From work for Super PACs to President Obama's reelect, Ann Liston saw it all this cycle.
C&E: How did you navigate all of the changes we saw in the political media landscape this cycle?
Ann Liston: It was very different, but we had the unique experience of doing the Wisconsin recall elections in 2011. So right after the 2010 elections we were thrust into the post-Citizens United world. We were able to get an early look at how much these different groups were playing, even in little state Senate races. So we were able to build an infrastructure and understand point levels, understand who was playing and understand the message they were trying to communicate. That allowed us to be players both for our candidates and PACs because we were also working on the Super PAC side. We took a certain lane if we were the Super PAC and we stayed in that lane. We took risks for our candidates and hoped that our friends and family were going to come and support us on the other side.
We did a higher volume this election cycle given all that was going on. It was a wild ride and one that I don’t really see changing. I think that’s where this industry is going right now.
C&E: What sort of risks did you take? Creative risks? Did you take chances with your buying strategy?
Liston: I’ll give you one example. We did the EMILY’s List and AFSCME Super PAC for [Wisconsin Sen.-elect] Tammy Baldwin. There was a highly contested Republican primary that Tommy Thompson won. We knew we probably didn’t have the funds to stay up on TV post-primary all the way to Election Day. So as soon as that primary was over, we ran ads defining Thompson. It was a risk because we weren’t sure how much we could stretch this thing out, but we took that risk to spend early and define him early. To our shock and amazement, the Republicans did not run cover on him and left the airways to us alone for about 30 days. The risk paid off in that case.
C&E: What surprised you the most in terms of media strategy in 2012?
Liston: I’m not too surprised at the amount of money or the number of players out there. But there are two things I thought were most interesting in this past cycle from races I was involved with. I’ll start with that Senate race with Tammy Baldwin: the fact that Tommy Thompson’s friends and family didn’t come to his aid in those crucial 30 days after the primary. That allowed us some space to define him and allow Baldwin to define her own candidacy.
The other really surprising strategy is the way the Romney campaign bought television, particularly in the last month-and-a-half where it was a week-to-week type of buying. That meant the campaign was spending almost two or three times what the Obama campaign was spending on an ad placement. They said it allowed them more flexibility, but the truth is that we laid down a base and were able to tinker around the edges and be a lot more efficient with our dollar.
C&E: Compare that to the Obama media strategy. What worked so well for you on the media side?
Liston: First of, Larry Grisolano put together an amazing team, and from May until November the team had an ongoing conversation with America about the vision of Barack Obama and what a second term would look like. Part of that long-term conversation was defining his opponent and laying out the choices that voters faced. In addition to that, the buying operation was solid. We placed early and tinkered around the edges where we felt we needed to. There was an efficiency of resources. There was tight management on production.
There was testing of these ads at a level that unfortunately we just don’t have the luxury of doing at a congressional or Senate level. I came to this team as a newcomer; most of the members of this team have been around since the 2008 campaign. It was a well-oiled machine that was efficient with its dollars, resources and communicating its message.
C&E: What was the approach on ad testing?
Liston: It was very extensive. A significant number of the overall ads that were aired were tested either online or in focus groups for visual impact, message, validators and so on. We know what we like and we know the visuals we think are impactful, but you learn so much more when you put it before real voters. Now, let me tell you where we’re going with testing spots. I believe we’re going to see much more online ad testing. We are modeling in more of these races, and so when we’re communicating either on broadcast TV or cable or in the mail, we are segmenting out key constituencies. The online ad testing allows us to understand how we should be communicating to these individual groups, and you’re going to see it becoming cost-effective to do in congressional and statewide races.
C&E: Where did you see technology advancing this cycle?
Liston: There’s an interesting technology dynamic when it comes to film and video. The cost of cameras and their ability to take in light on the lens is getting better and better. So our ability to shoot our own material if we need B-roll has increased. We have increased our production facility so that we have more cameras and more lighting equipment. A lot of our production in house allows us to create more fundraising videos and cable ads before we do the real big shoot. I think volume has increased because of the need to segment messages online, and I think the demand for product has increased. The technology, both in editing and shooting, is improving at the consumer level, and that benefits candidates and it benefits us in this industry. We can provide a better quality product, and it doesn’t cost as much.
C&E: How do you reach those voters who aren’t watching live TV and may be missing your messaging?
Liston: Right—those folks. It speaks to a completely integrated campaign. That means having a solid field operation; it means having videos on canvassers’ iPhones to communicate; it means having a strong mail program. We did a lot of mail in our races, and we did a ton of mail in the president’s reelect. Ultimately, it means really understanding analytics and modeling. While that was a phenomenon on the president’s campaign, I believe you’re going to see more modeling and analytics in congressional campaigns because of the importance of trying to figure out who our target voters are and then also figuring out the best medium to reach them. So if online—15 and 30-second pre-rolls—is the best way to reach that younger voter, then we have to start communicating with them six months prior to these elections because it takes longer to get their attention.
C&E: We’ve heard some consultants—one of them writing in our magazine this issue—lament how negative the tone of political media has become. Is it a concern for you?
Liston: I hear that and I understand when people talk about the industry being full of negative and visceral campaigns, but our country has always had what we know as negative campaigning. It’s how we as political parties and interest groups tell people what’s at stake and draw out the contrasts. I think this is a noble cause. Being a female in this industry, and the way I sometimes approach communication, I think I have a different perspective at times and work with candidates differently. I think there’s a value in that. Sure, we can shake our finger and say we’re part of the problem and this is nothing but a dirty business, or we can be part of the solution. I think people should hold us to a higher standard. Hold us accountable to our clients and to this industry. But I think this is a worthy business, and I’m going to continue to encourage young and talented people to enter it.
C&E: How do you encourage more women to get into the industry, particularly the media side?
Liston: I’ve been a partner in a media firm for eight years now. When I became partner, I was with EMILY’s List and I told Ellen Malcolm that while I had loved working there, I was leaving to become a partner in a media firm. And she said to me, “You know, you’ll be the first woman to leave here and become a partner in a media firm.” That was shocking to me. This is an important job regardless of gender, but it’s also a business where we belong. We have more female candidates, and there should be more female operatives. So to encourage other women to get into this industry is part of our responsibility.
One firm has started now that is all female—Martha McKenna and Jen Pihlaja’s firm. I think that says a lot. I hope it says something to that young girl walking around with a Campaigns & Elections magazine in her hands. The message is jump in girl, the water is warm and you are welcome.