The same revolution in media buying that prompted Madison Avenue agencies to turn their media-buying operations into separate profit centers has been building into today's viable political ad business since 1996.
For executives of National Media, Alexandria, Va., the change has been dramatic. Last year the shop was bolstered by a $50 million-plus buy for the tobacco industry. The agency probably bought an equal amount for its own political clients.
Speeding the Washington push to separate media buying and creative are the same economics and efficiency issues that drove Madison Avenue agencies plus two phenomena unique to the Washington Beltway.
First, big political agencies at one time staffed up media buying in election years, then faced a choice of carrying high costs or cutting staff in off years. Now, those shops have concluded they wouldn't lose much and could cut costs by handling media buying separately or semi-autonomously.
Second, more advocacy advertising money has become available as companies, facing new stringent curbs on lobbying activities, increasingly turn to ad campaigns to woo Congress or constituents. These efforts create new off-year opportunities for media buying that don't conflict with political candidates.
Every major Washington political agency has made the move.
STARTS BUYING TIME
On the Democratic side, where Squier Knapp Dunn Communications, Washington, handled President Clinton's campaign and a chunk of the Democratic Party's advertising, Media Director Cathie Herrick has left to form Buying Time.
At Greer Margolis Mitchell Burns & Associates, Washington, another major Democratic agency, Media Director Brad Perseke formed Great American Media, Alexandria, Va.
Barbara Abar -- who had been with the agency that became Shrum, Devine & Donilon, Washington -- formed Abar Hutton Media, Alexandria, Va. in 1996.
On the Republican side, Brad Mont, former media director at what is now Murphy Pintak Gautier Hudome, McLean, Va., formed Media Ad Ventures. In addition, Dave Neal, a former executive at National Media, joined with two former media sales executives to form Strategic Media Service, Alexandria, Va.
The moves also may have benefitted buyers outside of Washington. It is National Media's success last year that provided the inspiration to the others.
National Media President Robin Roberts decided four years ago to go "semi-autonomous" and pitch other business. His agency at the time had built a reputation working on Bob Dole's campaigns.
"We were in the right place at the right time with the right business model when the lobbying laws changed," says Mr. Roberts, downplaying the agency's success.
The pitch to corporate clients is the quick turnaround time for getting ads on the air. Years of political campaigns now could translate to corporate purposes.
Media buyers in Washington all contend they are much better than New York buyers at handling the quick turnaround dictated by advocacy campaigns.
"It's a lot like a political campaign without the candidate," says Mr. Roberts. It's "in and out of the market real quickly; a lot of media weight very quickly, and it is dominated by public opinion and the legislative calendar."
CASE OF ECONOMICS
Washington media buyers point to the projected growth of advocacy ads as the big reason for the change, but they also point to economics.
"The expertise and equipment [for media buying] is growing more expensive, and it is easy to farm it out," says Mr. Neal. "It's more efficient to handle it separately."
Ms. Herrick says political campaign handlers are looking at costs, and one cost that constantly comes up is media buying.
The political advertising side of the business has definitely been growing as a look at almost any congressional campaign can show.
How quickly the advocacy ad business will grow, however, remains uncertain.
Today, a number of media buyers, while pitching corporate advocacy efforts primarily handle ads aimed at upcoming elections.
The difficulty facing media buyers was driven home this year when the Senate put off all issues until the trial of President Clinton concluded in mid-February. As with other segments of the nation's business, the launch of most issue advocacy ads was effectively put off.