These direct mail gurus say their medium is far from dead…
Liz Chadderdon is president of The Chadderdon Group, a Democratic direct mail firm.
Steven Stenberg is partner at The Strategy Group, a Democratic direct mail firm.
Ed Traz is a Republican direct mail consultant and president of The Traz Group.
Over lunch in the private room at DC’s BlackSalt, we found out how mail consultants keep the post office on their side and debated the art of the negative mailer. Trust us, it was a good thing there weren’t any media consultants there.Politics: How would you all characterize the state of the political mail industry right now? Is it in some ways a dying medium?Liz Chadderdon: I really don’t think so. I do think the next 10 to 15 years are going to be interesting, though. This new generation that’s all about Facebook now, will they be Facebooking at 40? If they are, that will obviously change the way we communicate with them. Right now I may have five email addresses, but if you want to catch me, I still get my bills in one place. So we’re not dying yet. And it seems like every time I turn around there’s another mail firm out there. I don’t feel that way about media and polling.Steven Stenberg: I think the challenges in direct mail are no different from the challenges any other medium faces. In an increasingly cluttered world, it’s hard to capture people’s attention. There are certainly challenges with younger voters as it pertains to direct mail, but TV has that same problem.Ed Traz: I think that’s true—the TV guys have to worry about DVR’s skipping commercials and YouTube. But I don’t think mail is dying. I think we need to adapt. Mail is going to become much more sophisticated and much more issue based. Gone are the days when you’re just rolling out 35,000 or 135,000 pieces on one issue. I think it’s going to be more segmented and more targeted moving forward. But we need to find a way to make that costeffective for our clients.Stenberg: We’re at a certain price point right now where you can’t really argue for that very strenuously given limited campaign budgets. But printers need to be more competitive, too, so they’re going to find ways to make this more affordable.Chadderdon: You know, one of the things I think is so different about mail is how beholden we are to our printers and our mail shops. They have our lives in their hands. The TV guys don’t have that. They have editing studios, but they don’t put their entire business in the hands of these outside vendors, and of course the United States Postal Service, which none of us have any control over.Stenberg: But I think you do control your vendors.Chadderdon: Sure, we can control our vendors, but what if a printer goes down? I guess my point is that I don’t think anyone else faces that the way we do. On the technology aspect, I think printers and mail shops have come a long way in the last ten years, but they haven’t quite gotten to the point where printing 5,000 of something is cost-effective. And until then, this market segmentation is going to be expensive.Politics: Does it take a certain personality as a direct mail consultant to do good mail?Chadderdon: Well, I think the media guys are just as nuts as we are. (laughter)Traz: Yeah, large amounts of alcohol, late nights and no sleep.Stenberg: I think I see where you’re going with that, though, because a lot of the mail you see is very brash and over the top. Does that sort of get to who these people are? Are we these cowboys out there creating mail with no care? Not exactly. If you look at my partners, they aren’t these loud-talking, brash guys. It seems that some of the most mild-mannered people I know are direct mail consultants.Traz: This business is full of personalities, but the real over-the-top ones don’t seem to last very long. It’s about knowing when to be brash and when to use humor or do something a little clever. You know, I’m finding more and more that this straight, kind of black-and-red negative stuff doesn’t work. Especially the more educated your voters are.Chadderdon: I have lots of good friends who are media consultants and I have a lot of respect for media consultants, but sometimes I look at the level of creativity in their ads and I think, “Really, that’s it?” And I know they have limited production budgets. But I have a limited production budget, too. I don’t know if that means we’re more creative, or we have to work harder because we’re in the mail instead of on TV?Stenberg: It’s always a humbling experience when you go into focus groups and you start testing how well your mail works with voters. You get 15 seconds and that’s it. I remember we were doing these groups for Francine Busby out in California and we were testing vote-by-mail applications. I did this piece with a prescription drug bottle in outer space circling the planet. It was about skyrocketing drug prices. But people in the focus group started asking, “Why is Francine Busby worrying about NASA?” (laughter) So there’s always a fine line between being overly creative and being clear.Traz: When I’m on a race and I hear about a piece of research, I immediately start thinking about how to present it to voters. You spend hours at night surfing through all the photo sites.Chadderdon: At our firm, we always ask whether the purpose of the piece is to grab the audience by the throat or by the heart. And there’s always a lot of discussion about whether you’re crossing the line. Are you doing something that might provoke a backlash? And it really depends on where you are. Certain states will take negative a hell of a lot better than others.Traz: I think you have to go up to the line most of the time. But you always have to be credible. I’ve seen pieces that are almost comical—the stuff is just too much to believe.Chadderdon: I think you have to be tough when you’ve got the right issue. And if my competitors are out there beating the crap out of me and I’m doing these soft negatives, then I’m doing my client a disservice. There are moments when you have to take the gloves off and rip their throats out of their nose.Politics: If you had the campaign manager’s ear at the beginning of a race and they said, “Tell me what I can do to make your job easier,” what would you tell them?Chadderdon: I want to be on all the calls and I want to read the research. Even when we’re sitting second chair to a media consultant, we need to be a part of the messaging. The media consultants —and I love them— but they will suck all the air and all the money out of the room on a congressional or statewide race real fast.Stenberg: This is part of where I think the direct mail industry is going. The value of a good mail consultant is that when you’re working on a campaign, you’re not just a voice in the back of the room. The ability to just do pretty mail isn’t going to get you hired anymore.Chadderdon: I kind of hate to play this card, but I’m going to anyway. I think as a woman in this industry you