(Or 8 Mistakes You Need to Avoid)
So, you’re running for office. You’ve got the permission—or at least the acquiescence—of the spouse and kids. You’ve filed your papers and put together a campaign team. First, you hired a general consultant. Then you hired a pollster, a press spokesperson, a day-to-day campaign manager, scheduler, field staff, etc. What about the media buyer (a phrase that usually refers to radio, broadcast television and cable)? Have you thought about it? No? Well, neither have most of your opponents. But you should. The bottom line is that the media buyer may well be handling half, or more, of your campaign’s expenditures. Whether you’re the candidate or the general consultant, here are eight common mistakes you— and your media buyer—need to avoid.
Don’t Budget Without Data: The Importance of Media Analysis
In order to develop a campaign budget, you need to know what you will be getting for different levels of spending on radio and TV. The media buyer should prepare a preliminary media analysis that estimates how many voters you can reach with a particular medium over what period of time and how much it is likely to cost. To make sure that you’re getting reliable data, you should also ask the following: • What media buying software do you use? Is it Strata, Donovan, Smart Plus? In other words, is your buyer using the tools that commercial agencies use to analyze the raw data from Nielsen and Arbitron rating services, or are they simply using homegrown Excel spreadsheets to work up your orders? • Is the analysis based upon current market conditions, i.e. is the data recent and accurate?
Don’t Be Fooled by the “Lowest Unit Rate” (LUR)
Forty-five days before a primary and 60 days before a general election, radio and television outlets are required to provide ads to candidates for office at what are somewhat inaccurately called “Lowest Unit Rates.” In reality, the LUR is a moving target, with most stations in larger markets providing up to five different political ad rates for the same spot, based on the likelihood of preemption. In other words, the station may have to sell you the spot at the lowest rate, but they may then “bump” your spot if someone offers to pay more. Enter the five-tier rate system, in which you reserve your ad placement at a station based upon your best guess at the likelihood you’ll get preempted. The highest rate typically cannot be preempted. Imagine the surprise when a losing candidate who bought the bottom of the rate card finds out after the election half his or her spots didn’t run. Political media buying agencies can become quite adept at selecting the right rate for a given market, while a typical commercial agency very often overpays, or has a high degree of spots pre-empted.
Don’t Ignore Political Data
There are thousands of media buying firms, but very few who specialize in political media buying. I recommend you consider firms that specialize in political media buying and that understand how political boundary lines and the campaign’s polling can, and should, affect the media buy. Political analysis takes media tools and applies them to political campaigns. Many campaign districts, thanks to gerrymandering, do not fit neatly into the geographic boundaries of radio metros or television Designated Market Areas (DMA’s). It is often necessary to determine not only what cable zones cover a legislative district, but which zones are cost-efficient. The answer is found by the correct use of zip code reports, voter statistics and cable zone household counts. Similarly, your district may cover more than one TV market. Which market to buy? The answer will not only come from media analysis, but also from information contained in the campaign’s survey data. Use of voter data and research is important in determining what television programs, cable networks and radio formats to buy. You probably think that your media buyer should place your commercials in news programs. And, they will agree with you. After all, everyone knows that those who watch/listen to news vote! Right! Right? Well…yes, surveys conducted by Scarborough and others do indeed show that news programs index high with voters. But figure skating, horse racing (think Kentucky Derby) and even America’s pastime (baseball, folks, not football) skew just as high and higher than news programming. The point is that a good political media buyer will know how to use political data to reach the voters you need to reach. That can include Census Bureau turnout statistics, campaign surveys, voter index research for party affiliation, vote history, conservative versus liberal skews, etc.
Don’t Count on a 9-to-5 Agency to do a 24-7 Job
Political campaigns have a hard deadline called Election Day. Once the election is over, it’s over. Late nights, weekends and early mornings are often necessary to place a buy, schedule “makegoods” and change spots or traffic, no matter the time of day. More important, though, is the attitude behind the work. The buyer must be cheerfully willing to go the extra mile. Campaigns have enough stress without dealing with grumpy buyers. To make that time effective, a political buyer must know stations’ policies and have contact numbers to reach decision makers over weekends and late at night.
Don’t Get Your Spot Pulled Over Compliance Issues
A political media buying shop must know and understand the rules that govern political buys. Every campaign cycle, you will be confronted with a newbie at a station who adopts an overly broad or overly narrow view of disclaimer rules and First Amendment issues. Your media buyer will get the call first, and it is essential that your buyer be conversant with the rules. Often, a good buyer can talk a neophyte station manager off the ledge and get your spot back on the air. Just as important, a good political media buyer will help keep you out of trouble as they navigate the rules concerning disclaimers, required forms, reasonable access, equal opportunity, lowest unit rates, advance payment policies and more. Moreover, a skilled professional political media buyer will go to bat for their client when the opponent breaks the rules.
Don’t Ignore the Opponent’s Buy
You will need “competitive reports” detailing what the other candidates are spending and on which media. Since stations don’t have to provide that over the phone, it is vital that your political media buyer asks for this data in as unobtrusive a way as possible. Political campaigns use the language of war for a reason: Everything a campaign does is centered on winning or losing, victory or defeat. Competitive reports should not only include the estimated total dollars spent by the competitor, but also the estimated gross rating points. The media buyer, if the campaign budget allows it, can supplement the competitive reports with professional services that provide additional information, including confirmation that your schedules ran as ordered, as well as online access to competitor’s commercials.
Don’t Trust Your Upload to an Intern at the Production House
Some media buyers allow production houses to take care of traffic (telling stations what spots to air, when and how often) and distributing your spots. That may work fine during normal business hours, but what if you decided you need to change traffic late at night? A media buyer who knows and understands the various distribution tools available—from the correct e-mail address for traffic at the radio station to online distribution of high-definition commercials to satellite transmissions as a last (i.e. more expensive) resort— will be able to make sure your commercial arrives on time. But the task does not end there. After nearly every election season there are horror stories of stations that ran the wrong spot, seriously damaging the campaign. Such goofs can be avoided by the use of an old fashioned technology: a phone call. Good political media buyers will follow-up on traffic changes, making sure everyone is airing the correct commercial.
Don’t Leave Your Money on the Table
On election night, amidst the glow of victory, it is easy to forget about the nuts and bolts of the campaign. But campaign work goes on, especially for the media buyer. Does your media buyer track station invoices? Do they match what was booked with what actually aired? As a candidate, you should almost always get a refund, as stations are obligated to perform audits of their logs. Sometimes, refunds will not be issued for months after the election. It is up to the media buyer to make sure those audits are performed and you get your refund. It is amazing how often I speak to candidates who say they never received a media refund in their previous election races. Often they closed their campaign accounts months before the audits were completed.
Kurt Snow is a vice president of Gateway Media, which is part of the California-based Wayne Johnson Agency.