John Lapp is a partner in the media firm McMahon Squier Lapp and Associates. Prior to this, he was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, where he helped engineer the Democrats’ takeover of Congress in 2006.
Politics: What do you see as the biggest challenge today to people in your field?
Lapp: With this ADHD society that we have, you have to figure out how to get the attention of the voter. You have to be all over everything, from mail to the Internet to TV. But it’s a challenge for the media consultant to be creative enough. It’s not like a voter needs to see your ad 10 times, it’s that you have to cut through the clutter and compete with Tide and everything else. So for media consultants to be at the top of their game, they’ve got to learn to evolve.
Politics: With regard to bloggers and others online who create their own venues to dissect candidates, do you try to co-opt them, or is it more about competing with them?
Lapp: It’s more of an organic process. You know, old school consultants would love to control things from the top down, from the news cycle to the message to everything else. But now you have to be comfortable with the fact that the candidate is not solely controlling the message anymore. There’s 527 groups, different websites, web videos, and if you’re not up for dealing with that, you better get out of the kitchen.
Politics: In what other ways are things changing in the world of political media?
Lapp: TV ads have been around for a while, and there’s been a fatiguing of the classic scary music, scary voice approach. I think less is more now. Look at a lot of the ads from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—there’s no music, there are longer pieces, rough cuts, town halls, actual interactions with people. So I think now in media consulting it’s about being genuine, and those kinds of candidates and consultants get rewarded. The ones who overproduce get punished.
Politics: Would you point to any other traits of successful ads?
Lapp: Humor is also critical. It catches people, it keeps their attention. One of the ads we did with this firm involved [former Arizona Rep.] J. D. Hayworth, in which we had a group of lobbyists singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and clinking martini glasses, and then Chyrons that read, “Took the special-interest money” and so on. So it’s about injecting humor; people want to be entertained. I mean, you don’t get a Tide spokesman going to camera lecturing about all the things that are great about a Tide product. There’s a gut-level emotional connection about watching these at home with your kids, your mom. I think the sooner consultants get that, the ads will be better and more interesting.
Politics: Is there an ad you’d point to as one that was both very creative and successful?
Lapp: This wasn’t an ad done by this firm, but by David Axelrod, Obama’s media consultant. There was an incredibly entrenched Republican named John Hostettler. The critical thing was not to insult the voter. They clearly liked him, he had high favorables, they were voting for him for a reason. And so out of serious research, there was a tone developed for an ad that said, “We had such high hopes for John Hostettler. What went wrong? He said he was going to reform Washington, but then he took all this special-interest money. And he loosened ethics restrictions. Did he change Washington or did Washington change him?” It’s leaving a question with the voters and letting them answer it, as opposed to, “You just can’t trust him!”
Again, I think providing information and then stepping back from it as opposed to trying to jam it down voters’ throats is a better way.
Politics: What works in your field that fellow practitioners don’t do enough of?
Lapp: Earlier low-level media. The conventional wisdom for so long has been to save all the money and put it at the end, the last two or three weeks, where I actually think there’s a case to be made for lower level. But it takes discipline. You have to leave a spot on at a lower point level for a larger number of weeks. When nobody is on the air, there’s this thing you hear—voters aren’t paying attention, voters aren’t paying attention. Well, they’re not paying attention because traditionally you run all the spots at the end. So why not try to establish your candidate, in a positive vision kind of way, early in the summer?
Politics: If you look at where the money goes, it’s still to the traditional outlets by far. Does that mean we’re over-reacting to the newest technologies?
Lapp: I think it’s still evolving. And the private sector is always 10 years ahead of political stuff. Whereas political firms, for the most part, are still buying 90 percent on broadcast and 10 percent on cable, industry is largely doing 60 to 65 percent broadcast and 30 to 35 percent cable. The private sector has the resources to do the research. GE and other companies are not putting money on cable for fun; they clearly think that’s a better strategy. I’m a big fan of looking at trends to figure out how to get the biggest bang for your buck. So take the Internet: It’s here to stay, it’s expanding. The great thing for media consultants about TV is that it’s passive, you’ve got this captive audience. With the Internet, you’re requiring them to interact with it, whether it’s a banner ad or something else. I’ve found the click rate is largely 7 percent, so how do you penetrate those? I think you’ll see, in the same way you’re buying TV and the same way you’re doing mail, there will be a whole discipline of Internet buying. And is it a discipline all its own, or is it a part of a strategy? Certainly, it’s an interesting time and a fork in the road.
Politics: Do you ever find yourself being envious of things Republicans do well?
Lapp: For a while, direct mail fundraising was a Republican advantage, and they would kick our asses as a party forever. They owned it, and we could never quite catch up. Well, the good news for us is people are now donating online. Clearly, with presidential and congressional candidates, we’re beating Republicans online. And I don’t know if it’s a function of us being better or if the medium just lends itself more to the Democratic Party. You know, Republicans like talk radio because they like getting their orders, getting their talking points. They’re hierarchical, top-down. But we like to go back and forth, and the Internet allows for that. There’s a lot of debate, people get ginned up, and it gets them donating right there online. I think Republicans are trying to catch up and I never underestimate them. They’re tough, they learn from their mistakes, and never give up. But I do think we have an advantage.
Politics: Finally, is there anything you regret, anything that makes you say, ‘Never again’?
Lapp: I won’t be like George Bush, saying if I ever make a mistake I’ll let you know. I’ve made plenty. In terms of a regret, in particular last cycle, North Carolina’s 8th District was a seat we lost by 500 to 700 votes. I was at the DCCC last cycle, executive director, and we polled three times and each time it showed us it was not possible to win in that district, not doable. And so we made the decision not to put any resources in there. Well, Larry Kissell lost by a few hundred votes—our polling was way wrong. And the lesson there is to take a second look, do more polling, get a second gauge. That was a real missed opportunity. Larry Kissell was a guy who put his retirement savings into the race, gave everything he had, and I know if we’d invested there, he’d be in Congress today. I owe him a personal apology for that.