Andy Sere is an ad maker at DMM Media, a Republican media firm. He was previously chief of staff for Rep. David McKinley and a regional communications director at the National Republican Congressional Committee.
C&E: Are campaigns experimenting this cycle the way the Obama camp did in 2012?
Andy Sere: I think there are very few organizations or campaigns that are in a position to say, “Let’s go spend a bunch of money experimenting.” But let’s say you’re a governor running for reelection, and you’re going to win, but you’re still running a gubernatorial campaign, and you’ve got a lot of money and you want to go do some experimentation in spring and just see what it tells you about what you need to be doing with bigger money later. People are doing that. Groups whose funding streams are reliable are spending that amount of money, but your average toss-up House or Senate race isn’t really in a financial position to do that.
C&E: Are you seeing a shift in how candidates are spending their money?
Sere: Last cycle for House candidates a decent digital buy was uncommon. This cycle it’s the opposite. For absolutely every campaign, digital is a major part of the discussion.
C&E: How much of the media budget should a campaign spend on digital?
Sere: I don’t think it’s that cut and dry. It depends on each race. It definitely differs by district, and it differs by what kind of content you’re running, and it differs by who your audience is, and it differs by how your opponent is allocating his resources across all those mediums.
C&E: What about programmatic buying for online?
Sere: At the end of the day, no one really has this figured out. Anyone who tells you that they know exactly what you’re getting when you have “X” pre-roll online plan isn’t telling the truth. Below the presidential level, it’s too new for anyone to give you a rundown of how this is going to play out and the benefit you’re getting from doing it. It’s just too new, especially for down-ballot candidates.
C&E: Are Republicans catching up to the Democrats in terms of incorporating data and digital into advertising?
Sere: I’m seeing Republican outside groups put significant resources into digital, whereas I don’t see as much of that on the Democratic side. In one race I’m working on right now, West Virginia’s 3rd District, several of the conservative outside groups have had a digital component that’s not insignificant, and it comes along with the TV and cable buys. House Majority PAC was in there for two and a half months spending a ton on broadcast, but nothing on digital. I’m seeing that in a few other places as well. I don’t see quite as much investment in that this cycle on the Democratic side.
C&E: Is there a tension between production value and placement?
Sere: It’s a pretty common thread throughout most campaigns. There’s always a tension between the desire to have the most possible points behind the buy and the best possible ad. The fact is it’s really tough to have your cake and eat it too, especially with smaller media budgets. Part of the effectiveness of an ad is how much money’s behind it, and part of the effectiveness of an ad is how good it is. The more money you spend on a TV shoot, you’re usually going to get better product. There’s a reason that no matter how much money a campaign has, you don’t see them running an ad that looks as cool as the ones that Pepsi runs during the Super Bowl. Making that stuff costs a lot of money. And it also takes a lot of time to do the grand-scale kinds of things that they do. Even if you’re not trying to win an award for best art, there’s always a tension.
You’ve got to figure out what you actually need to do to win the race and what other political advertisers are going to be on TV. Am I a household-name incumbent? Or am I a challenger who starts from zero name-ID? Am I in a five-way primary? In that case, if you’re in a cluster of a primary and everyone’s just fighting for their piece, what makes you stand out? Sometimes those lower-budget House primaries are about who had the creative ad. Let’s say some on the campaign want to do a film shoot on the cheap for $20,000. But a shoot for $40,000 could get you much better ads. Since you’re spending so much money on airing the ads, isn’t it worth taking an extra $20,000 out of a $2 million buy to have the best ads possible? But if you’re talking about a media market like Chicago, let’s go do an expensive shoot and take time with each ad to make it as good as possible. If you’re running in one of the cheapest media markets in the country, you’ve got to evaluate the costs between doing a real TV shoot and, say, a green screen shoot. That can buy you 500 points of TV in a market.
C&E: What about mobile?
Sere: If we’re talking about persuasion ads, I don’t think it’s there yet in terms of being an effective tool for most campaigns. I think there are other purposes. There’s grassroots mobilization for a primary. But the more you’re expanding into places that people aren’t used to seeing your political ads, the more you’ve got to account for the medium. Mobile’s big in terms of people’s usage of it. People are with their phones and everyone wants to go grab those people, but I believe that for a video ad there’s still a high bar. And what is your production budget? How many different ads is it worth incurring the production costs of to get into every medium, when most of those people are already seeing your message?
C&E: What do you think the lesson will be coming out of 2014?
Sere: Everyone will be a lot smarter. The progress and knowledge that will be made this cycle will probably be the biggest two-year jump. Some of this is just based on technology that we know is coming but isn’t there. You see insertable cable. DirecTV and Dish are doing it, Cablevision and Comcast, too. It’s coming, but it’s not as if most political candidates across the country have the opportunity to take advantage of that in a cost-efficient way, or a way that has a broad reach. But in terms of messaging, we’ll see if Republicans have gotten smarter about an economic message that appeals to the middle class and presenting that message in a way that’s compelling to swing voters, which in many ways we have not done in the past. It will be instructive to see.
C&E: Does running a good campaign matter more this cycle?
Sere: The past few cycles we’ve seen a lot of people survive who shouldn’t, but they do because of how flawed their opponent is. I think certainly on the Senate and on the House side, too, there’s not a lot of that this cycle. This will be a better test case for an incumbent in a hostile environment. You look at the map, and you look at the generic ballot, and you can go down a list and say, “This person really shouldn’t survive, or this person should.” We will learn more about what it takes to win a race that you’re not supposed to win in a hostile environment. What works to survive even if your opponent is a pretty credible candidate running a decent campaign? Can an incumbent save themselves? How can they do it?
Some of these Democrats are running really beautiful positive TV ads, and some of them are running good campaigns. There are not a lot of examples that you can point to from the last two cycles, or even going further back, where this person won against the odds because of the great campaign they ran. They were predetermined to win because we’ve had wave years, or because their opponents were some seriously flawed candidates and individuals. They didn’t necessarily win the race. Their opponent won it for them. This environment is certainly better for Republicans than it is for Democrats, but I don’t believe it’s even close to 2010. I think you’ve got a lot of interesting contests where campaigns matter.
C&E: What experience do you draw from when producing an ad?
Sere: I started managing campaigns for state House and Senate in my 20s, leaving college to do so. I moved to D.C. in 2009 to work for the NRCC and did the southeast region and handled communications there. One of the candidates in my region who ended up winning, David McKinley, asked me to be his chief of staff when he took office so I went over there—my first and last government job. I was not going to be on the Hill forever. It was a good experience for a campaign person. I really benefited from expanding my skills and knowledge into a lot of different areas that you don’t really get the benefit of on campaigns. Sometimes when you write an ad, it’s helpful to know a little bit more about policy than the three sentences that you did before. Now that you’ve walked through this stuff in a pretty detailed way, it gives you more options when you’re writing ads.