As technology democratizes production, some media firms are pitching leaner and meaner services to campaigns. Four nextgeneration media consultants tell us how they navigate the new media landscape. Justin Germany is a founder and partner at Craft, a Republican communications firm that works on and off-line.Josh Koster is a partner at Chong Koster, a digital communications firm that works with progressive campaigns and causes.Zac Moffatt is a founder of Targeted Victory, a Republican firm that focuses on online advertising, mobile communications and social media. Frank Chi specializes in online video and branding. He is a partner at the Democratic firm Chi/Donahoe Cole/Duffey.
C&E: How do you view what you’re doing differently, and how do you approach things differently from traditional media production folks?
Justin Germany: I’d say that everyone’s hand has sort of been forced by the fact that technology has changed. One of my business partners and I were talking the other day about how we create and cut a lot of our ads and videos, and what we’re seeing is that you couldn’t really do a lot of what we are now doing four or five years ago because the audience may not have been there on YouTube. I can’t tell you how many ads and videos are based on YouTube clips and based on other people in the YouTube communities that find the clips. Other communities like iStock.com, a huge source for web video and TV production of affordable, easy to find, good quality images. I used it in ’04, but it was nowhere near where it is today. Frank Chi: And I think the difference in the mentality is, if you are on the younger side you’re trying to find a way in, and the democratization of the production equipment has been incredible. A lot of the production guys that I work with have their own lighting, they travel around the country, and the stuff that they churn out looks just as good as a set that costs $80,000 to put together. That’s the big difference. There was a client that didn’t want to spend that much money, but they wanted an online video. What they did was, instead of hiring us to follow them around the country on a big bus tour, they got two Flip cams and they just had people film it themselves, and it worked. When you look at political media these days, we’re not expecting what folks saw for decades, which was really high quality, madefor- TV kind of material. In a YouTube age, we’re OK with it not being the best quality.Josh Koster: In fact, there is evidence out there that suggests that if it is on YouTube, it’ll perform better if it has average production values.C&E: You mean more people will view it if it has lower production values?
Koster: Yeah, more people will view the same video if it is edited with lower production values and put out in a lower resolution format. Germany: I think that may go to authenticity, which is very important. A number of the web videos that I did on the McCain campaign that were incredibly successful were a little fuzzier, they were a little more low resolution. Why? Because I was grabbing everything off YouTube. I was grabbing these clips that had been reprocessed two or three times. People love to toss around “viral.” “Viral Video!” Sometimes these things take off on their own and other times through hard work—working with reporters, or doing an online ad buy behind it, or whatever it is. That gives it that barrel video feel that people love to see.Chi: A lot of times when people say it went “viral” it means it had no point or it was completely off message from what you want. So when people are saying they want something to go viral, they are really saying, “We want something that hits a nerve with the press or with activists.” I think what they mean is sort of a mischaracterization of the word.Germany: Another favorite is when they want something “viral,” but they are really not willing to go for what that means. They are not really willing to take those steps and have the fun with it.Koster: One of the things I see really changing about production is, there is now no longer a production week or a production day. It used to be when you were on a campaign, you did your poll, you analyzed your poll, you wrote your scripts, you edited your scripts, and then you went into production and came back out. Unless it was an expensive campaign that was going to creative multiple times, that was the end. Now, the poll is barely enough to get started. We get data back the minute our ads go live. And our creative changes after it’s live, quite a lot, in fact.C&E: In our last Shop Talk, the people who do online media buying say that because of the real time analytics that you get back, the upside is so much better.
Koster: I guess I might sort of straddle that gap because I’m also a buyer. But, I think that’s what we’re seeing— the gap between buyer and creative is really fading. If the creative isn’t the one in there getting dirty with the analytics and the data that’s coming through, then they are not really well positioned to make the next round of creative.C&E: And for the traditional buyers, that’s not their favorite thing in the world.
