Martha McKenna is a partner at the Democratic media firm McKenna Pihlaja.
C&E: What if we told you that campaign ads are boring and fewer people are paying attention to them? We hear that a lot.McKenna: Some of the set ups—the candidate with his family on the front porch, the woman looking out into the rain—are just so boring and have been seen too many times. We try to approach every spot to make it stand out and make it different. There are different ways to tell a story— testimonials, animated spots, which our firm does. Testimonials are a great way to get a negative message across. We look for ways to tell a person’s story not just in the words they chose but [also] on the visual side. We like to tell a story that has an element of humor to it or a more relaxed feel to it, because I think some of the methods have just worn thin. But I think there is power still in storytelling on the political side.
C&E: Animated spots?
McKenna: We like to make animated spots. An animated spot might be a little bit more expensive than using stock footage; we put the price tag on it because it’s liable to stand out more than another spot would. They are really time-intensive. It’s a lot of time and energy for the artist. It’s one thing to bring words on paper and video together; it’s another thing to animate a 30-second spot. So we have learned a lot about ways to do what we think are really creative spots within a tight budget. We recognize, as former campaign managers, that money is hard to raise and so we really look for efficiencies wherever we can, so our production costs often come in lower in the range of what other firms charge. We just don’t ever want to charge a penny more than what we have to charge on the production side of things.
C&E: How important is it to have the right production crew?
McKenna: We believed that we had the political strategy experience of messaging, and we knew that we could bring our ideas to life in 30-second spots, so we really spent a great deal of time researching and interviewing production partners. By the time we launched the firm and started pitching, we had spent an inordinate amount of time getting a relationship of trust with our production partners. So now we have the best in the business, and we really feel like our ads are different, not just because of our perspective but because of our production value.
C&E: Why be based in Washington if you want the best production values? It’s not a film and television mecca.
McKenna: It was just a function of our lives. My business partner Jen Pihlaja lives in D.C., and I live in Baltimore. It did not make sense to base in Baltimore. I think we both value getting out of D.C. She’s from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan originally, which is very, very far from Massachusetts Avenue. It’s important to have an understanding of what real people’s lives are like. It helps make better spots, and it helps figure out where to place. Getting all your political news from D.C.-based sources can be suffocating in some respects.
C&E: The firm launched in 2011. How did you and Jen decide to launch the business together?
McKenna: We know each other from EMILY’s List. We worked there for about 10 years, at different times together, before moving to the committees. Jen was the political director at the DCCC, and I was the political director at the DSCC. So we were up to our eyeballs in ads and scripts and we had similar opinions about ads that really worked, had similar opinions about ads that fell short. Then we found ourselves wanting to rewrite those scripts. If you spend enough time wanting to write scripts, you realize—maybe you should be writing scripts. So we decided to go into business together as a media consulting firm, and we launched in January 2011.
Right away we did a mayor’s race in South Bend, Indiana, and then we were off and running. I remain pleasantly surprised about how generous people were about giving us a chance, because there were a lot of doors that were opened to us and a lot of support that we got from candidates who we had worked with through the years at EMILY’s List or at the committees.
Other consultants were great, and just folks on the Democratic side of the aisle saying, “Give them a chance.” So we’ve been able to do a number of mayor’s races, congressional races, certainly a lot of IE work for EMILY’s List. We just made an ad for Emily Cain, who won the [2nd congressional district] primary in Maine. We did the DSCC IE last cycle and are doing that this cycle, too.
C&E: Do you need a lot of money in the bank to launch a media firm?
McKenna: We saved as much money as we could for starting the firm, knowing we would be entrepreneurs. But we also just hustled. No project was too small. We knew that we had to prove ourselves as ad makers. We were lucky enough at the very beginning to be hired by people we had pre-existing relationships with like Pam Gulleson, who ran in North Dakota for Congress last cycle. I had worked with her for years. She called me for advice about whether to run for Congress. And she said, “Come out and make an announcement video for me and let’s see how it goes.” So we go out and we make the announcement video and it’s beautiful, and she’s thrilled, and she gets a great reception from party activists at the convention about this video. Then she said, “OK, you can make my ads.”
C&E: Does it help attracting clients that you’re running a women-owned consulting firm?
McKenna: Absolutely. I feel like so many doors were opened to us because we’re women in this business. People that don’t yet know us say, “They’re the smart women, let me talk to them.”
There’s no doubt about it. Within our party and within the country, women voters are the majority. Certainly, in a Democratic primary, they’re the overwhelming majority. I think that we’ve been really well received, and not just by female candidates. A lot of male candidates have hired us. Some of them have hired us because they want diverse opinions at the table, and some of them have hired us because our reel was best. I think there are benefits to being a woman in this business, and I hope to have many more women come after us. But there are as many doors open to us because of the work that we’ve done through the years and the relationships that we have and the trust people have in us.
C&E: How would you describe your style?
McKenna: Jen and I are the kind of media consultants who are very involved in the day-to-day decision-making of a campaign because we have so much experience with working with the press secretaries and managers and candidates as they’re making decisions about how the message of the campaign comes across, not just on television, but in everyday press releases or press interviews, or debates or forums. So because of our experience as campaign managers and at the committees, I think that we understand the pressures candidates are under and understand the pressure that press secretaries and managers are under. We might be a sounding board for them.
That kind of a relationship, which is built over a longer period of time, makes our ads better. We really have an understanding of who the candidate is, what their values and motivations are and why they’re running. That doesn’t come from a poll. That comes from a long-term relationship with the person and just being in a foxhole with them every day.