For Democratic strategist Sean Whitson, too much direct mail creative on his side of the aisle is stale and formulaic. What direct mail needs to really break through, he argues, is a more creative flair that equals the best of what the commercial advertising world has to offer.
So after a couple of cycles at D.C.-based direct mail firms, Whitson decided to start his own shop with the goal of providing clients the quality they expect from a larger firm and the energy and personal attention they might expect from a smaller boutique shop.
“This was an idea I had been kicking around for a while,” says Whitson. “Firms that are very successful obviously get that way because they are good. But organizationally, they end up with this assembly line approach and nobody is truly invested in every part of every campaign.”
In December, Whitson launched Trail Ready Communications pledging to transcend the “traditional trappings of political communications.” C&E caught up with Whitson to get the details on his new venture.
C&E: Explain the philosophy behind Trail Ready.
Sean Whitson: When you’re running a campaign and trying to communicate with voters at any level, the folks on your mail list have been on mail lists before. So when something that looks like a typical political ad shows up in the mailbox, they’re going to tune it out before they even read the headline. We always used to say, “You get eight seconds and you have to make them count.” The best way to grab your readers is by doing something that’s going to arrest and engage them. There are certainly some firms that do it fairly well, but I don’t think enough of them do. I wanted to be able to commit to that, but at the same time have a firm that was small enough to stay truly immersed in all of your races.
C&E: What is it that you see over and over again in direct mail that bothers you?
Whitson: It’s just a lot of recycling of the same concepts and the same metaphors. I think you need to be able to get beyond those. There’s also what I consider to be the typical look of political mail. It’s either a very boxy design, or it’s a single stock shot isolated against a white background with a floating headline. In this respect, I think you need to take your cues from what you see in some of the better corporate advertising. What you’re going for is something that’s going to be much more eye catching and visually interesting to readers.
C&E: You see room in the market for a firm with a different approach to creative?
Whitson: Absolutely. I think there’s a need in the market for a firm that focuses on the creative, but is still willing to stay small enough to make sure that they can be fully immersed in each race. That being said, I actually think there’s plenty of work out there for a lot of mail firms. Whenever you’re working with TV, it’s going to be the primary medium. But there are so many races in which TV is just out of the question, either because of the size of the race or the size of the media market or both. That leaves a ton of races where mail is really important.
C&E: What were you doing before you entered the campaign world?
Whitson: I was actually a creative writer. I came out of grad school and taught AP English before I moved into corporate communications in New York City. I worked for a bunch of clients from American Express to the Jewish Heritage Museum. That was during the Bush administration and I was getting pretty frustrated so I was inspired to move up to Connecticut and try my hand at politics. I decided I had been an amateur political junkie long enough.
C&E: How do you approach some of the challenges facing direct mail at the moment?
Whitson: Well, the Postal Service cuts do pose an interesting problem because they’re going to force all mail firms to do is to plan farther ahead. The real challenge is going to be to remain as responsive given a longer length of time between sending the mail and it actually hitting mailboxes. But every branch of political communications is facing some new challenge. I think the great thing about mail is that it’s still showing up at people’s houses. Voters have to remove it from their mailbox and do something with it. So you’re always going to be able to touch voters literally where they live with this form of communication. I think it’s important for mail folks to be willing to evolve as the Internet becomes more powerful, too. You just have to bob and weave with the changes.