This issue's Shoptalkers: Fred Davis, CEO of Strategic Perception; Eric Hogensen, president of HSG Campaigns; Douglas Herman, partner at The Strategy Group; and Vince Monaco, owner of the Monaco Group.
C&E: Sen. Barbara Boxer recently announced her retirement. Are we going to see a different kind of campaign in the race to succeed her?
Douglas Herman: This is the first campaign that will have the top-two primary rules for a competitive, statewide federal race. That alone will make it different. And it’s also the first race in the Wild West days of campaign finance with no limits, so I think we’re guaranteed to see some different things happening. The question is how that dynamic plays itself out.
Eric Hogensen: It’ll probably be a big field, too. With a big field of candidates, the two-top becomes really interesting.
C&E: In the California Senate primary that we’re going to see, is TV going to win the day or will mail be more important?
Fred Davis: There is a critical place for both. In a state like California, where it costs $5 million to run a 30-second TV spot for a week, you have to be able to fine tune and pick which voters you’re going to [target]. As well-meaning as cable TV is, as well-meaning as some of the technology is, it’s not close yet. These [mail] guys win. In California, more than most states, what mail does is absolutely vital. But can you live without the TV? I don’t think so. We’ve done campaigns here where the candidate or the general consultant just thought that cable TV was eminently targetable and it would do the trick. And it doesn’t move the dial. To get the image, to get a marketable brand developed it takes broadcast television. To get them to vote and to get them all the information you need to finalize that decision, it takes these [mail] guys. Not something in between.
Herman: You need both. You’ve got to have a fully integrated campaign across the board. You can’t be all in on TV; you can’t be all in on mail. You can’t forsake digital. You’ve got to do all of it.
Hogensen: Especially this statewide stuff. Five million bones for a 30-second spot is a lot of money. You could do a hell of a lot of microtargeted mail. Tighten up your universe; go after people who vote by mail. If they didn’t send their ballot in, you could chase them.
Davis: And if you don’t do that you’re going to lose.
Vince Monaco: We probably won’t play much in the statewide Senate race unless Republicans come up with some dialed-up candidate. The top two are going to be two Democrats. We don’t do a lot of mail for statewide candidates because there aren’t a lot of Republican statewide campaigns. Maybe in the Boxer race we come up with a good candidate and we sneak in there for the second round of voting.
C&E: Is digital eating into mail or TV budgets?
Monaco: I haven’t really seen that big of a change, maybe just in the last week [of a campaign] more than anything else. It used to be that you could get mail on the street the next day after you dropped it. Now it takes two, three, sometimes four days. Maybe when it was trendy a couple years ago digital took a bite out of the mail budget, but it’s really kind of come back around and evened itself out. Mail and TV are two of the best ways to market anything—whether it’s a candidate or a bar of soap.
Davis: Some of the digital people try to say that digital replaces mail and TV, but that’s not the case.
Hogensen: It’s an integrated part of the mail program. It’s added on and put into the program.
Davis: But where do those budget dollars come from? I have to say they probably come more from television.
Herman: Oftentimes it’s the same consultant producing it, so it’s coming out of their budget.
Hogensen: Sometimes it can come out of the field budget, too.
C&E: Are QR codes still being used on mailers?
Hogensen: I used them in a race three years ago because I thought they were going to take off. At the time, there was a prediction it was going to spread like wildfire. But it didn’t take off. It was a little bit gimmicky.
Herman: It’s helpful to put on. We’ve used it with younger targets. It wasn’t just passively placed there. [We said] scan this smart code. It’s a call to action.
Davis: We used it on t-shirts for a campaign that will not be named. It just didn’t do anything. It was cute.
Monaco: We did a QR code on a mailer just this past campaign for a candidate who was a computer nerd. He was able to track how many people used it and I think the response rate was less than 2 percent.
C&E: Is it still true that mail is the best way to put out a contrast message?
Davis: If you put a negative ad on television there’s blowback. Mail doesn’t get blowback as much because it doesn’t have that water-cooler thing the next day.
Monaco: Mail is a targeted audience. With TV, you’re hitting people with more time on their hands and they’re going to call and complain because that wasn’t politically correct.
Herman: And you can’t screen out the other side with TV. You can do that on mail.
Hogensen: If you’re trying to go after a very specific group with a negative message, then mail is still the best way to do that. If you’re trying to take the knees out of your opponent in the biggest way, then you’re going to choose to do that on TV.
C&E: Both mediums are under some pressure now. TV’s audience is fracturing and the post office is altering its delivery pattern. What do you see changing ahead of 2016?
Herman: I think you’re going to see fewer delivery days and higher prices. Every year the post office takes longer to deliver the product and they make us move up our drop dates earlier and earlier. It used to be that we could drop stuff on Friday before the election and now, depending on what kind of race you’re in, it may be Tuesday of the week ahead. It used to be said that the Internet would be the downfall of direct mail, but it’s really the viability of the postal service. The Internet is leading to the downfall of TV.
