Interview: Guido Fawkes and MessageSpace owner Paul Staines on how political ads bounced back despite Covid-19

Throughout Westminster and Fleet Street, Paul Staines is known as the fearsome, merciless editor/owner of right-leaning  political news website Guido Fawkes.

But behind the Guy Fawkes mask is a hard-nosed businessman who leaves partisan beliefs to one side when working for clients of his political advertising firm, MessageSpace. (Staines also insists he’s not the “ogre” he’s made out to be – more on this below.)

“It is possible to do your best for things you don’t agree with,” he says when asked about his work for Labour-linked groups and the campaign for HS2 (a rail project that he is personally opposed to). “It’s like being a barrister.”

Staines, whose varied career led him from organising raves to selling bonds in the financial sector, started Guido Fawkes in 2004. (His wife, he says, had hoped he might return to the broking world to make some more money.)

It didn’t take too long for the website to start attracting attention in Westminster with its editorial coverage following its launch in 2004. But, as Staines’ wife had feared, he initially struggled to make any money from it.

Relying on affiliate ads through Amazon and Google, Guido “made just about enough to cover my phone bill for a couple of years,” Staines says over a Zoom interview (clips below). “And it didn’t really work.”

Guido’s fortunes began to change in 2006 when Staines went into business with Labourhome bloggers Alex Hilton and Jag Singh.

Together, they set up MessageSpace, an advertising network for political blogs. Hilton is no longer involved in the venture, while Singh – who ran it for many years – is now a “silent investor”.

Staines today splits his time between MessageSpace and Guido.


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MessageSpace scored ‘massive win’ in 2020

Over the past 15 years, as Guido’s editorial prowess has grown, so has its annual turnover (which Staines says has now reached “middling six figures”). Much of its commercial success can be attributed to MessageSpace ad sales.

MessageSpace sells ads on behalf of six blogs – Guido, ConservativeHome, LabourList, UK Polling Report, Political Betting and Lib Dem Voice – that make up its core client-base. It also sells ads more widely across other political news websites, as well as newspapers.

Sam Cooper, who runs MessageSpace day-to-day as managing director, says the company agreed more than 100 direct advertising deals with various clients last year.

Staines describes this as a “massive win” after sales had plunged during the early days of the Covid-19 crisis. He says the market recovered in July and August. “So over the whole year, I think MessageSpace did about the same as the year before.”

Why was MessageSpace able to recover? “The lobbyists, who already are a substantial part of MessageSpace’s business, realised that they couldn’t go out to lunch with anyone – but they could still reach people by advertising on the sites that they do business on.”

Direct advertising deals – generally sold to companies, political campaigns and charities seeking to win favour in Westminster – make up around 80% of MessageSpace revenues, while the other 20% comes from programmatic ads, says Cooper.

At the time of writing, MessageSpace has an advert for its services on the Guido Fawkes website: “The Budget is on March 3rd, 2021,” it says. “Influence what is in that red box.”

The company, which has a team of six full-time and part-time employees, describes itself as a digital advertising, media-buying and political campaigning agency. 

[Read more: Ian Hislop interview]

How Staines avoids conflicts of interest: ‘Take the money from everyone’

Operating in politics, MessageSpace often finds itself working on both (or numerous) sides of a political debate.

For example, ahead of the EU referendum in 2016, Singh worked with Conservatives In while Staines advised Labour Leave.

Later, during the prolonged political debate over Brexit, MessageSpace provided services to both Leave Means Leave and the People’s Vote.

How does that work?

“Anyone can see the potential for conflict of interest there,” says Cooper. “But in both of the instances you mentioned, there were different consultants within MessageSpace working on the different sides of it. I suppose the beauty of it is that, as an impartial advisory, we’re able to advise our clients on the best, most effective media placements. We don’t take a view on the policy side of it.”

Through Guido, Staines wears his political heart on his sleeve (broadly, he is right-wing and pro-Brexit). How did he end up working for Labour Leave, which ticks one box but not the other?

“I actually raised money for them,” he says. “So I raised the money for them and then I think helped them spend it. So it was a full end-to-end service that Labour Leave got.”

Staines says he also worked on the campaign for HS2, despite being personally opposed to the rail project.

So Staines edits a political news website that is a client of his political advertising agency, which he works for as a consultant on large political issues. It sounds like a set-up that is fraught with conflicts.

How does the relationship between Guido and MessageSpace work? “Guido’s another client, basically. I’ve had arguments with Jag in the past over what share of the revenue-split should be for ads sold on Guido. It’s a big client of MessageSpace’s, but it’s not the only one.”

And how does he ensure advertising doesn’t affect Guido’s political coverage?

“Well, I’ve put my foot in it quite a few times,” says Staines, recalling an occasion on which a Guido story upset Microsoft, shortly after MessageSpace had agreed its first-ever six-figure advertising campaign with the tech giant.

“Guido quite often loses out on advertising because it takes a view on things,” he adds. “So there’s always this conflict. I personally have a simple rule: Take the money from everyone.

“And I don’t – or I hope I don’t – change our editorial line as a result.”

