There will be little nostalgia for the past 12 months after the bizarre spectacle that was 2017 comes to a close. But some of the industry conflicts that made headlines remain unresolved, and will continue to impact practitioners long into the New Year.
Here are some major storylines that will continue to shape how consultants work in 2018.
The Regulation Fight
The Honest Ads Act introduced in October, which would require “those who purchase and publish [political ads] to disclose information about the advertisements to the public,” has bipartisan support and some Beltway media backing. But it’s the FEC, a body equally well known for its gridlock, that may act faster than Congress on disclosure requirements for campaign and advocacy social media marketing.
In mid-December, the FEC made what Commissioner Ellen Weintraub called “a small step forward” on the disclosure front. That step came when it ruled that the group Take Back Action Fund, which had sought guidance from the commission, must include disclaimers on “its proposed Facebook image and video ads that call for the election or defeat of candidates.”
The legal opinion approved by commissioners is narrow and applies only to the Take Back Action Fund’s advertising. But it was the latest indication that the FEC is going to rollback the small-item exemption on digital ads.
“Look for real clarity in the 2018 rulemaking,” predicted Dan Backer, a campaign finance attorney.
The Digital Evolution
The 2018 digital ad landscape will see the growth of shorter snackable ad formats and untested platforms.
For instance, Facebook’s new pre-roll offering has some practitioners excited, but at the same time the company is in the crosshairs of the FEC and congressional lawmakers.
Meanwhile Google — another Capitol Hill and Trump administration target — faced an avalanche of bad press in 2017 over its placement of ads next to offensive content. It’s leashed an army of moderators to help clients avoid any embarrassment, but consultants will need to be increasingly vigilant lest their spots are seen in front of problematic content that results in negative news coverage.
Meanwhile, Apple’s disrupting the cookie ad tech business with its "intelligent tracking prevention” included its iOS 11 software. Ad Age declared it means the death of the cookie business, or will at least lead to consolidation in the space. Consultants will have to navigate this shifting terrain.
Where the Trail of Enforcement Leads
Practitioners anticipated that the indictment of former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort would invite added scrutiny of consultants working overseas. That could happen as the details of his work in the Ukraine, and the lucrative payments for it, get reported out during his trial. But Manafort’s case may also be instructive for federal authorities looking to make cases against bad actors working domestically.
Consider the FBI raid on Strategic Campaign Group, an Annapolis, Md.-based GOP consulting firm, last May. Within hours of the raid, the company’s president Kelley Rogers was telling reporters he suspected it was connected to his firm's involvement with The Conservative Strikeforce, which dates back to 2013. But that claim hasn’t been proven.
Some observers speculated that the raid was linked to the feds’ investigation of Trump’s campaign, but many practitioners told C&E that’s unlikely. Still, the cases may inform one another. If Manafort ultimately agrees to a plea bargain, or is convicted and is facing serious jail time, he could help the feds with more than just their investigation of the Trump campaign.
Will the Creative Power a Wave Year?
With Roy Moore likely to fade from the national memory, Democratic ad makers have been mulling the right formula for creative targeting female voters, a group that was key to GOP gains in the House and Senate in 2010.
Polling shows they have a primed audience. In fact, the GOP is now trailing by 20 points among women on the question of who should control Congress, the most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows. Among women with college degrees, Democrats have a greater advantage. Here Democrats lead Republicans 62-to-30 percent, a historic edge that could translate into a wave, albeit with the right message that gets them to the polls.
Meanwhile, Republican practitioners can take heart from some other telling numbers. The polling advantage hasn’t translated into an avalanche of cash for the Democratic campaign committees. In fact, the DNC is putting up its worst monthly numbers since George W. Bush was in office.