Six Questions With the Agency Behind the Election Ad That Won the Internet -- Plus Some Advice for Trump
Election Day hasn't arrived yet, but we already have a winner -- at least when it comes to political advertising. In case you missed it, one hilarious ad recently rose above the maelstrom of presidential campaign noise, charming viewers everywhere.
The spot features neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump. Rather, it stars Gerald Daugherty, the Republican Travis County, Texas Commissioner up for re-election and totally obsessed with his job -- giving grief to his wife Charlyn and other friends who have to endure his 24-7 litanies of issues he'd like to fix. "Please re-elect Gerald. Please," Charlyn pleads.
The spot delivers something we rarely see in political ads --a glimpse of the "human" in the candidate, as well as some expertly executed comedy.
The ad was created out of Austin, Texas-based KC Strategies, founded by principals and husband-and-wife team Chad and Kori Crow.
The original YouTube post alone has garnered more than 2.8 million views, and according to Mr. Crow, Mr. Daugherty is set to appear on a host of major news and morning shows next week -- perhaps not the way he'd originally expected to spend his final days on the campaign trail.
"Just when I thought I'd seen about everything that could happen in a Texas political campaign, this happens," Mr. Crow said. "The damn thing is even being translated into a bunch of different languages. I saw it in French, Mandarin, Croation, Hindi."
KC Strategies is a full-service political consulting firm that has produced more than 250 campaigns in 154 different Texas counties, spanning work for judicial, state legislative, county, non-partisan, ballot initiatives, private sector and activist organizations. It's known for turning out effective work even with limited budgets. In the recent 2016 primary and runoff elections, the agency saw 27 wins and 4 losses for its clients -- many who were outspent by their opponents.
Ad Age got in touch with co-founder Mr. Crow on how the Daugherty ad came about, and, given its success, what words of advice he'd offer for other political advertisers, including Donald Trump.
Ad Age: What inspired the ad? How did you land on the idea to portray Gerald Daugherty through the lens of his family and his wife?
Chad Crow: This was actually a bit of a Plan B concept. Our original idea was to show Gerald engaging in a traditional hobby or weekend activity like fishing or working on a car or something that he enjoys doing, all the while the voice inside his head would be methodically working through various mundane county issues that needed fixing, such as jail overcrowding, traffic problems, and so forth. We ran into a roadblock, however, when we discovered that he doesn't fish, he doesn't work on cars, and as his wife, Charlyn, so aptly said in the ad, "Gerald really doesn't have any hobbies." And so, Plan B was born.
Regardless of how we presented it, the goal of the ad was to pull back the curtain and give voters a glimpse of the real Gerald. Of course, it's a bit more theatrical than a real day-in-the-life, but not by much. This is a guy who is "on" 24/7, so we didn't have to do a whole lot other than focus his thoughts on the day of the shoot on the two or three keys issues in this campaign, rather than the dozens of issues that are normally rattling around in his head. Needless to say, Charlyn didn't have to rehearse rolling her eyes very much before we got started.
Ad Age: Was everyone in the ad non-actors?
CC: That is correct. Gerald and Charlyn Daugherty, and their friends Becky Bray and Ken Blaker. I don't believe Becky and Ken realized what they were getting into until they arrived. All they were told is that they were going to be extras in Gerald's TV spot. And actually the hardest part of the shoot was getting them to look as though they were bored to tears. It's not often that you ask people to turn up to a friend's house to help with a project, and then as soon as the camera starts rolling, tell them to pretend that they are dying inside and would do just about anything to get out of the conversation.
Ad Age: Who directed the ad? How did you get such great performances from each person?
Chad Crow: The director of the spot is named Steve Mims and he's fantastic. He's been a part of our team since 2012. He's a great talent.
We believe the key to getting great performances out of candidates, spouses and others for any political ad is to avoid being too scripted. Of course that means a lot of additional work in post-production [in terms of editing], but you have to keep in mind that these are not actors.
