“How did you find me?” Sheri Sadler Wolf says as she gets on the phone. Sadler Wolf is the founder and president of Sadler Strategic Media, the agency that did the media buys for U.S. Sen. Cory Booker’s 2020 presidential campaign—the reason for the call.
Her reaction to being discovered is not entirely unexpected. Finding out who’s buying what ads for which political candidate can be tricky, as many agencies operate under pseudonyms.
The reason for the cloak-and-dagger is a matter of practicality and legality. First, agencies are often wary of disclosing work for political candidates for fear of alienating their other clients or drawing attacks from opposition supporters. But there is also legal logic as to why media agencies operate under aliases. According to the Federal Election Commission, candidates and PACs are not allowed to work together. So to protect both the PAC and candidate, some agencies create offshoot operations, called “firewall agencies,” so as not to suggest the two are coordinating.
For example, one industry insider says Canal Partners is operating under the alias “Media Buying and Analytics.” According to an analysis from Ad Age’s Datacenter, that shop handles media for former Vice President Joe Biden, who has spent about $6.1 million on buys across TV and radio. Canal Partners did not return a request for comment.
Media Buying and Analytics is just one shop uncovered by Datacenter’s analysis of information from Kantar/CMAG that provides a comprehensive list of the media buyers, and their budgets, behind the 2020 presidential candidates. The budgets include TV and radio buys as of Feb. 18, excluding digital spending. Below is a look at the big and small spenders and their strategies, along with how they’re working so far.
Omnicom Group’s GMMB was the media agency for U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who dropped out of the primaries in December, per the analysis, which reports that she spent $575,993 on TV ad buys during her campaign. However, a person with knowledge of the situation says GMMB also did media buys under the alias “Waterfront Strategies” for Defend American Democracy, a Democratic advocacy group. Defend American Democracy, which leans on veterans to challenge President Donald Trump, spent $121,000 as of Feb. 18, per the Ad Age Datacenter analysis, on buys across broadcast and cable TV.
GMMB did not return a request for comment.
Trump is believed to be working with a company named Harris Sikes Media which, according to the Feb. 18 analysis, spent a whopping $18.3 million on buys across TV and radio. That buy included Trump’s 30-second, $5.6 million Super Bowl LIV spot.
Trump’s team has not responded to a request for comment.
While Trump’s $18.3 million spend might seem like a lot in comparison to most other candidates (and, to be sure, it’s only the primaries), that doesn’t come close to Michael Bloomberg’s campaign outlays. According to Ad Age’s Datacenter Feb. 18 analysis, Bloomberg spent $344.9 million on buys across radio and TV. That includes his Super Bowl LIV spot, but it doesn’t seem to include his other efforts like the meme-makers he’s hired to post sponsored content on Instagram. Politico earlier reported that MDC Partners-owned Assembly is behind most of Bloomberg’s media buys.
But in keeping with the hush-hush nature of these political tie-ups, the agency doesn’t quite confirm the relationship. “As a modern, agile and data-driven media agency, there is no better time to put our skills to use than the 2020 election,” Assembly CEO Michael Bassik says when asked about Bloomberg, “and to fully participate in our democracy. From the presidential election to local races, we look forward to working with candidates up and down the ballot to reach and inspire voters.”
Assembly declined to comment further.
Candidates with much smaller budgets are banking on the old adage that money can’t buy everything.
“Our campaign has been limited in terms of resources, so we’re trying to find ways to use those resources most effectively to reach voters,” says Roy Temple, partner at GPS Impact, which handles media and creative for Amy Klobuchar.
According to Ad Age’s analysis of data from Kantar/CMAG, Klobuchar’s campaign has spent $6.4 million on TV ads.
Temple says he and the team are relying on Klobuchar’s personality, not money, to win voters over.
“The quality of the candidate matters,” says GPS media partner Jay Howser. “At the end of the day, you have to stretch your dollars and be much more efficient than Michael Bloomberg.”
