Andrew Bleeker is the founder and president of Bully Pulpit Interactive, one of the top Democratic digital media firms. Before launching BPI, Bleeker worked on John Kerry’s 2004 campaign and both of President Obama’s White House races.
C&E: What are your takeaways from 2014?
Andrew Bleeker: I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned regarding the tech space. Despite all the rhetoric of technological advancement—we’ve made really good progress within channels, within digital, within television and field—we still really radically suffer from using data to make decisions between and across channels. For as data driven as we are in terms of uber targeting, we’re extremely non data-driven in terms of how we make decisions. And that’s a real challenge we’re going to have to solve going forward. I think there’s also a real danger in terms of paralysis by analysis.
There’s an old adage that no one ever got fired for hiring IBM. I think this year no one wanted to be the campaign that didn’t use a model, which is a good thing. But we have to be careful in how we use all this data and not let it paralyze us into moving later or not making decisions that we know we need to make. One of the effects of trying to be so data-targeted is that it pushed a lot of decisions back to much later in the cycle. And lastly, the media environment is extremely competitive. It’s just crazy how much is being said. Technology is not enough. The content really still matters.
C&E: How much experimentation was going on this cycle?
Bleeker: Most campaigns this cycle really tried to take all the innovations of 2012 and apply them to the statewide and down-ballot level, which is actually a difficult thing to do. Mostly we saw evolutionary increases, not revolutionary increases. There was a lot of smart testing going on. A major new advancement in the online advertising world is a concept called viewability. We can now, on a pre-roll ad for instance, see what [viewer] engagement is. Are they watching it? Are they muting it? Are they going to another tab?
I think we got a lot better this cycle at not just sticking our TV ads online, which is not nearly as effective because people can pick them out as being political and stop watching. You had to get a little more creative. By and large, this cycle was really focused on translating the lessons of ’12 to lower races. I think you’re going to see a lot of great testing on a lot of fronts. How do we combine channels to be more effective than a single channel? The combination of, say, television, mail, and digital. I think we’re going to see some really interesting results there. We’re going to see some results on engagement with the creative when it’s tailored for the medium versus when you simply put something from another medium online.
C&E: Will Democrats turn away from pushing innovation because of the party’s 2014 losses?
Bleeker: No. Smart campaigns are going to keep asking the tough questions and are going to keep innovating. If anything, I think what 2014 is going to teach me and my firm is that we need to keep pushing.
C&E: Have Democrats achieved scalability of the Obama campaign playbook?
Bleeker: I think we’ve achieved scalability. If you look at individually targeted advertising, if you look modeling, those things are used in almost every congressional race on up now. I think the lesson is that technology alone isn’t enough. Having the tools is a great advantage, but you have to use them in a way that really makes sense for your race.
C&E: We’ve heard complaints that the data to make online ads effective is expensive. Do your hear that from clients?
Bleeker: I do hear that. I think we have to get better at how we think about marginal dollars. There are two very serious reasons that we still tend to default to television when we’re in danger of being outspent or we can’t keep up with spending. One important reason is that what our opponents are spending on television is more measurable than what opponents are spending on digital. So we can see not the dollars, but we can see the gross rating points that an opponent’s campaign is [putting up]. In the same way you can’t get fired for hiring IBM, you can’t get fired for trying to match your opponent point-by-point on television. That was the key rule of politics for 30 years. In a world of limited resources, is a last marginal dollar better spent on that 4,000th point of television or is it going to be better spent on the first point of a new channel?
C&E: Can you run pre-roll ads without the expensive data match and still get that effectiveness?
Bleeker: It really depends on who your targets are. If you’re in a very large district and you’re trying to reach a very small amount of people, then doing voter targeting [with data] is far more efficient. But if you’re simply trying to introduce yourself to a broad electorate for the first time, it might not be necessary. What percentage of your audience do you need to target?
C&E: Is it better to go with skipable or non-skipable pre-roll?
Bleeker: That’s a very tactical question. The short answer is the content is what matters most. If you have an engaging ad, whether skipable or not, people are going to watch it. People can tune out whether they can skip it or not. The real question is, one, how do you have content that is interesting and provides value? And two, make it a little bit surprising [because] it might be easily identified as being a political ad. The other question is how long it takes you to get your message across. There is a lot of ads I’ve seen this cycle that don’t reveal who they’re either attacking or supporting until the very end. And I think one thing that viewability metrics are really going to show us is we need to make our point rather quickly. Whether it’s skipable or not, if you don’t make your point until the end of a 30-second ad, there’s a good chance no one’s going to make it that far.
C&E: How did BPI get started?
Bleeker: We just did our five-year anniversary, which is both terrifying and exciting for us. The company got started after the 2008 campaign really because we wanted to find a niche that wasn’t being served. We really didn’t want to compete with our friends. There were a lot of people building websites. There were a lot of people doing email and fundraising. It seemed like marketing—certainly online marketing—was a major niche. We were really the first on the Democratic side. We started as a digital advertising firm, but over the last couple years we’ve become a digital marketing firm. And going forward we’ll probably just be a marketing firm. Everything is coming together technologically.
C&E: Where did the name come from?
Bleeker: I’m a history buff, and I certainly didn’t want my own name in it.
C&E: Has the consulting world’s ability to target out-stripped our ability to create content?
Bleeker: I don’t think it’s a remotely new problem, nor is it unique to politics. If you were to ask anyone in corporate marketing at brands like Procter & Gamble, they would tell you the same thing. It’s been true for decades. Content is always going to be the challenge in terms of bandwidth. The challenge is not how we slice and dice every last possible segment of the electorate, but given our resources, what are the segments that are really worth customizing? That’s where strategy and everything else comes. That’s what companies do and what we help campaigns do.
C&E: Are the clients out there for campaign work in 2015 or do you pivot for corporate work?
Bleeker: We’ve always made that part and parcel with our plan. We’ve been about 50 percent political and 50 percent other. We feel really strongly that with politics only innovating every two or four years you just simply can’t stay at the top of such a fast-moving field by only being political. We really try to make sure we stay at the top of what’s happening on Madison Avenue as well as in Silicon Valley. We have a large staple of non-political work today and we plan to continue to do both.
C&E: Are innovations happening on Madison Avenue or in Silicon Valley that the campaign world has ignored?
Bleeker: Campaigns have advantages when it comes to speed and certainly fundraising. Those are things that are unique to campaigns and the nonprofit world. But I think there are a number of places where campaigns are actually behind. One of them is an integration of data. Corporate brands in the last two to three years have gotten far more sophisticated in a cross-channel way of really understanding what they’re saying to whom. Another is social media. Campaigns really treat social media as a daily diary of what’s going on with the candidate and brands have gotten so much more sophisticated on social. We could learn a lot from the retail space.
I think more generally [campaigns are behind on] creative and design. I don’t think anyone would say that’s politics’ strongest suit. There used to be very clear lines between paid and earned media as well as between mediums — like direct mail, television, digital. We see a dramatic convergence of mediums. With our private-sector clients, what we’re seeing is the ability to tie offline outcomes to communication. That is where we are very focused.