[Read more: Affiliate marketing: How publishers have made money from pandemic online shopping boom]

‘It’s not a story if you’re having sex. So that’s all over’

On the editorial side, Guido has firmly established itself in the UK news industry, regularly breaking stories that are widely followed up (e.g. its revelations about Kay Burley of Sky News breaking lockdown rules). 

Guido also has the ability to report on UK stories that others are forced to avoid. Because the website is hosted overseas, and because Staines based in Ireland, Guido has the power to ignore court orders and injunctions.

In addition to its text-based website, the Guido team has a podcast and regularly creates video content for its website. 

Guido’s visual and audio content does not currently feature advertising and so is loss-making. But Staines says Guido would feel like it was operating a “silent movie” if it was not building a presence in these areas.

I think we’ve got to do it, and once we build up a video audience or a podcasting audience, we’ll be able to monetise it.”

In its earlier years, Guido would make a large chunk of its revenues from selling stories to newspapers (e.g. its 2014 Brooks Newmark sting, which made the front page of the Sunday Mirror). Staines and his team also ran a gossip column first in the Daily Star and then in The Sun. 

Today, Guido’s newspaper earnings have dried up. Why?

“Because political journalism’s changed a bit,” says Staines. “I think the old-fashioned, ‘caught with your pants down’ stories are just not as big as they used to be for whatever reason.

“Newspapers are worried about privacy, it’s more difficult for them to be done. If you’re single – whether you heterosexual, gay or whatever – it’s not a story if you’re having sex. So that’s all over.

“There has to be abuse of power. So you have to be screwing a staff member and for it to go all wrong before it’s news now.”

Is that a bad thing?

“Well. It’s bad for business. But is it bad for society? I don’t know.”

‘You’re making me sound like an ogre!’

As alluded to above, Staines has built a fearsome reputation on Fleet Street over the past 17 years. What is he like as a boss?

“What I try to do is treat people the way I’d expect to be treated,” he says. “If you’re Tom [Harwood, Guido’s senior reporter, who is soon to join GB News] and we screw up – and we do screw up – you’re going to get shouted at in a conventional newsroom kind of way, with lots of profanity involved.”

Does Staines, who lives in Ireland and is currently managing his team from home during lockdown, find it difficult to hold staff to account remotely?

“I will pick up the phone and give the hairdryer treatment – that’s the usual… You’re making me sound like an ogre!”

Actually, I tell him, the reason I ask is that I suspect he might be softer than his reputation suggests.

I interviewed Staines, and two of his staff, previously in a London bar several years ago.

As I was making my way to the door, I overheard Staines say words to the effect of: “Right then, boys – who wants a burger?”

“Don’t go ruining my reputation,” he jokes.

“I am aware of having a fierce reputation. And somebody said to me that it was nerve-racking.

“Look, when we had our 15th anniversary party everyone was there, so I can’t be that bad. Well, there was one person missing – but I can’t be that bad.”

Would you ever employ a lefty? 

“Well, Christian Calgie who works for me is quite left-wing, I think. I think he’d be called a Tory wet.

“Also this generation coming through have completely different woke values. So we can’t really talk about some subjects because it comes to blows or tears – one or the other depending on if we’re down the pub.”

How woke are you on scale of one to ten?

“Me? Zero.”

Is that with your Guido hat on, or personally are you woke at all?

“I think you should treat people with respect. I think racists are idiots. I think bigots are idiots.

“However, I don’t think we need to go the other way. And the regular drunken row about politics in our office is people with penises in the girls’ changing room. And I’ll put it as delicately as that. And I’m not keen on it.”

Do you think you’re a good person? “I hope so. I mean, I notice the people who boast about being good people tend to be horrible in real life. That’s what I’ve noticed.”

‘If you’re interested in buying [Guido], call me’

Staines is clearly a commercial-minded man. Prior to entering the blogosphere, he was a hedge fund manager and a bond broker, and before that worked in PR for a business that organised acid-house raves.

What is his master plan? To sell off his businesses and retire as a multi-millionaire?

“If I was a buyer, I don’t think they’d let me out the door straight away – ‘here’s the cash, off you go,'” says Staines, on the possibility of selling Guido Fawkes.

“Typically in these deals – I do know a little bit about private equity – they would handcuff me for a couple of years and I’d only get paid out the full amount if it met targets. And I think that’s probably the way it would go. Or they’d keep me on to some degree.”

Has anyone tried to buy Guido?

“Yes, they regularly do,” he says. “I had breakfast at Claridge’s last year with somebody. I thought, where’s this conversation going? And he offered me an amount, and I said to him: ‘Put another zero on the end and maybe we’ll talk.’

“I’ve admitted this before unfortunately, so it’s not a scoop for you, but I was surprised to find it got no pick-up – Steve Bannon offered to buy us… and once again, that fell through over price. I never could work out whether we were talking dollars or sterling.”

Staines is not particularly coy on the subject of a sale, noting that “everyone has a price”.

“Watch this space,” he adds before telling Press Gazette’s readers: “If you are interested in buying, call me.”

Picture: REUTERS/Chris Helgren

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