2020 Democratic Presidential Candidates Rethink Their Ad-Tech Approach

At least two are building out an in-house programmatic posse

Republicans have historically dominated ad-tech spend, but the 2020 election could mark a changing tide.
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Ad tech is a multibillion-dollar behemoth that’s drawing devotees in every industry, from real estate to retail. So it shouldn’t be surprising that politicians are getting savvy about the space as well.

Democratic presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg are both recruiting ad-tech specialists to manage their online marketing campaigns, according to online job listings. It’s a move that—along with ample mentions of names like Facebook, Google and Amazon during the recent Democratic debates—could mark a significant cultural shift in the way those on the left think about not only the ills of big tech, but how they can use their paid-for media offerings to their advantage.

In-housing talent

Though internet-driven political campaigns are almost as old as the internet itself, in-house media strategies were rare in the pre-Obama era, according to Grace Briscoe, who leads the Candidates and Causes unit for the ad-tech company Centro. Per Briscoe, since the 2012 election cycle, candidates are bringing digital in-house and building out those teams in much the same way as big brands are building out their own in-house teams.

For campaigners looking to harness the power of programmatic media buys, an internal committee can offer a level of transparency that doesn’t come with working alongside a second or third party.

According to a 2018 ANA report, more than a quarter of the marketers surveyed had brought their programmatic buying in-house during the past three years in an effort to mitigate the fraud and brand safety snafus that continue to plague the digital landscape. This kind of in-housing could also stem from the literal glut of Democratic candidates vying for a seat in the White House this election cycle.

“It creates the practical problem that there’s more candidates than there are good agencies on the Democratic side,” said  Teddy Goff, the digital director of Obama’s 2012 campaign and the co-founder of the New York/DC-based agency Precision Strategies. “So for that reason alone, candidates might have to in-house things that they’d otherwise hire an agency for, because they might be spoken for in an exclusive contract with one of the other 20-or-so candidates on the field.”

Despite the in-house manpower, digital campaigns among left-leaning candidates have been historically lackluster. “There’s a widespread feeling among digital strategists in the party that our party chronically and criminally underinvests in digital ads relative to TV,” Goff said.

Barring the swath of young(ish) players newly elected to Congress, most elected officials “didn’t grow up with the internet,” Goff said. This often means that campaign managers, which are roughly “a shade older” than the average millennial, take care of online ad campaigns. Meanwhile, that web wariness leads these same candidates to lean on the tried-and-true television ads that have—ostensibly—swayed elections for decades.

“The quote-unquote safe bet if you’re a campaign manager with a finite amount of money is to go on TV,” Goff explained. “There’s a million case studies and academic papers showing that the candidate who spent the most on TV won. There aren’t that many case studies showing that a candidate who spent less on TV won.”

The rise of the ‘smart candidate’

When campaign managers are dealing with nervous candidates and demanding donors and the stress of the campaign, he added, it pays to go with what’s proven. The problem is that digital, not TV, is now the dominant force—a distinction the smart candidates are starting to realize, according to Goff.

Right now, it looks like a lot of those “smart candidates,” as Goff called them, are coming from the right. Political ad data collected from Facebook, Google and Twitter by a team of New York University researchers in 2018 found that two out of three of the overall highest spenders were right-leaning political action committees—the Senate Leadership Fund and Congressional Leadership Fund—which respectively spent $978,000, and $610,000 during September of that year. During that same time period, President Trump bought out the most ad space across the web, at roughly 9,900 ads across the three sites.

As Will Johnson, svp of advertising at the liberal media company Daily Kos, told AdExchanger last year, these ad dollars are typically spent on targeted campaigns to raise awareness or rally would-be Republican voters, whereas those on the left haven’t yet embraced the online ad as a persuasive tool. Instead, these ads are utilitarian: good for fundraising or getting demographic data, but not so good for swaying potential voters.

Now, it looks like at least two Democratic candidates are rethinking their approach to ad tech. Although neither Warren nor Buttigieg’s campaign representatives responded to multiple requests for comment, as Briscoe pointed out, both are rallying for programmatic partners much earlier than any candidates have in years past.

The Hillary Clinton camp created its own booming in-house operation for the 2016 campaign but didn’t start hiring for programmatic roles until the summer before election day, she said. Meanwhile, fast-forward four years and White House hopefuls are prepping their programmatic stacks roughly a full year before the general election boils down to the final two candidates.

This jump-start could “certainly be a reaction to the PR and the publicity that came out of Trump’s winning 2016 operation, for better or worse,” said Daniel Scarvalone, the senior director of research and data at the Democratic digital marketing firm Bully Pulpit Interactive.

Looking outside of Facebook

Now, “Democrats are realizing that they have to work a little harder and be a little bit more creative to communicate to their base. They’re realizing that they can’t just put all of their bets on Facebook,” Scarvalone said.

It’s a choice that distinguishes them from the Trump camp, which spent more than $40 million on political ads in the lead up to 2016’s election and has already spent more than $7 million on the platform in the lead up to 2020 while spending a mere $4 million across Google ads, per publicly available campaign data.

Although as Scarvalone pointed out, the Democratic playing field is more cluttered with candidates that are all vying for the same donations and volunteers on the same party line. It’s also appropriate that Warren, in particular, is looking to advertise outside of the same walled gardens that she vocally proposes to dismantle.

“These campaigns are smart,” Scarvalone said. “They know if they’re only looking at Facebook, they’re going to compete with each other and that competition is going to drive auction costs through the roof.”

Hiring an ad-ops executive, meanwhile, could bring a campaign into the diverse sprawl of programmatic inventory available to media buyers in 2019. Briscoe recounted that platforms like connected television were in “almost every conversation” she had with political advertisers during the midterms and she only expected that buzz to get louder in pace with CTV’s ever-extending reach and ever-multiplying inventory.

Recent months have seen those same programmatic pipes plugged into everything from streaming audio services to outdoor billboards, to console games. Now, 2020 candidates can reach voters in ways that weren’t possible one election cycle ago with the scale and speed that only programmatic allows. They now just need to make the right hires.

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