Monaco: We take stuff to sectional centers and drop ship it. When you’re doing a statewide campaign, you’ve got to do that. If you’re dropping mail on a Wednesday before the election, it’s going to get there; Thursday, you’re rolling the dice.
Hogensen: It becomes harder to respond quickly over mail. It becomes more about planning for longer lead times with not all delivery days being on the table. That’s going to be inevitable. But at the end of the day, the post office doesn’t want to hear anybody complaining that their mail is late.
Herman: When members of Congress and senators complain, then they’re going to feel the heat.
Monaco: I think you’ll see a privatization in our lifetime. Companies will come in and takeover the post office.
Davis: I don’t see a lot changing. More and more people will try to peel a few dollars off TV budgets here and there to try this new digital thing. It’s a short-term situation. There is a place for digital. Taking in small-dollar donations is something the Internet is really good at. It’s great for organizing. But as far as that building the brand thing, not so much. We had some surprise victors this last cycle—Ben Sasse in Nebraska and David Perdue in Georgia—both of those went from zero to 100 based on, in many cases, one ad. But it wasn’t just an ad that hit heavy. Everybody saw it and then the most important thing happened—everybody talked about it the next day. That piece isn’t going away.
Hogensen: There’s no question that the power of TV is unparalleled. You’re in someone’s living room. It’s a live discussion. It’s a human being. That is really something that can’t be replaced on a mobile ad in any significant way—at least for the foreseeable future. Who knows what will happen in 100 years when we have chips in our heads.
C&E: Should candidates in California or on the national level avoid their party’s brand?
Davis: In California, I would advise a Republican to run with anything but an R next to their name. Go be an independent or something like that. When I was doing John McCain’s presidential, I didn’t have a bumper sticker on my car. I was very proud to be doing that—I love John McCain—but I didn’t want my car to get keyed.
Hogensen: People don’t like politics. The parties are political. Attaching candidates to parties, in general, I don’t think is the best thing to do.
Davis: But don’t you think that in California, there’s an overriding sense that Republicans are bad, Democrats might not be great, but they’re still better than those evil Republicans.
Herman: That’s because we’ve had 20 years to make hay on Pete Wilson’s Proposition 187. That still does more damage today than any policy that comes out of Washington, because it’s just ingrained in the electorate of California that Republicans are not on their side. The Latino issue is still there. Until that problem is solved, Republicans will have a problem in this state.
C&E: What about nationally?
Monaco: It depends on what your demographic is. If you’re running for Congress in a Republican district, you’re going to have that R all over your name.
Davis: Nationally, I would run as a moderate, for sure. If you put Jeb Bush aside, you put Hillary Clinton aside, and you put Chris Christie aside, I think there’s a lot of room for a White Knight to come in. In 2012, I did Jon Huntsman and I thought that he was possibly that guy, and it didn’t pan out that way. I think Mitt Romney could have been that guy and that didn’t pan out that way. But I think people are ready for something new. Who it is, I haven’t the faintest clue.
C&E: How would a moderate maneuver through the Republican presidential primary calendar?
Davis: How did a two-year senator with a history of being a community organizer in Illinois overwhelm the country, capture the young and people who had never voted before? You have to have a candidate like that.
C&E: How do you know whether to send mail in Spanish or another language?
Herman: California has a unique little tag on the voter file that tells you where someone was born. A voter with a Spanish last name born outside of the country is highly likely to be a Spanish speaker. That’s the clue. They get bilingual mail.
Hogensen: If all the people in the house are foreign born, you can be pretty sure there’s some Spanish-language speakers in the house.
Monaco: We do a lot of Vietnamese mail. We design it and send it to a translator.
Davis: We do the same thing on TV.
C&E: We often hear candidates say, “I don’t even check my own mail. People are just going to throw my pieces out.” How do you counteract that?
Hogensen: Oftentimes the people who say that don’t have a lot of experience with campaigns. They’re the novice. That’s their individual experience. But the people who understand it know that’s the way to go in a lot of cases.
Davis: The same people argue that everybody fast forwards through commercials.
Herman: How do you debunk that? Take a high-profile congressional race in the L.A. market that doesn’t go on TV but has tons of mail. Both sides spend a lot of money, the races gets decided and it’s all done in the mail. Did the mail have no effect? I doubt that.
Hogensen: The question is, what else are you going to do? Digital? You’re going to spend all your money on mobile ads? When you start to think it through, it doesn’t make sense.
C&E: Do the images in campaign advertising need to change? How can candidates stand out?
Herman: Sure, I’ve heard a lot of people say, “I’m going to be the break-the-mold candidate.” And then they revert to form all the way through the campaign.
