A new breed of general consultant is carving out an industry niche just in time to help guide a surge of rookie candidates.
These new GCs aren’t just vetting vendors and advising on campaign strategy. In some cases, they’re starting at the ground floor helping newbie candidates negotiate every detail of running for office in 2018. In others, they’re helping groups and campaigns navigate the increasingly complex digital ad marketplace. They’re even helping advise firms on how best business practices.
Sure, GC’s have always had to do a certain amount of handholding for their clients — it comes with the territory — but this cycle has seen the role evolve to meet the needs of the current environment.
For instance, the client profile has changed, at least on the left, where President Trump is helping draw a new type of pol into the process. In fact, this cycle is expected to set records for candidate diversity and for the number of first-timers launching bids.
Many of these candidates are so new to the process they don’t know where to start, said Atima Omara, who recently launched a self-named firm.
“They have great stories and they have great resumes, but they don’t have that political knowledge,” she said. “Part of my job is bring them up to speed: ‘Here is the world of politics and these are the things you need to think of.”
Omara is targeting her services to female candidates of color and LGBT candidates. “I’ve run for office myself so I know how to deal with [issues] real time,” she said.
Omara faces some competition from candidate training groups like VoteRunLead, a non-partisan outfit that holds free seminars for women running for down-ballot office. “People are wary of investing in online platforms they don’t know how to use,” said
Erin Vilardi, the group’s founder and executive director. She notes that participants in her seminars gain access to a private Facebook page where users form a “collective brain” that vets consultants and vendor services. “There’s been a lot of conversation around online contributions,” Vilardi noted.
Beyond the explosion of online fundraising platforms, these candidates also have to worry about a shakeup in digital advertising. Facebook is revamping its newsfeed and introducing new ad offerings, YouTube is taking new steps to moderate its content. Ad blockers are the new normal on most browsers. Moreover, new channels like chat and text, or formats like VR are giving digital strategists even more to think about.
In this environment, it’s not just newcomer candidates who the new GCs are targeting. Existing firms, groups and established pols are also in need of what these experts can offer.
With that in mind, Sam Osborne Reynolds recently launched Battle Rhythm Strategies to help bring big picture planning and digital coordination to clients on the right.
"Digital is still going through a learning curve, to some extent," said Osborne Reynolds. "There are so many tools and so many [platforms] out there. I'm trying to give them the best guidance on how to build and manage a digital operation. That's my service. Not the actual execution.”
Osborne Reynolds had served as the chief digital officer at the RNC and felt a sense of momentum as she left her committee post last year. But pitch meetings yielded mixed results.
After meeting, some campaigns offered her a tiny retainer, while other potential clients asked if she could do things beyond her scope, like write ad copy. Others asked her to manage client relations.
Osborne Reynolds recalled some potential clients told her, “I don’t have time to get on strategy calls, maybe you can handle that?”
She had a learning curve to overcome. Still, she understood their confusion about what service she was offering. It’s difficult to see the value proposition in a consultant who tells you how you can save $10,000 by spending $5,000.
“Unless you’re raising money, it’s sometimes hard to see something tangible” from a consultant, she said.
A common misconception about digital, she noted, is that it’s “cost effective, it’s not cheap.”
As with any emerging industry niche, potential clients’ understanding of the new GC role will take time. Osborne Reynolds recently folded her company into Advoc8, a digital firm she joined as senior director of digital strategy.
Meanwhile, Michelle Coyle, who last year founded a business-to-business consulting shop targeting campaign firms and advocacy organizations, said her work has ramped up as word of mouth spread. BGSD Strategies, she said, is now “growing at an insane rate.”