Digital media and advertising expertise is moving up the political campaign hierarchy.
The most direct example is Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign’s director of digital in 2016, who was made campaign manager for the 2020 reelection effort.
But digital advertising is now the largest media expenditure for every major campaign on both sides of the aisle, according to FEC filings, and important issue groups are also prioritizing data-driven reorgs and media plans, said Paulette Aniskoff, former deputy assistant to President Obama and director of the Office of Public Engagement, who last month was named partner at the liberal agency Bully Pulpit Interactive (BPI).
BPI works with a mix of candidates, liberal advocacy groups, including the ACLU, Emily’s List and Everytown for Gun Safety, and brands with values-based marketing objectives, such as McDonald’s and energy company Exelon.
But, strikingly, the agency has decided not to stake out a deal with any single Democratic presidential primary so far, opting instead to wait for the field to narrow or for a nominee to emerge from the crowded field of contenders.
AdExchanger spoke with Aniskoff and BPI founder and President Andrew Bleeker, another Obama team vet, about the shifting landscape for political ad buyers and how liberal agencies are approaching the 2020 presidential race.
AdExchanger: How does having such a large field of Democrat candidates impact BPI?
ANDREW BLEEKER: This is a new one for us. We’ve worked on the past three Dem primary nominees as a firm, maybe even more as individuals. But this is the first time where we’re neutral so far as a firm in the primary.
We’re friendly with candidates and actively involved in helping campaigns staff up, but also importantly working with the outside groups so whomever the nominee is they’ll be well equipped during the campaign.
Is that a deliberate wait-and-see decision not to work on a primary campaign this year?
AB: Essentially, yes.
Is there a risk in not working with candidates during the primaries and missing a business opportunity there?
AB: Any firm that’s part of steering the winning campaign to victory will benefit, but these campaigns now are tiny. Most look more like Senate campaigns at this point than a presidential campaign, which are more like large brands. It isn’t so cut and dried, because once there is a nominee there will be more and larger opportunities for players in the space, not just their primary teams.
PAULETTE ANISKOFF: And it’s not just about those candidates. People are staffing up at other organizations, like issue and policy groups and nonprofits, that function outside politics but tie back to the election as well.
Is your business mostly with those outside groups, as opposed to with candidates and Democratic political committees?
PA: For the next year at least that will certainly be the case. That’s where the majority of spend is nowadays, particularly online.
In part it’s because campaign finance has changed so much about how political spenders operate. Working with committees used to be most of the business. The DCCC [the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a party group that funds Democrats running for the House] is still candidate focused. But now you might have an independent expenditure group that can spend a ton more based on its legal structure.
Do these new political spending dynamics grow the pie for you or make life more difficult because budgets and vendors are so fragmented?
PA: It certainly has complicated things. Nowadays so many outside groups and organizations with a stake in politics have figured out how to speak to their audiences, as well as how to speak directly to candidates and staff. It used to be this clean and neat thing, where the DNC [the Democratic National Committee, the party’s governing body] played its role and the presidential campaign played its role. Now there’s a huge field of players and stakeholders you need to incorporate into political and messaging strategy.
What about differences in how Democrats and Republicans are impacted by these changes?
AB: Well, the Trump campaign, like any reelection campaign, has major institutional advantages. They don’t split fundraising and spending, and can plan for the general election. But they also won’t try as many things or be pressured to innovate.
One advantage we saw in 2008 with the Obama campaign and I think you’ll see this year is when you have a whole field of candidates, only one will win but they’ll all be forced to try new tactics or new organizational structures. Some that don’t win will still turn out to be great models for the party to learn from moving forward.
PA: Another thing on the Republican side is they’re very top-down, which I think can be an advantage in the short run, but I still prefer the liberal ecosystem approach. For instance, the Trump campaign and Republican party groups have billions of dollars to spend, and they lay out their plans and put campaigns together with relatively few people at the table.
We have hundreds if not thousands of small orgs that are friendly competition within the party. Some fill very unique niches and not all may survive, but there will be important innovations coming out of that space. And it’s still growing.
Do you expect any changes in how candidates and political advertisers think about Google and Facebook this year?
AB: Presidential campaigns will probably look like a large brand org, where there are direct support teams from the platforms and they may have their specific plan for each platform. They’d probably still work with an agency on creative and strategy, but a presidential campaign probably has one or more individuals who own that relationship directly.
One thing I think will prove to be huge this year is that those platforms have added transparency features in response to the 2016 Russian misinformation and interference campaigns.
I peruse those ad archives, but is the data available there really so useful?
AB: The data itself could be useful, like seeing an opponent’s demographic and geo targeting.
But one of the main reasons digital has lagged television in spend adoption is because candidates see television budgets, because candidates have to disclose how much they’re spending and where on TV. Campaigns for a long time have been built to match point-for-point on TV.
There never was any comparable data available for digital media – which meant it was often the first to get cut as campaigns scraped to respond to TV budgets they saw reported. Now with Google, Facebook and Twitter, there’s a tool for digital advertisers to say, “Look, this is what your candidate is doing online and how and where you’re lagging behind.”
This post was syndicated from Ad Exchanger.