Hogensen: You want to be able to stand out for sure, but there’s a limit to it and there’s a reason why in a campaign we choose to communicate in a certain way. You communicate about the candidate and the issues that matter. It’s important to not stick to it entirely—you want to be creative, but you can’t be too far out there.
Monaco: People want to see your dog and your kids and your happy, healthy family. I don’t think you can get too much of that unless you’re an ugly candidate with an ugly family.
Davis: It’s the way you do it. Ben Sasse—really good looking guy, good looking wife, great looking kids. Did we have him in his backyard? Yes. Did we have them waterskiing? Yes. Did we have them on the Fourth of July with red, white, and blue stuff? Yes. But not like everybody else does it, so it goes in one eyeball and out of the back of your head. We did it in a unique and interesting fashion, just like you’d make a movie.
Herman: The Millennials are consuming their information differently so some of this is being changed by definition as the electorate changes. As the electorate ages and the young part of this electorate grows up, these images are going to change.
Hogensen: But in the near term most of the voters are older, so most of the voters are consuming media in the traditional ways. Millennials are going to be the powerhouse 20-30 years from now. Right now they’re just a small fraction of the vote.
Herman: And they’re an unreliable fraction of the vote on top of that. They don’t turn out in the midterms, for example.
C&E: Doug, you did President Obama’s mail in 2008 and 2012—do clients ask to copy the Obama mail strategy?
Herman: They’re far more audacious—they want the entire Obama campaign. You have to put it into context because this is all about scalability. In 2010, when people said they wanted the Obama campaign there was no scalability on some of the modeling and analytics that had been used in 2008. In 2014, there was scalability so some of that did start percolating down into the lower ballot races. That will certainly continue into the next cycle.
C&E: How do you describe the Obama mail program?
Herman: First and foremost, we tested it. We tested every single mail piece on a big panel online, and it was tested with a bunch of metrics—favorability, for example. Would the cover make me more interested in opening it? Message. The Obama campaign had every resource in the world to perfect its testing, not every campaign in the world has that. In down-ballot races, the models are going to be flawed, because they’re not perfecting them and tweaking them like Obama’s presidential campaign did.
C&E: Are you testing more?
Monaco: We really don’t have time to do a lot of testing. If you’re running for state Assembly, or senator, a congressional race, or supervisor—we design a piece on Tuesday morning, we’re printing it Tuesday night and you’re in the mail on Wednesday. We don’t have the money or time to do a lot of testing. We do a lot of initiative mail. Those guys don’t test anything. You just don’t have a lot of time. There are two 10-day windows to reach your voters when they’re paying attention. But with fundraising mail, we test all kinds of stuff.
C&E: Is there an over-testing of TV ads?
Davis: There are teams that are pro-testing; there are teams that don’t care at all. In the two Senate races we did last cycle, in one of them we tested every single thing we did, in the other we didn’t test a single thing. They both won. The one that tested everything, it was more of a nightmare because they’d find some little something in that test. We had to [reshoot] more than a dozen times. Did the testing in that particular case help this person win? Maybe. I’m not saying it didn’t. I’m saying it makes my life more difficult.
C&E: Is the alternative trusting your gut?
Davis: Any size campaign team has more than the candidate. On statewide races there’s a large team. Everything I do goes through 10 people probably. Everybody gets their two cents in. You might change blue to red. In general, you don’t start over.
C&E: Are candidates starting their campaigns earlier?
Hogensen: You can send mail as early as you want, but if the voters aren’t paying attention, it’s not going to matter. You’ve got to be talking to voters when they’re paying attention.
C&E: What’s changing for you?
Hogensen: I think the changes at the congressional and state level are about bringing effectiveness offline from the online world. There’s a way that can happen, but I don’t think it’s been fully fleshed out.
Davis: We shoot a lot of online content around every ad that we shoot. We shoot double or triple the quantity of footage that we used to shoot.
Herman: We never had candidates ask for photos in the past. Now they all do, and the photos show up everywhere online.
Hogensen: The photos that we use are being put online so the online stuff is being a little bit more integrated into the campaign.
C&E: How is technology changing your part of the industry?
Hogensen: What is changing is digital printing and variable data, and the digital piece being integrated with direct mail.
Monaco: If you’re running a small race, you can do a variable data piece with names on it—no different than a personalized direct-mail letter. It just takes so long to do on the machines and it’s expensive. It’s really 5-10 years away from being mainstream.
Davis: Cameras are getting cheaper and smaller. But at the end of the day, lighting’s not getting cheaper. I’ve had the same lighting guy for 35 years, he’s fabulous, and he doesn’t cost any less. So the equipment does help bring the cost down enormously. [The additional online footage] is a zero-dollar additional piece you can throw together. If it was 35-millimeter film, that would have cost a fortune.