A lot of political consultants forget that fact, or they willfully ignore it because they want their clients to deliver some poll-tested line verbatim. But that sort of approach always comes off like a lead balloon, lacking any real authenticity.
That's not to say that we don't poll-test issues as much as anyone, but what we're trying to achieve with our political advertising is an honest, genuine discussion about those issues, rather than a recitation of pre-scripted lines. We're less concerned with the exact words our clients use on camera as we are with their sincerity about a given issue. That allows the candidate's personality to really come through, and we believe that is the thing that really resonates with voters -- a sense that they are looking at the actual candidate, not a prototype created by people like us.
Ad Age: This doesn't feel like a political ad. It feels like a really excellent product commercial or a piece of good comedy content. What went into achieving this?
Chad Crow: Thank you. That's nice of you to say. At the risk of sounding like a pompous ass, that's what we set out to do with every ad for every client. If we finish a spot and it feels like a political ad, we generally scrap it and start over. We believe that it's a necessity to view political ads that way in 2016, particularly for a firm like ours that primarily works with down-ballot candidates. You really can't afford to produce a formulaic, run-of-the-mill ad if you expect it to move the needle for your client.
Regrettably, most political work today falls into that formulaic category, and that's not any one person's fault. It's mostly attributable to the fact that we operate in such a small world. This is a niche market. There are only a handful of people across the country who run campaigns and produce campaign ads for a living, from President all the way down to dog catcher, so that invariably leads to a situation where you unintentionally begin copying components of each other's work over time.
No one is immune from the tendency to mimic what others around them are doing, so we try to insulate ourselves from it as best we can by building a creative team that has no connection to the political world outside of the work we do together. Thus far, that's proved to be a pretty good formula for us.
Ad Age: What do you think of the value of bringing comedy to political advertising?
Chad Crow: This year, the value of comedy is that people are desperate for a change of tone. Even when the Presidential candidates try to offer a positive vision for the future, it only lasts a split second before they default back to attacking each other. It's a sad state of affairs, so maybe our little ad came around at just the right time to offer a reprieve, even if it's only for 60 seconds.
In general though, comedy in political advertising has a variety of uses, particularly for down-ballot candidates. Oftentimes, as a candidate for county commissioner or city council, your opponent is not the other person on the ballot in your race, but rather the sea of messaging out there from candidates above you on the ballot, as well as Coke, Pepsi, Chevy, Budweiser, etc. With all of the competing messages, you have to give people a compelling reason to engage for a few seconds, and the best way to do that is with fear, anger or laughter.
We prefer laughter as the first option, but that doesn't have to mean the ad lacks substance. In this ad, for example, non-Austin viewers may not pick up on it, but the things Gerald is rambling on and on about are the most important issues for area voters -- traffic congestion and cost of living. We also have a 30-second ad airing in rotation locally with this 60-second spot that addresses the same issues in a more direct way, so the two ads pair together nicely.
Here's another comedic ad the company recently produced:
Ad Age: Your site says you work on Republican campaigns -- do you have any words of advice for the Republican presidential candidate in terms of getting his message out there? What do you think is working for him, what isn't -- when it comes to advertising/messaging?
Chad Crow: Given the media's proclivity to cover every one of his campaign rallies as though it's actual news, I don't think Donald Trump is having any problems getting his message out and being heard. The question is whether or not it's a coherent message that speaks to anyone beyond his existing base. I would argue that it is not.
My wife and business partner, Kori, likens him a lot to some of our newbie clients running for a state or local office for the first time. Otherwise smart, capable and successful people can turn into train wrecks if they aren't willing to let go of some of their preconceived notions about what it means to be a candidate, understand up front that a campaign for public office is like nothing they've ever experienced in their careers, hire people they trust with experience navigating the waters, and then actually let them do their jobs.
For any campaign, large or small, to be successful, everyone involved must play their part and stay out of the way of others who are trying to do the same. Donald Trump doesn't seem to be doing either.