Advertising Week

Secret to Success This Electoral Cycle: Money, Data, Adaptability -- and a Narrative

Advertising Week Panel Predict Billions Spent on Niche-Targeted Micro-Campaigns; Twitter as Negative Campaign Tool

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A correction has been made in this story. See below for details.

With the 2012 electoral cycle already well underway, campaign managers overwhelmed by a wealth of new media options, thousands of bytes of data, billions of dollars in advertising spending and multiple third-party players should remember this: "Story telling in political advertising is more important than ever."

That was Catherine "Kiki" McLean, senior partner, global head of public affairs and managing director for Porter Novelli Public Services, at an afternoon Advertising Week panel discussion about political advertising. Ms. McLean, who worked on Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, joined Purple Strategies' Rob Collins, Smart Media Group's Kyle Roberts, ASGK Public Strategies' Eric Sedler and Time Warner Cable Media President Joan Hogan Gillman.

The panel kicked off not with an obsession over what Facebook will mean for the candidates or how Twitter will change everything, but rather with four old-fashioned TV ads, chosen by panel members based on their strengths and, in one case, its weakness. The unfortunate ad was for Maryland gubernatorial candidate Bob Ehrlich, who lost his last try for office.

The problem, said Ms. McLean, wasn't the tone or even the message, but that the ad "told you nothing about what it would be like" if Mr. Ehrlich won the election. The other three ads -- one of which was not a political ad, but an Allstate ad about the recession -- ranged from humorous to serious but all had clear narrative voices.

Of course, having great ads will be just one part of an increasingly complex equation. The number of candidates might not be any higher than in previous years, but the number of groups -- from candidate's campaigns to political party committees to SuperPACs -- spending money will be up dramatically. While the national media will be caught up in a presidential contest likely to approach $3 billion, Smart Media's Mr. Roberts pointed out that in 2010 one congressional contest in Roanoke, Va., saw $8 million in outside money. That's only expected to increase this time around.

Note to media companies, Mr. Roberts said only half-jokingly: "We need a lot more inventory."

Time Warner 's Ms. Gillman, who has a background in politics, was quick to point out that Time Warner , which happened to sponsor the panel discussion, was in a position to help candidates (as are, one assumes, other cable providers). But cable companies, she added, have had to adapt with the times. Political campaigns are now optimizing their messaging in close to real time and local cable providers have no choice but to be able to put an ad up -- or take it down -- within a 24-hour time frame.

She also raised the point of data mining and niche targeting, which cable providers, as well as various online outlets, now make available to candidates.

Mr. Sedler, who founded ASGK Public Strategies with top Obama campaign advisor David Axerod, picked up on the data theme. "There is so much data ... you're going to see dozens and dozens of micro campaigns underneath macro campaigns." He envisioned, for this cycle, "hundreds of campaigns that will be visible only to niche audiences."

That, of course, is where online and mobile come in -- banner ads, YouTube videos, candidate web pages, blogger outreach. And social media?

The panelists spent little time discussing the flavor of the last three years until asked to do so by an audience member. Those spending hours and hours of time on Twitter and Facebook might be forgiven for thinking that large percentages of the billions to be spent will be funneled that way, but the seasoned political consultants see the platforms as an efficient way to, well, preach to the choir and keep the believers engaged.

"Smart campaigns are going to spend significant resources to build a social-media voice" prior to and during next summer, said Purple Strategies' Mr. Collins. After all, "picking up a Facebook friend on Oct. 31 is not the best use of that platform." (Mr. Collins, noting the possibility of ad oversaturation and voter exhaustion, emphasized the need for campaigns to distinguish themselves early in the cycle. "Before Labor Day, spending can move numbers," he said. "After Labor Day, it just locks in numbers.")

Mr. Sedler noted that the best use of Facebook is as a "mobilization platform not a persuasion platform." Though he did note that it's changed dramatically since 2008 now that , theoretically at least, 50% of voters can be reached through the platform.

Perhaps his most interesting comment was made about Twitter. Seen typically as a conversational medium and portrayed as something that 's done good (Haiti and Tsunami relief efforts, Democracy movements), it's also been a quick way to spread gossip and, from time to time, false information.

Mr. Sedler seemed to think political operatives might be unable to resist the dark side of the medium. "Twitter was a non-actor in 2008," he said, but "my sense is you'll see a lot of negative stuff put out via Twitter."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Eric Sedler worked directly on the Barack Obama campaign.

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