be done on that platform, it actually shows you're in touch. It shows you're connected with that group, that audience, that population. And I think that's a really important attribute in politics. So it's...
Eric Wilson (17:37.738)
Sean Topham (18:02.474)
If you chuck your TV ad on there, you're just saying I don't care. And I think that's a really, really important takeaway that we had. And we were really lucky with Chris Luxon, who was just so personally interested in the platform, engaged, wanted to understand all these sorts of content approaches, and was a great person to lead on that from. So by way of example.
What's some of the content we looked at doing? Well, there's one example is ASMR, which is like the sort of whispering and the soft sounds and stuff. When we had him do that with a policy document, people do it with far more interesting things on TikTok, but we had a policy document where he could talk about rebuilding the economy, which was just him sort of whispering into a microphone some of his policy points.
Eric Wilson (18:55.791)
I mean, it's weird stuff. Like, if people have never thought about this, it does strike you as kind of bizarre. And so ASMR just being kind of like the tip of the iceberg.
Sean Topham (19:10.89)
Yeah, exactly. And you know, some people, that's not for everyone. So if you didn't see it on your for you page, you obviously don't like ASMR content. And some of the other stuff we did was, there were like, you know, punchy, bite-sized presentations of policies and news style with quick cuts and very sharp and big sort of text that sort of runs through very quickly, usually with like an AI voiceover,
built-in sort of voiceover features of TikTok. But that's something that's familiar to the people who use the platform, they're aware of that. And this is just another way of conveying a message about our law and order policy or our tax relief policy. We had the lead to do other things like.
Eric Wilson (19:41.704)
Sean Topham (19:57.302)
A lot of content creators who go to red carpet events and galas and stuff do what they call get ready with me and they sort of show you getting ready and what sort of, you know, how they're going to do their hair and what they, what dress they'll wear, what shoes they'll wear in bits and pieces. And so we had, so Chris did one get ready with me for a day on the campaign trial, which is, you know, probably by most standards, not as glamorous as, as these red carpets. And it's just him picking out his white shirt or pink shirt for the day.
and wearing his silver fern lapel pin. But it was just a great reflection of a guy who understood his audience, understood the platform and was like meeting them where they are, which is.
Eric Wilson (20:41.532)
Yeah, like got the joke.
Sean Topham (20:43.226)
Exactly, exactly. And it's like really, I think it's respectful and it's the right way to treat voters. Like if you want to earn their votes, you have to sort of be there and be present with them and earn their trust by way of like showing a little bit of your personality and engaging with those things. And that gives you the opportunity.
to use that platform to also talk about some of the more serious messages and serious policies that you're taking. And it builds your audience, it grows your audience so that you can take more serious and topical issues to them over time when it's required.
Eric Wilson (21:17.331)
So obviously the election campaign was successful, but talk to us about like the results that you saw from these videos, directly tied back to what you were putting out on TikTok.
Sean Topham (21:32.318)
Yes, so I'll speak to one specific...
anecdote that we got about six months ago, maybe seven months ago, before we got into the final campaign period. And just for context, in New Zealand, the campaign period is condensed into like six or seven weeks of intense campaigning. And before that, it's sort of a phony war before everyone, you know, takes the gloves off. And about six or seven months ago, and we'd been doing lots of stuff on TikTok, like I said, it was a long term 12 month plan to really build it out. And
Chris Luxon had come into the office and said to the digital team, wow, you know, people are recognizing me from TikTok. People are going up to him when he sees them and they say, oh, yeah, I follow you on TikTok. I know you from TikTok. And that was a really important sign.
that we were getting cut through consistently and it was happening in a way that was really relevant to different audiences that he was speaking to. He'd go to schools and people would say, hey, you're on TikTok. He would be at the airport and people would say, I follow you on TikTok. He would speak to other people and they'd say, oh yeah, my son's at university, he follows you on TikTok, they love your videos and stuff. Which just reflected a different scale of cut through that we, I haven't actually,
Eric Wilson (22:34.571)
I'm going to go ahead and turn it off.
Sean Topham (22:52.456)
experienced it in any other campaigns.
really, when it sort of comes naturally and organically and built over time that a single platform becomes such a source for people of the information that a candidate is reflecting. So that's like one big result that happened. And it started happening a lot more as we got closer to the campaign from other members in the leadership team, you know, the deputy leader and a couple of our senior spokespeople who were also on the platform were like, wow, you know, we're getting noticed. So that was a positive sign.
Eric Wilson (23:29.591)
Anytime you can stroke a politician's ego, you're doing something right.
Sean Topham (23:34.686)
Yeah, yeah, exactly. And by the end of that campaign, in those last sort of three months, on TikTok, we had racked up 17 million video views and five million people in New Zealand. So reaching over a million or a million video views every week, reaching hundreds of thousands, if not close to that million New Zealanders, you know,
Eric Wilson (23:47.211)
Wow. And five million people in New Zealand? Okay.
Sean Topham (24:03.378)
on a recurring basis was really, really impressive on a cut through and coverage of the TikTok video strategy that we had invested in. By contrast, Labour, who only launched their TikTok account sort of six weeks before the election, they racked up only 1.5 million video views. And that sort of gap,
of 1.5 million to 17 million is just immense. And you can't, I couldn't put a number on the value of that to the campaign in terms of getting messaging amplification and cut through. And it shows sort of a couple of things. One, it was the right thing to invest in a video-centric TikTok strategy 12 months ago because the payoff was in the campaign and Labour left it too late.
to be able to use the platform effectively in a way that could have helped them get their message out. So if there's anyone listening and wants to take something away, it's like get on it now, get started, and start working out what your approach to your TikTok channel should be.