Koster: Right, and I’m not saying that the creative needs to go out and place the buy. But the creative needs to be much more incorporated into the buying process than at any other point in the past.Zac Moffatt: I think it also allows you to have another tactic. We’re living in a 24/7 news cycle, which we all get, and it’s very different. You can’t just hold your money back until the last eight weeks and figure you’re going to turn it on then. You can frame a narrative, regardless of whether it has resources behind it, that becomes the narrative. That’s why we always talk about Charlie Crist versus Marco Rubio. The narrative was set, then all of a sudden Crist decides, “I am going to be the candidate of the right,” and that just didn’t really fit into the overall narrative that was taking place. And he was missing an opportunity to do it online. You know, he goes up on a debate and 73 people watch the video. We make our own video blogs for our office that get more views than that did.Chi: If I remember correctly, the day Charlie Crist announced his campaign, Marco Rubio had an online video up that had the picture of Crist and Obama. It became the image that framed the entire race.Moffatt: It goes to your point about iStock: We buy it once for a year’s worth of rights, and that thing has more than paid for itself. [Laughter] But we’ve found that organizations within the campaign will say, “Well, do we even need to do that? Do we need to get a copyright?” And you’re just saying, “This is the easiest first step to take because it will live on and become the focal point and rallying cry for everything going forward.” But I think Josh is exactly right, you have to be on the media buying side as well. That’s what gives you power. You have to find the appropriate platforms. You have to have viral syndication capability. You have to be able to make it easily shareable. That’s why when we’re looking more and more, a lot more media dollars are going to go to persuasion online. Ten percent of the budget is the starting point.Koster: We get into a constant fight with Google about that nonsense 10 percent number they throw out. Frankly, it’s way too low. We’re constantly at panels interrupting them and cutting them off when they get to that slide and being like, “That’s nonsense.” Start with 15 and go up.C&E: How much of a struggle is it within the campaign structures that you guys work with in trying to get the resources that you guys want for online?
Moffatt: It’s a complete struggle. I mean you may have GCs or someone who buy into it, but none of us have gotten to the end of the year yet to see what those final numbers look like. I think the hardest part of digital buying, as well, is that campaigns don’t know how to write the budget. They want to get into an argument about t-shirts, pizza, or online ads.Chi: I feel like campaign managers are getting younger and younger, and they’re all digital natives. So, yes, they’re going to listen a lot to the TV consultant, they’ll listen a lot to the GC, but at the end of the day these folks know digital. They don’t have to learn it and there’s more of a possibility for them to sort of see eye-to-eye with where a lot of us are coming from.Koster: I think this is the first cycle where we’ve really started to see the widespread adoption of the idea that you’ve got to go into double digits in investments in digital. We had a couple of clients last cycle break 10, one of them got to the 20 percent mark on their spend, but last cycle it was just a constant upward struggle and it always ended with “Well, is there any proof that this works?” And this cycle there started to be proof emerging and there’s a lot more of it in the works.Germany: My firm is kind of interesting in that we have a lot of these silos all together. So we have some clients where we’re doing the mail, or doing the TV, or we’re doing mail, TV, and the online component. So it becomes a lot easier internally to realize what’s working, wherever we need to allocate budget. But you still have to go back and make those arguments to the campaign about, “Hey, you really do need the money to go toward your online advertising effort.”Moffatt: I think the biggest problem, the frustration I have, is I that also think the media doesn’t know how to take this. They don’t know how to consume the information in front of them. I could put $100,000 behind an online ad buy and I could buy a cable spot, and they’ll write about the cable spot because I’ve gone up on TV, which is the most amazing thing. I mean, we’ve done it before in ’08 where we did a head fake where we would go up with one point, literally, a day, on cable, and put everything else online. Reporters say, “I don’t report about videos unless they’re on TV,” and I mean, it’s the craziest.Germany: Marc Ambinder is the most famous example. I think he famously made this proclamation: “I’m not going to