What Ad Agencies Should Be Cribbing From the Campaign Trail

We Could Do With a Little More Speed, Aggression and Swagger

By Published on .

Before I became captain on this kick-ass pirate ship of an agency, I was a consultant hired to run political campaigns across the country. Some were big races, some the small, local variety. And as our national attention shifts from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina to Florida to the next electoral hot-spot, agencies -- no matter what party owners and employees support -- should be taking notes on the leading campaigns.

There are a lot of things politicos get wrong, but when it comes to their advertising campaigns, there are a few things they get right that could help your agency, and most importantly your clients, compete and win.

Be Quick
Let's start with speed. Speed wins. Period. Here's a scenario: Candidate A puts his foot in his mouth on Monday. Candidates B & C have ads on the air by Wednesday going on the attack. How many of us could seize on a market opportunity that quickly for one of our clients? All too often, agencies are guilty of prolonging the creative process, when what we should be doing is exploiting a mistake by a key competitor, or capitalizing on an unexpected moment. General Douglas MacArthur said it best, "The history of failure in war, or in any other human endeavor, can be summed up in two words: 'too late.'"

Stay Aggressive
Another lesson is in the guts that political ads display. Every agency under the sun claims to think big and bold, and many of our clients say the same kinds of things. But as the American media and advertising landscape becomes more fluid, more fractured, more unpredictable, what we see is that many business leaders retreat to what seems safe and secure. Sadly, this is happening in politics too, as the number of non-conformists dwindle in both parties, every year. This usually means sticking to the same ideas that worked (or didn't) in the past, or focus-grouping concepts to death. That means that the edgiest, riskiest ideas often get weeded out.

I know from experience that winning candidates do the opposite. As the pressure mounts, successful campaigners embrace the chaos, and go with their gut, even if it seems risky at the time. They also know that they're being evaluated as leaders, so it's of ultimate importance to have the conviction to take a stand. Turns out, voters usually gravitate to leaders with the confidence to be a Maverick (sorry John McCain), even if they don't completely agree with the position taken. That kind of insight might never come from a focus group. Agencies take note: Playing it safe is no way to win the trust, or love of your clients or their customers. Don't be afraid to trust your instincts, and lead with confidence -- especially in uncertain times.

Get Your Swagger Back
Political campaigners know how to attack, how to identify their competitor's weaknesses and go for the jugular. After all, in politics, you only win if someone else loses. Don't get me wrong, I get just as sick of the negative ads as the next guy. But you have to admit, there are times when we could all use a little of that swagger on behalf of our clients, and make sure that the marketing campaigns we're creating for them display the utmost confidence in their unique brand proposition -- and how it's better than what the competition is hawking.

In other words, there are going to be times when you need to take your competition head on. The truth is that agencies and brands often miss opportunities to attack. Elections are a good reminder to agencies that drawing direct comparisons can work. For so many challenger brands, there's value in going right after the big guy.

I keep coming back to these same concepts: speed, guts and swagger.

They're such a natural fit for our industry, but it's harder than you think to get everyone (including clients) to buy in. So over the next 10 months, as our lives become more and more bombarded with political advertisements, don't go for the mute button quite so fast. There are good lessons here. Every campaign worker knows there's no second place. It's win on election day or everyone has to find new jobs.

If your next branding campaign was win or go home, do you think you might take a few pages from the political playbook?

One last lesson -- for politicians. Many brands try to buy consumers via couponing. And no one's better at buying votes than political parties. But for brands and politicians alike the problem is that although voters can be bought, they don't stay bought. So if there's one lesson politicians can take from advertising, it's to build brands on lasting tenets.

In the meantime, see you on the campaign trail.

Tom Sullivan is principal at MDC Partners-owned shop Vitro in San Diego.
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