do have a little bit of a tougher time with this. When I’m on a congressional or statewide race, I have to really fight for my say and my chunk of the budget. There was a congressional race last year where a big suck-all-the-air-outof- the-room media consultant took all the money for TV and I was fighting and fighting. Sometimes it’s a budget thing, but I have found it to be a little difficult at times as a woman fighting some big-swinging you-know-what male media consultant and I’m banging my head against the wall.Stenberg: Direct mail consultants are the first people to say, “We know you have to pay for the TV.” And there are certain media consultants who look at mail as an integral part and they see how all the pieces fit together. The campaigns that don’t see how all the pieces fit together get frustrating.Traz: I’ve had the luxury of working with some really good TV folks who understand that we need a good, full media mix to make a difference. But every once in a while you do run into those folks who will suck the life and the money out of the room. And I don’t think it’s a woman thing, I think it’s a mail thing. We’re always lower on the totem pole.Chadderdon: Well, I appreciate that because the last thing in the world I want to do is sit around and say, “I’m getting the crap kicked out of me because I’m a woman.” But there are moments when I sit on the phone and I think, “Is this because I’m a mail consultant, or is this because I’m a woman?”Traz: I think nine times out of ten it’s because you’re a mail consultant.Politics: In terms of how the industry is changing, are you proactively planning for the shifts?Traz: I think we’re always looking for new ways to do things. At our shop we try to take a very offbeat approach to how we present arguments to voters. We try to use very different images, different folds. We have to adapt to the times and grow. I think the days of carpet-bombing mail are over.Stenberg: That’s a great point in terms of the carpet-bombing—that idea that we’re just going to do seven pieces on something and hope for the best.Chadderdon: One of the things I’ve noticed in the last couple of years is that 20 pieces of mail in a legislative race is considered nothing these days. I’m really astonished now at how many reps we need to get to, even on these lower races, and how far the ball has moved on this in a fairly short period of time.Stenberg: It’s the same point you see media consultants making. A thousand points isn’t what it used to be.Traz: Well, in a lot of these down-ballot races, you could have a 20-year incumbent with horrible name ID and no real issues associated with them. So we see a lot of early mail and a lot of early mail on issues. That’s where you see the greatest movement, too. You’re not going to get a big chunk at the end, but early on you can make up some serious numbers.Chadderdon: I don’t know about you guys, but I feel like people are angrier about negative mail than about negative TV. Whenever I lecture at universities or conferences, somebody’s hand immediately goes up and they say, “I hate negative mail.”Traz: This is the only medium where your client will be out on the street and somebody will walk up to them and say about a piece of campaign literature, “You sent me something today.” It’s still a personal-connection medium. That’s why I think there is that reaction to negative mail. But let’s be honest, everybody complains about the negative mail, but you know in households, the husband or the wife will get the piece of negative mail, think it’s disgusting but leave it on the counter to show their spouse anyway.Politics: We asked our media consultants this, and I’m sure you’ve all had this, too—a negative that was so bad you couldn’t use it?Chadderdon: Oh yeah, I had a guy who owned crack houses.Traz: See, I would have used that. (laughter)Chadderdon: In my defense, the team wanted to use it. But the candidate was the one who said, “no way.”Stenberg: I had one situation where there was a harassment suit but we didn’t really have the proof we needed to use it.Traz: I had the same thing and we actually resigned the client over it. They wanted to hit this guy on domestic violence and we didn’t have a police report, but they kept saying, “Everybody knows it happened.” But with no proof I said we wouldn’t do it. In the end they did it locally and lost.Chadderdon: If we have proof—police reports, newspaper articles or something substantial— I’m not sure there’s anything out there that I wouldn’t use. But there are some subjects that are really ugly. I’ve often said to people, even when they have proof, I’m not sure how I’m going to illustrate that.Politics: As mail consultants are you integrated enough into the rest of the campaign?Chadderdon: It goes back to this whole idea of whether we’re consultants or vendors. You never hear someone say “TV vendors”—they’re always consultants. But are we people who are at the table, a part of the message, a part of the planning, a part of the team, or are we vendors—people that you call at the last minute and say I need three pieces of African-American GOTV mail?Stenberg: The way the industry is going right now, I think it’s an expected competence. You’re not just doing mail, you really are integrated into all aspects of the team. At least the smart campaigns operate that way.Chadderdon: I wish I had a dollar for every campaign that had taken every word I wrote on a piece of mail and put it on the web. And that’s a good thing. We really are message and media consultants. I know a lot of people think we’re sycophantic parasites. I’ve been called that before.Traz: Not to diss the media guys, but mail is a business of ugly little details. You need all the right images, you need the research, the right words. Then it has to get to print, then to the post office and out from there. With TV, it’s three hours in a studio, DGS it out to four stations and they’re done. But I’m still left trying to figure out why the United States Post Office can’t do its job. You get the call from a client that says, “The mail hit here, but it didn’t hit here.” Sometimes within the same town this happens. And it’s somehow our fault. So you have to explain that once we give it to the post office, it’s out of our hands. We can call and raise hell, and I do that every day starting around September 16th. I have a call list of post offices—I just call and yell and hopefully the mail gets delivered.Chadderdon: I deliver liquor.Traz: I have candidates go with coffee and donuts. I tell them, go down to the post office and say, “Thank you for the wonderful job you’re doing.” And then our mail is going to move better.Chadderdon: And no one else has to deal with this. Not even the pollsters with their call centers. There’s one sectional center facility that will remain nameless, where every off-year someone who works there gets a huge bottle of liquor from me. And you know what—my mail runs, thank you very much.