Q&A: What It Was Like Designing Banner Ads for Obama
The rather, um, spendthrift 2012 presidential election was marked by an unprecedented amount of spending, no small bit of it online. Just about every digital ad format was used by the Romney and Obama campaigns, especially the venerable and oft-maligned banner ad. They were tucked into just about anywhere there were pixels to be bought, in all imaginable shapes and sizes, peeking out next to your kitteh videos and beseeching you to build a stronger middle class, go forward, register, double-check you've got your early ballot, and, of course, vote.
Just who made all of these things?
One prolific designer was Al Rotches, a self-described "banner ad specialist" who designed several dozen of them for the victorious Obama campaign and its digital agency Bully Pulpit Interactive. In addition to both Obama presidential campaigns, Mr. Rotches worked on the 2010 midterm elections and has worked for many agencies and brands ranging from Avon to Sony. Though still tired from the election excitement, Mr. Rotches agreed to talk to us just two days after the win.
Ad Age : So you created 70 ads for the Obama campaign?
Al Rotches: More than that actually.
Ad Age : Was that more or less than in 2008?
Mr. Rotches: Much, much more. It was nonstop. It was as much as you could possibly produce
Ad Age : Could you have created another ad if you had to?
Mr. Rotches: No, I don't think so (laughing). At times, it was more than challenging; it was like somebody was trying to kill me. There's a grind of constantly coming up with new designs. You're under such pressure to be creative and still gun for click-through rates and achieve what's needed by the campaign at that time.
Ad Age : How long would you have to design each?
Mr. Rotches: As fast as I could. In the beginning of the summer, there wasn't a huge rush. It was typical of how long I would typically have. It's rare to get much time at all. You'll get maybe a couple weeks. At the beginning of the campaign, I was given time. A week, let's say. At the end, it was like, "We need this today. Or we need this in five sizes now."
Ad Age : What is the process like?
Mr. Rotches: I was usually given a call to action, basic text, maybe an image. There's a Joe Biden one we did, "Cool Hand Joe." The original image was a picture of him in front of a crowd. Everyone's sweaty and angry. It's difficult, but I think Joe Biden looks pretty cool there in the ad.
Ad Age : Do you think he looks cooler in the actual ad than in the original image? Is that the idea?
Mr. Rotches: I listen to how people describe what they're giving me rather than look at what it is for myself. When people decide something it's often not what they plan to see. In this case, it was the opposite. Someone looked at this and thought it was cool. In my opinion, he looked hot. You have to work with that and deliver something that the campaign wants.
Ad Age : Was there any flexibility?
Mr. Rotches: Over time, the call to actions are tested to a point where there's not much tweaking to do. And with a digital team for a presidential team when you get copy it's been tested. We know it works. My concern is about designing this to look like it's for the president of the United States at a very serious time in the country. It's serious. Maybe a little playful. You can't belittle the president or have too much fun with this. In 2008, we had a lot more fun. There were very few rules involved. We were going after a young audience. The internet itself has come a long way. There were design guidelines, color structures and use of logo. But as the campaign went on, I had to stick to those less and less as we saw what worked rather than branding guides. And that 's much different than working with Pepsi. No matter how fast [corporate] campaigns come out, you better put that logo this many pixels away from the border as possible. With a campaign, where clicks matter more than branding, you're flowing more with what works rather than brand.
Ad Age : How do you find out what works?
Mr. Rotches: I'm not privy to actual numbers. I find out what works based on the next ad. When the next ad comes in and there's different copy, I know that the last group of copy or the last call-to-action series was worse than the one before. You know within a few days what was working. There was a lot of change throughout the campaign.
Ad Age : Is there an example?
Mr. Rotches: I have a banner on there where the Obama logo bounces out and gets eaten. ("Vote Early for Barack on Your Lunch Hour.") In the beginning it was like let's hang back a bit. Then, I felt like the leash was off and I could do what I do. It became the more fun internet space from 2008. I design and animate to get people to click. This was the last month or so of the campaign. The message was a little clearer and you're moving from list-building ads or registering ads to get-out-the vote ads.
Ad Age : Did you look at the Romney ads?
Mr. Rotches: It wasn't until August that I glanced at them. It reminded me of what was going on overall in 2008. I wasn't competing with them. I was competing with the basics of the internet and the basics of getting people to click on banners. I saw them when they were placed on a site that we were going to be on the next week.
Ad Age : I should have asked you this before. How did you connect with the Obama campaign in the first place?
Mr. Rotches: A Google ad I wrote for myself. I have to advertise what I do. They found my portfolio that day and they called me on the Fourth of July.
Ad Age : Naturally.