Campaigns "are the ultimate beta testers," said Mitt Romney's
digital director, Zac Moffatt, who pointed to major executions
connected to breaking news events -- like Wisconsin Rep. Paul
Ryan's selection to be Mr. Romney's running mate -- as the sort of
work a Fortune 100 brand's digital team couldn't do.
While historical precedent says that the political and brand ad
worlds are likely to remain distant cousins (especially since
political shops are typically light on infrastructure, due to the
boom-and-bust cyclical nature of their work), there's some evidence
to suggest that a paradigm shift could be under way.
Take Blue State Digital, the agency that made its name through
its work on the first Obama campaign and widely cited as the
backbone of the campaign's hugely successful digital grassroots
organizing and fundraising strategy. The shop was acquired by WPP
in late 2010 and has substantially diversified its client roster,
taking on "blended" assignments from brands such as Ford and Godiva
that also work with other WPP digital shops.
Blue state to blue chip
Roughly a third of Blue State Digital's business now comes from
brands, 50% comes from museums, universities, hospitals and
nonprofits, and a little less than 15% is derived from political
campaigns, according to managing partner Thomas Gensemer. In 2008,
political work was as much as 65% of the business, Mr. Gensemer
noted, characterizing the agency as a "big data shop, from a CRM
And while the Obama re-election campaign continues to use its
tools for email marketing, social-media publishing and online
fundraising, Blue State Digital seems to be distancing itself from
its affiliation with the current American president. (More recently
it's worked on presidential pushes for Brazil's Dilma Rousseff,
France's Francois Hollande, and Mexico's Enrique Pena Nieto.)
"We're always going to be known for and proud of our political
work, certainly as it's gotten more and more global," said Mr.
Gensemer. "We've worked to really apply the learnings of campaigns
to bigger brand challenges."
By all accounts, the greatest digital challenges of this current
election cycle is in the realm of data (as was the case in 2008),
with campaigns targeting prospective voters and donors on the web
in increasingly sophisticated ways.
The AP reported last month that the Romney campaign had tapped
the Texas-based analytics firm Buxton Co. -- which works almost
entirely with brands -- to conduct data mining to identify new
potential donors who are likely to be affluent. And then there's
the Steve Case and Ted Leonsis-backed startup Resonate, which
specializes in ad targeting based on personal values and got off
the ground working with political campaigns such as Scott Brown's
2010 run for Senate in Massachusetts. Now it's courting brand
business and working with Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Walmart.
The mounting obsession with data on points to another area of
competency that political agencies may be able to pitch after the
"The [political] online advertising happening right now is in
many ways as sophisticated as anything in the brand world," said
Tim Schigel, a digital strategist for the Republican National
Committee and founder of the social-sharing and data company
He said he expects to see more acquisitions of boutique
political digital shops such as Blue State by larger, nonpolitical
What about the reverse scenario of digital shops starting to get
an in with campaigns? It is noteworthy that Rockfish
Interactive was tapped to build the "Mitt's VP" app, which the
Romney campaign commissioned to be the official channel informing
the public of Mr. Ryan's selection.
But several political digital strategists -- including Mr.
Moffatt -- say that assignment was an anomaly and that such tactics
will remain confined to national campaigns that are flush with
cash, since apps aren't a necessity for congressional and statewide
"For the presidential races and these huge super PACs, there
will be some need for more extensive technology that political
shops can't facilitate," said Vincent Harris, a Republican digital
strategist working with GOP Senate hopefuls Linda McMahon of
Connecticut and Ted Cruz of Texas. Mr. Harris also noted that until
now super PACs appeared to funnel their money mainly into TV ad
buys. "But I think until mobile usage really grows beyond what it
is now, you're not going to see campaigns outside of Obama and
Romney use it," he said.