Eric Wilson (25:20.999)
Yeah, so we've got to talk about the elephant in the room, as it were, and you alluded to this earlier, but there are a lot of concerns from my party in the United States, and bipartisan, frankly, both Democrats and Republicans, concerns about security, concerns about the company's
ownership or affiliation with the Chinese Communist Party. So break it down for us, how did you overcome kind of the security concerns and then the sort of broader policy or reputational concerns?
Sean Topham (25:57.034)
Yeah, well, look, like I said earlier, we followed all of the relevant rules and stuff for how apps need to be used or not used on.
Eric Wilson (26:07.327)
So like secure password, multi-factor, all that kind of stuff. Did you have a separate TikTok phone?
Sean Topham (26:09.758)
Yeah, all those sorts of things and I think from memory one of the
Yes, yeah, because one of their rules is you can't have TikTok on parliamentary devices, which I think is quite common and I think the UK has Australia maybe too. Yeah, and so yeah, there was a separate phone which the TikTok account was managed from.
Eric Wilson (26:27.734)
It's the same here too.
Eric Wilson (26:39.803)
And then, so was there, were there any internal conversations that you can, I mean, don't give the specifics, but people saying, look, we shouldn't be on here. This is, this is Chinese communist propaganda. How do you confront those concerns?
Sean Topham (26:55.536)
Um, look, I mean...
we took a really sensible approach to all those conversations. And in most cases in any campaign, you take a sensible approach. You've got to manage and assess risk for all sorts of things, whether you build a website this way or a microsite that way, or send an email or not. So TikTok in our view is very much the same approach. What is the case for using TikTok? Why would it be beneficial for voters and for us in the campaign to engage with voters?
And quite frankly, like any of the downside risks that could have been put up, and I don't recall anything of note, but people were on board and wanted to make it work in a safe, sensible way, because it mattered that we were able to talk to voters, and that's really where they are. I mean, it's negligent and...
It's negligent as a politician to be like, well, I'm not going to talk to voters there. They have to come to me. That's really not how it works. And we've got a duty of care, duty, duty to go and talk to voters where they are. That's their sort of public forum, their square. You want to be there. So that would be my sort of read on it. We had to find a way of making it work and we did. And everyone was very sort of, everyone was on board.
Eric Wilson (28:20.56)
Yeah, I think I think we're
We share similar thoughts on this, obviously reasonable security precautions, but in the United States, we have 150 million people using TikTok. We did a survey in 2022 after the midterm elections, found that basically one in five MAGA Republicans was using TikTok every single day. So it, I mean, this is where voters are, they're getting information, and in a fragmented media and platform ecosystem,
can't give up opportunities to reach people. So, my advice for the last couple of years has been, you either are successful in banning TikTok or you've got to embrace it. And we're starting to see the public opinion shift to sort of embracing TikTok. So...
Let's suppose we've got some people who are listening today and they're ready to start using TikTok for their campaigns. What advice would you give to Republican candidates in the U.S. who are thinking about dipping their toe into the TikTok waters?
Sean Topham (29:27.198)
Yeah, I'd say start early. So start now, build up that audience and your own understanding of tech doc over time. Like the way the platform works, how the platform works is a really important first step.
and being able to create really good content, which is the next piece of advice, right? You can't pay for advertising on there. The only way your video will be seen by more and more people is if it's worth watching. So if you've got a good message that's interesting, that's communicated in an interesting way, those will really help your video and your content be seen by more eyeballs, which is the objective that's the game we're in, to try and get this message out to more people.
early to think really creatively about content and the way it works on that platform. And that sort of goes to three, which is this is not a dumping ground for videos from other parts of the campaign. It is a really unique platform compared to a lot of the other social media networks that we've seen evolve and we've been around for some time.
Sean Topham (30:44.076)
slow videos telling us about your upbringing and all those bits and pieces on this platform and just think we're going to consume it. Get on that platform, engage with the audience, the community. And my last thing is like, don't, conservatives shouldn't shy away from trying to talk to and persuade younger voters to join their cause and join their movement. One of the
Fundamental reasons I even got involved in like politics and digital social media politics, because I wanted more young people to be involved with politics and hear more of our message and stuff. And the place that they were communicating or talking and connecting was on social media. So why shouldn't conservatives also have cool, creative social media? You know, the left don't have a monopoly on creativity. And I think there's a lot of very creative people out there.
pretend we're not that creative. And I've seen some great examples in the work we've done over many different countries now that conservatives can be creative and win and have a personality, a sense of humor, and all of these good attributes that help you amplify your message and ultimately earn the trust and earn the votes of voters.
Eric Wilson (32:04.555)
Well, my thanks to Sean for a great conversation today.
We will include links to his work and some examples of those videos that we talked about in the show notes. If you're curious to see that, if this episode made you a little bit smarter, you learned about Tik TOKs, you learned about ASMR, you learned about New Zealand. Uh, if he gave you something to think about, all that we ask is that you share it with a friend, you'll look smarter in the process and more people learn about our show. So it's a win-win all around. Remember to subscribe to the business of politics wherever you get your podcast so you never miss an episode.
out previous episodes you can go to our website business of politics podcast.com with that thanks for listening we'll see you next time