report…” Moffat: Over Twitter, that’s the best part! [Laughter]Germany: Which met immediate condemnation from all the web consultants who saw it, and it’s ridiculous. In ’08 the McCain campaign, ad after ad was a head fake, a show-me ad, which was ridiculous, but that’s what you had to do to get it placed. The reporters will often even get confused as to what a web video and what a TV ad is, which is great, I think, the more this stuff gets confused the better.Chi: A lot of folks are willing to put online what they’re not willing to put on TV. So if you create these more controversial narratives, you do increase the likelihood that the journalists, who are covering those races, will do it. The most recent example is when the NRSC did the ad with Lee Fisher without his shirt on from a documentary, and then within a day the Democratic Party had an ad up with all these guys without their shirts saying, “Rob Portman took our shirts off our backs.” And that was covered; nobody would ever put any of those things on TV.Germany: It’s your press narrative versus what is your broadcast message.Koster: One of the other things we’re starting to see is clients coming to us to do their TV, because they know that they can’t get the web a lot of times if they go to the traditional TV firms and that it will be a struggle because a lot of the good new media people won’t work with the traditional TV firms who won’t let them have budget. I think we’re going to see more and more of the digital shops opening up their own TV divisions. I don’t think you’ll see it from us, but I think you’re going to see a lot of it from our competitors pretty soon.Chi: That’s the way we frame the way we talk to folks. We have a very convergent business model. We do TV, we do websites, we do online video that could be on the TV. I feel like it might be a unanimous vote here that the relationship between new media consultants and the traditional TV consultants is the one that can be really easily strained. Or there could be a compromise that is based on good relationships and folks who are willing to sort of see what the future is. But there’s a lot of conflict there.Koster: There’s no question that the traditional TV consultant and the digital consultant strain is defining the whole industry right now. Our company has redone the way we bill such that it offers more incentive for TV guys to play nice, and completely redone our client roster so as to avoid certain TV guys and to make sure we’re overlapping with others. It’s gotten to the point now where we simply won’t touch a good number of the top tier clients because they picked the wrong TV shops.C&E: How much has technology changed the production process?
Germany: The tools are coming down in price— democratized—and the line between what’s a TV ad and a web ad is blurred. I shoot everything on these Canon 5Ds, Canon 7Ds, which are basically digital SLRs that shoot beautiful, beautiful video. I’ll shoot the testimonial stuff with no lighting— I’ll have the sound guy, but no lighting. I’ll use that same camera with the full lighting crew and the whole nine yards to do a TV ad and maybe a direct- to-web ad from the candidate—again they’re on the road, no lighting. But what you’re watching on the air is blurred. It’s shot in multiple formats— whether is be film or HD or digital SLRs—it’s all mixed up.Moffatt: The one thing I think you have to be careful of on the flip side is that this is a group of people who have political sophistication and are comfortable building messaging along with it and can see the larger picture. One of the fears that I have with some of this is that people are going to take it too loosely and build messaging that’s completely off. I’m not worried about it with this group, but one of the things that will burn us on the web, I think, is that people don’t always think through what they should be pushing out there as a campaign message. The barrier being so low, there are some people who are putting stuff out there where you’re like, “I can’t believe someone gave this person a camera and then signed off on this.”Koster: It’s changed our business model to the point where we’re both taking on management consulting-scope work just to teach campaigns or organizations or corporate clients how to organize their approval process so that that doesn’t happen. Particularly with the tools getting cheaper and campaigns using them whether or not we tell them to use them, or how to use them, it’s becoming more and more important for the digital consultant’s role to be the general consultant or deputy general consultant.C&E: Would you guys all advise that from the smallest race to the biggest race? Down-ballot races obviously don’t have the biggest budgets, and maybe the first thing they cut is a digital consultant, thinking that they can do it in-house. How does what you guys do work in a city councilman’s race, for example?
