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Rivals are sharpening their knives for traditional media consultants after a cycle that saw the winning presidential campaign weather an onslaught of TV ads without even coming close to parity with its own. 

The conventional wisdom of television has long been that it needs to be countered point for point otherwise the campaign with the deficit risks certain defeat.

Like most conventional wisdom, that didn’t apply in 2016. Many in the industry believe that this cycle was an anomaly unlikely to be repeated. There’s only one Donald Trump, is a common refrain.  

But those in the digital world argue 2016 was a turning point toward the more targeted media they offer. In fact, instead of launching the era of Big Data, as 2012 did, this cycle may become famous for triggering the end of Big TV. 

“Traditional media consultants should learn a lot from this election,” said Keegan Goudiss, a partner at Revolution Messaging who served as director of digital advertising for Bernie 2016.

“TV advertising will remain an important tactic in 2018, but its influence wanes each year as voters become harder and harder to reach via TV. 

“The Republicans clearly showed that focusing more efforts on broader, targeted digital ads with a final push of TV at the end is more effective than the strategy employed by Democrats.”

Goudiss argued that those who continue to believe that a focus on TV advertising will bring a campaign victory are “dangerous and arrogant.”

“Arrogance was not a successful strategy in 2016,” he said. “We need to evolve our advertising tactics to win.”

New Landscape, Same Challenges

Now, even traditional media consultants will admit the landscape has changed. For evidence, they look no further than the president-elect’s still-active Twitter feed, which Trump singled out, along with his other social media channels, as the tool that helped get him elected.

Digital communications consultants wholeheartedly agree, and say that’s the path forward.  

“[H]e picked media that he could dominate,” Jerry Cave, a digital media consultant who ran unsuccessfully for state Senate as a Republican in Maryland in 2010, recently told The Atlantic. “The media that all these stupid Republicans always pick and the one that Hillary was all prepared for is paid television advertising. Well, there’s a lot of things wrong with that. Number one, people can tune it out mentally. Number two, they tune it out digitally. Number three, it’s not credible.”

Undoubtedly, the Clinton campaign dominated paid TV advertising. Of the approximately 500,000 political TV ads that aired between June 12-Nov. 6 targeting the presidential race, the Clinton campaign and its allied groups accounted for 75 percent, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis, based on data from Kantar Media/CMAG. Moreover, ads aired by the campaigns directly were just as lopsided: 282,159 for Clinton to 84,840 for Trump.

Asked about what industry lessons could be learned from that barrage, one of Clinton’s media consultants declined to comment to C&E citing a non-disclosure agreement. Jim Margolis, whose firm GMMB, did the media buying and produced ads for Clinton wasn't available to comment for this story.

Without those inside the campaign sharing details about their media strategy, it will be impossible for the industry to weigh whether anything the Clinton camp did was effective, according to Neil Williams, a media buyer who works with Republican campaigns.

“If you see a spot in a program you would not otherwise see it in, is it there because something or somebody told them it was a great program to be in? [Is] it there because it was a make-good due to a slammed market? Or is it there because you need to buy 2000 GRPs?,” he asked. “As outsiders, we will never know this.”

One thing traditional media consultants do know is that they’re not changing the way they do things because of how 2016 shook down. At least not yet.  

Fred Davis, a GOP media consultant, pointed to his work for Louisiana Senate candidate John Kennedy, who faces a Dec. 10 runoff vote against Democrat Foster Campbell.

“Did we change one single tactic based on Donald Trump?” asked Davis. “No, we didn’t.” 

Davis noted that other celebrity candidates haven’t been able to avoid spending on TV as Trump did. “I worked for Arnold Schwarzenegger [when he ran for reelection in California in 2006.] We still spent $95 million on TV because it was necessary to win.”

Clinton’s TV strategy wasn’t an indictment of media consulting in general, he added. “She ran a very traditional campaign and [produced] very traditional ads in the most non-traditional time. Voters hated everything about D.C. Of all the people, Donald Trump was there at the right place, at the right time.”

Confident About The Future

Casey Phillips, a GOP media consultant, said his business has continued to grow despite increased competition from digitally focused shops. “Our company continues to double in size every year. We produced nearly 400 ads this year. There’s an insatiable need for content,” he said.

He dismissed the idea that 2016 marked the end of TV advertising’s dominance. “Some of the dollars are going to shift to wherever people are consuming media,” he said. “But if you don’t think TV ads make a difference in Senate, House and governors’ races, you’re looking at the wrong set of data.”

To wit, Phillips agreed with Davis that 2016 wouldn’t rewrite the media consultants’ playbook. “I don’t know anyone who’s going to put the breaks on advertising on issues they believe in, or for candidates they believe in.”

But donors are again venting their frustration at what they see as money poorly spent. “I may very well be done with political giving entirely,” Florida attorney John Morgan, a Clinton fundraiser, recently told The Hill. “I’d much rather give money to build a new Boys & Girls Club than to give to the [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee].”

The Democratic side’s anger hasn’t centered on a single consultant the way it did during the GOP presidential primary when Mike Murphy was criticized for making multi-million dollar commissions off a Jeb Bush-allied Super PAC’s $100 million spend. In 2012, Karl Rove faced similar blowback after his groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, blew through some $300 million, but failed to derail President Obama’s reelection bid.

Part of the reason why Democratic consultants haven’t been put on the rack the same way their GOP colleagues were is that many in the industry agree that Clinton herself should shoulder some of the blame.

“She was not a great messenger; not the right person for a change environment,” said John Rowley, a Democratic media consultant. “The stuff that was positive for her, really felt more packaged than what some other campaigns had done. It was authentic to who she was, but it didn’t really peel away the veneer.”

The biggest lesson from 2016, according to Rowley, isn’t that TV is on the decline. Rather it’s that packaging candidates in slickly produced spots isn’t as effective as it once was.

“We see it in focus groups: people want less slickly produced spots,” he said. “Ad credibility is huge, they want stuff that’s documented. The BS detector for political ads is bigger than ever.

“It’s better to have a credible ad than an ad that the operatives sit around and pat themselves on the back for.”

Rowley added: “I think Obama ushered in a new era of authenticity in politics that every consultant in every medium has to be aware of — and Trump benefited from it.”