Encouraged by artistic parents who wanted to give their children a creative outlet, Tom Dunn produced his first commercial as a kid. The “Kanine Krunchies” spot fueled his (musical) acting bug. He ended up getting a political science degree from Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania before landing work on the Hill and later the NRCC.
It was from there that Dunn’s creative passion and professional life intertwined. His digital spots landed him a job at OnMessage Inc., where Dunn spent nearly a decade producing ads that ran in all 50 states and rose to become the GOP media firm’s creative director.
He took the same title after moving to Narrative Strategies earlier this year in a build-out of the public affairs shop’s in-house creative services division.
C&E: How did you make the transition from political science major to creative?
Dunn: So I when started at the NRCC [in 2008], I was a researcher and a people pleaser. Ed Mullen was the research director at the time. He’s a partner here at Narrative and he came to me one day and was like, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if we could make something like this?’
And I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’d be awesome.’ And then I said, okay, I gotta figure out how to do it. So I open Windows Movie Maker and that was the first time I said, ‘Oh, we have these pieces, how do I sort of connect them together to make a story?’ So we made a spot in-house at the NRCC for one of the many races we were targeting, and [later] we saw that a media consultant literally just took the thing I did and [remade] it. And I said, ‘Okay, I’m hooked. I might be good at this.’
C&E: And then you started producing ads at OnMessage?
Dunn: I was working with the editor that we had there, but I couldn’t necessarily verbalize [what] I wanted to do. So I sit there and say, ‘Hey, I want this to happen. Can you show me how you did that?’ And then be able to go back that night and figure out exactly how they did it.
It’s that hands-on learning and that ability to connect in real time and be able to say, ‘Okay, what about this? And how about that?’ That collaboration is really how I built the skills to do this. I think in the back of my brain, I was always a producer that could put together stories. I just needed to flex those muscles and learn how to do it.
C&E: You’re a big believer in in-person collaboration. Why?
Dunn: On the technical side there are those hard skills I learned, but you also need the soft skills that you learn from being around smart people and listening. I think the ability to tell stories and understand narratives and understand what words matter and what words don’t, I think that comes from being observant of the people you’re around, which again, it goes back to the value of being in-person collaborating, and being able to hear things you wouldn’t normally be exposed to.
C&E: Tell us about the first ad that you did at Narrative, which aired during the Final Four.
Dunn: They had done the research and positioning. They had done messaging, they had done all of this sort of background work, the kind of work that we do on a political campaign. And so I came in and they said, ‘Hey, this is what we need.’ They wanted something that wasn’t like the [typical] trade association [creative]. And I went, ‘here’s this thing I never got to do that I think sounds interesting.’ And I got on Premiere and cut it up with some user-generated content.
That was the idea that I had: let’s try to do it this way because I didn’t have time to do a shoot and put it together. So that’s incredible. It was the first spot I did here.
C&E: Are public affairs campaigns putting more of an effort into their creative?
Dunn: I think creative in the advocacy/public affairs space is becoming essential. It’s the centerpiece of any sort of DC-based public affairs campaign. And certainly we do stuff in the states, a fair amount of that as well, but there’s a surplus of information and a deficit of attention in DC. Breaking through in that environment is not easy.
You have to have something interesting to say and know how to move the needle. And to me, the way to do that, at least with the skillset that I think I bring to the table, is taking the right research and the right messaging and turning that into a tangible story, a sticky concept, something that’s memorable. We want people to feel something because when you feel something that’s what inspires action.
C&E: Will the super-short-form video trend take hold in the public affairs space?
Dunn: I would say there are lots of opportunities for that. The question is, how much people are willing to invest without being tied down to something like impressions and metrics?
We’re seeing a renaissance in how people consume media. TV will still be king, for quite a bit, but we’re talking connected TV now instead of, you know, cable. I think the [trend is] real. The real question is finding folks that are willing to try it, and then finding what your message needs to be and what your audience needs to be. When those opportunities present themselves, are you going to go after them and take a little bit of a risk or not?
C&E: How is public affairs and candidate campaign creative different?
Dunn: So on the campaign side, you’re drinking out of the fire hose. You’re able to put in the work ahead of time, but when you have to go, you go and so you turn around the spot immediately. You’re going a lot off of instincts and lessons learned. There’s a ton of muscle memory that comes from doing campaign work at a firm like [OnMessage].
On the public affair side, there’s all of that work going on on the front end. But victory is not Election Day, right? You have different benchmarks. There is no end result that has to be at a certain time. But you’re still putting together a message arc and a story arc.
C&E: Public affairs creative has a reputation for being dull, is that changing?
Dunn: Let me tell you, people don’t want to be bombarded with information. There’s so much information out there and there’s such a lack of being able to absorb it all. And so if you want it to stick, you need to educate and entertain.