Chi: There’s a big difference in expectations. Back in the day, if you were in a city councilman’s race you said, “You know what, I don’t have the money to go up on TV, most of my stuff is going to go into the mail.” Candidates change as the industry changes. They’re saying to themselves, “I see all these YouTube videos. I know all this stuff is cheaper. I have friends who know how to do this.” So candidates feel a lot more enabled in the way they look at production.Koster: You’re also seeing the traditional media consultants recognizing that their production process isn’t over when the ad is cut. We run really, really deep analytics. So in ’09 clients were asking us to split test their creative before it ran on TV by running it as online TV—or while it was on TV to adjust for the re-up buy. And we were seeing ads get re-cut because of what was happening online before it hit the actual airwaves. The media consultants who are really focused on winning don’t seem to have a problem with digital. It’s the ones who are looking at their bottom line cycle to cycle versus their bottom line as a lifelong media consultant with a solid reputation.Moffatt: The space is moving so fast that it’s really hard to say this is the next big thing. They kind of had an opportunity two years ago where they could have hired the people in this room and not had them start their own companies. That’s the other thing, too: How are these groups going to come together? We went with a different model. We partnered mainly with GCs on campaigns— we had a mind meld. Conversely, we have guys like at Craft—when they are on a project, we know they’re good and it’s going to work. Then there are some that come along, and we’re not the right fit. In their defense, they’ve built these entire business models where they are going to staff up for like four months and they want to do it a certain way. This is still an industry where trust and loyalty and having been there play a huge role. But I think that as 2010 comes and goes and you choose to stay the course, then you’re in a bad place.Koster: We’ve found partners who get it, or at least get that they don’t get it. So we’ll end up working with them on most of their client roster, but then we’ll fastidiously avoid another chunk of the industry.Chi: The thing is—and as a Democrat I want to be able to say this because I think it’s one of the big differences—a lot of these strains come from the fact that Democratic media consultants still charge a ton for media commission, whereas a lot of Republicans charge flat fees and it has been that way for years. For a lot of Democrats, the younger folks are starting to question the whole media commission structure, not just because it is something that has affected the management style of Democratic campaigns, but because folks are young and they want to have a reason to say, “We’re different.”C&E: Will online firms opening their own creative shops be the direction in which the business is heading? And how do traditional media firms react to that?
Germany: Yes, although I would say I feel like on the Republican side—and this is changing—there are less people who are editorshooter- creatives and see that as a career path. You may have people who have some of those skills, but there is no career path for them. That’s a talent issue, to a degree. A lot of people want to be more general consultants. I think the way things are going generally, especially with the rise of social media, everything has sort of gotten confused. Everyone is sort of a jack-of-all-trades.Moffatt: Republicans almost have an advantage in as much as X amount of people will run for president next cycle, which means X amount of people are going to have campaigns. By definition we’re probably going have people on a campaign that bows out in September of ’11—but some kid came along who was just unbelievable and got a chance to do it. I think that we are in a good position as Republicans, as conservatives. There will be a whole new wave of people that come up who will be empowered and, I think, for once the digital director will be seated at the table with the political director, the communications director.Germany: It’s not even just having a seat at the table or a real seat at the table, it’s about the fact that there is lack of communications between divisions. I was in a unique position in McCain ’08 where I talked to the comms guys all the time, I sat in between my Internet buddies and I was part of the media team. So I was the only one out of any of these people talking to anyone else.Chi: What you guys are saying and what will happen in 2012 is exactly right, and it is what happened with Democrats in 2008. After the ’08 election it was, “Democrats are going to own social media, Democrats are going be the people who have an advantage on this for decades.” A year later I used to tweet about Martha Coakley and I would get one re-tweet from a Democrat and like 45 responses from Republicans. Social media is fueled on anger. It’s fueled on people feeling like they are not in power. They have something to say and it’s the easiest way for them to say it. Anybody wanting to get comfortable in this space is dead wrong.Moffatt: You have to wear a lot of hats because if they don’t know how to write a budget for it, you as a company have to be prepared to be able to do it. The tools are going to get changed. The barrier to entry is going to get lower. That’s why we’re excited about the people that are going to come out of 2012; a lot of good people are going to come out of that and that’s going to be the next thing.Koster: Do you mind if I ask a question? Do you see a brain drain in the digital space to the corporate space that is larger than what you are seeing in the mail or TV?Germany: I haven’t seen it. I think that there are so many new opportunities on the Republican side. If you have good experience in that sector, you are very employable, and I don’t know what the incentive is to go into a purely corporate space.Koster: I know that it’s the case that political shops get a lot of corporate work, but I feel like we are seeing lots of people around in is is ’08 who no longer practice politics.Moffatt: I think we haven’t seen that at the senior level. I think you are going to see it at the junior level because people think that they can take their skill and transfer it over. And then they are going to go to a big corporation and have the creativity sucked out of them and want to come back.Germany: You can advance a lot further in politics in a short amount of time than you can in corporate.Moffatt: But you can afford your apartment anywhere you want if you live in corporate space, which is really the problem, right?