GPS Impact ran an ad called “Empathy” in New Hampshire that featured segments of Klobuchar’s speech in the state. In the clip, she comments on the “complete lack of empathy” from the “guy in the White House” and that she “will bring that to you. If you have trouble deciding if you’re going to pay for childcare or your long-term care, I know you and I will fight for you,” she says in the spot. Other ads, one called “Reform” and another called “Security,” ran in Nevada and Iowa, and New Hampshire and Nevada, respectively.
Klobuchar came in third in New Hampshire, behind Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg.
The dollar debate
Still, some media buyers behind campaigns that have ended think if they had a bit more dough, their candidates might have gone farther.
Sadler Wolf says that when Booker dropped out of the 2020 presidential race, it “broke my heart.” Booker attributed a lack of funding to ending his campaign. According to Ad Age’s analysis of data from Kantar/CMAG, Booker’s campaign spent $291,792 on TV ad buys. Of course, the lack of funding was tied to a lack of support. With less than 2 percent of support nationwide, Booker failed to qualify for the December and January Democratic debates before dropping out of the race on Jan. 13.
“Just because you have money, doesn’t mean you’re the right choice for the people,” Sadler Wolf notes. “We can’t say ‘OK, you’re rich, you’re in.’ I do know many candidates have money and are serious about doing good for the country, but I don’t think that should be the arbiter.”
To compensate for the sparse funds, Sadler Strategic Media shifted strategy. When Booker didn’t qualify for the sixth Democratic primary debate in Los Angeles in December, says Sadler Wolf, her firm bought 22 key markets on cable to air midway through the broadcast and pushed spending hard in Iowa.
The Bloomberg factor
“Money and politics is an existential question we all need to think about,” says Parker Butterworth, partner at CN4 Partners, which produced and placed ads for Julián Castro, the former Democratic mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and U.S. secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama, who ended his campaign on Jan. 2.
According to Ad Age’s Datacenter analysis, Castro spent $79,314 on TV buys. Butterworth says CN4 Partners’ strategy was telling Castro’s story, talking about issues voters care about and “trying to generate press.” For example, in the aftermath of the August 2019 shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, that left 22 people dead, Castro released an ad calling Trump out for racist language in his speeches on the tragedy (the president warned of a “Hispanic invasion”) and essentially telling him to “get his shit together,” Butterworth says. He says the ad was “powerful” and the agency placed it in New Jersey markets, where Trump was at the time, in an attempt to get him to “engage.”
Butterworth says “you want to poke the bear” sometimes, and generate energy on social media that then translates into media coverage, especially if your budget is “dirt cheap.”
“We weren’t Bloomberg, we couldn’t just say ‘Here’s half a billion dollars,’” he says.
Steve Passwaiter, VP and general manager of Kantar/CMAG, the research company’s nonpartisan political advertising intelligence division, says in terms of standout candidates, “just by the size of what he’s doing, you have to point at Bloomberg.”
“There’s a pretty clear strategy at play,” Passwaiter notes. “People have described Bloomberg’s campaign as corporate. There’s something to that. Mike’s [strategy] is he’s a steady hand, he’s not temperamental, he gets things done quietly.”
Passwaiter notes that Buttigieg, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are not “spending nearly anywhere as much.”
According to Ad Age’s Datacenter Feb. 18 analysis of data from Kantar/CMAG, Sanders has spent $29.9 million on buys across TV and radio (an impressive amount) through BlueWest Media in Denver and Solidarity Strategies in Washington, D.C. Buttigieg spent $17.9 million on TV and radio ads through AKPD Message and Media. Warren has spent $10 million on TV and radio buys through Screen Strategies.
Those figures might still be considerably lower than Bloomberg’s $345 million, but they are significantly higher than some of the aforementioned former candidates. And Klobuchar, Sanders, Buttigieg and Warren are still in the race, at least for now. In Iowa, Buttigieg came in first with 26.2 percent of the vote; Sanders was second with 26.1 percent, and Warren was third with 18 percent. In the New Hampshire primary, Sanders, Buttigieg and Klobuchar came in first, second and third, respectively, while Warren received just 9.2 percent of the vote.
“Ultimately, we’re not the jury here,” Passwaiter says, noting it’ll remain to be seen which candidate (and therefore which media strategy) wins out when Super Tuesday rolls around March 3.