This week, we were lucky enough to assemble some of the top practitioners from campaigns and advocacy in the same room in DC for the 2023 C&E Creative Summit. It was a chance to take the temperature of practitioners as they head into the final stretch of the surprisingly busy off-year cycle, and the start of what’s anticipated to be an extremely demanding 2024 presidential cycle.
The opening conversastion, which featured Adam Strasberg, creative director at Bully Pulpit Interactive, Emily Karrs, creative director at full-service shop IMGE and Shannon Fitzgerald, co-founder of Hooligans Agency, helped map the creative challenges that practitioners will face in the coming months — starting with how much risk tolerance candidates can, or should have.
C&E: Is your clients’ risk tolerance changing in this media environment?
Strasberg: A consultant many years ago said, ‘Imagine if Coke and Pepsi had a year when at the end of [it] somebody was out of business. Imagine the ads they would run against each other. Imagine what would that those campaigns would look like.’ That’s the business we’re in. And so, in some sense, you think that way — promote risk taking.
But [at the same time], if you fuck up in a political campaign, you don’t have a year. You know, Coke came out with a whole new Coke — one of the worst business decisions. But Coke is still around today, right? They can screw up and still be in business. Campaigns can’t. So I think sometimes there’s that feeling of, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be the one to make a mistake.’
Karrs: I have a historical view of it because I’ve been working in this business long enough. I definitely see an increased tolerance for risk where people see other people going viral.
I’m sure we’ve all had this experience. ‘Can you make me go viral?’ Yeah, [you] can say something horrible … Tell me more about why you want to go viral and then let’s talk about it.
People see other people taking risks out there, and I think that we’ve got people who are more open to it. Now, one of the things that is happening to me in my own professional journey is that IMGE has been really, really big on doing very rigorous creative testing. We’ve got this data, we’ve got the resources to make different versions of ads. And especially in the digital world, it’s very easy to compare performance in a way that it’s not easy to compare on other mediums.
So we’ve been doing a lot of rigorous testing of bigger picture ideas. And one of the things that has been a little disheartening for me to find is a lot of times the simple, straightforward stuff actually achieves the goal that you have for your creative more than the really splashy, cool thing,
Strasberg: Sometimes boring is the way to go and you have to put your ego aside because I always want to push and do better. But sometimes you have to just be like, ‘I’m going to do boring today because, you know what? That’s what’s best for the client.’
Fitzgerald: For every client that comes in, the first assessment we make is what is their tolerance for creative risk taking. And that means different things to everybody. So we’re pretty out of the box because I think one thing that I really understand is taking the strategic objectives and the messaging for a campaign and then trying to figure out what is the most interesting wrapper that we can kind of package it in.
I call it disguising the medicine because I think the thing that that we forget sometimes in politics, because we are dealing with such serious subject matter and the stakes are high, is that people still want to be entertained … People consume more content than ever. So how do we grab them, but still deliver the information we want them to know?
C&E: When your clients are willing to take creative risks, what does that look like?
Karrs: I would say one of the the biggest ways I’m seeing this sort of manifest, which at this point it’s not even really a risk anymore, is people doing a lot more of ‘I’m grabbing my phone and I’m talking into it.’
I know that we have data to back up that these are highly effective ads and pieces of content people are used to. [If] I’m FaceTiming with the voter, the more people tend to respond to it.
And I’m starting to see that kind of direct-to-camera time make it on the schedule — in the way that call time for donors used to be. It’s like, ‘I know that you don’t entirely like this, but this is a really good way to reach very important supporters of yours.’ And every so often you’re going to talk into the phone, you’re going to be unpolished, you’re going to be honest and you’re going to talk directly to your people. So that is one kind of shift I’m seeing, and I find that very heartening.
C&E: Can you convince clients to step out of their creative comfort zone?
Strasberg: You can’t care more than the client at the end of the day … My boss at BPI, she’d say, ‘Adam, you argue twice, you give your best argument. And if they want to do something stupid, you just got [to let them.]’ … At the end of the day, the client’s going to do what the client’s going to do and they’re the client.
I think the mistake a lot of people make is they’re like, ‘Well, they’re never going to listen. So I’m not even going to try.’ And I say, ‘No, it’s your job to try. It’s my job to try to convince you. It’s my job to make the best case, to be the expert and to try to do the right thing.’ At a certain point, people are just going to be dumb. They’re going to do what they want.
Fitzgerald: I think we’re fortunate that, in addition to doing the more traditional stuff, we do a lot of the outside-of-the-box thinking with some really compelling results. So we can actually point to things and say, ‘Here’s where we started, here’s the creative execution, and here were the results.’
And yeah, we’re seeing the best results and it’s really nice to be able to have a handful and a variety of things to point to. You can’t force it. But if there’s any inkling of an opening in the door, it’s a nice conversation to have.