A handful of the 2020 Democrat presidential candidates are bringing parts of their digital operation into their campaigns, rather than pursuing a traditional client/agency relationship.
Part of that is out of necessity with a field so large and only so many possible firms to work with, but the Warren campaign, for example, thinks it will get greater efficiency from bringing paid media production and placement in house.
Bringing certain operations of a campaign in-house by itself is not a virtue and there are two important questions to ask before a candidate adopts this approach.
First, can you afford to hire individuals with enough expertise and will there be enough for them to work on? For the expertise you need and the amount of work your have for such a person to do, it may make sense to use a contractor or an agency.
Second, do you miss out on any economies of scale by bringing a campaign function in-house. On presidential campaigns competing in multiple statewide elections at the same time you’ll likely have the scale you need.
Here’s how the calculation plays out for key campaign functions:
Using an agency to place your ad buys will typically bring expertise on board and some advertising technology tools a typical campaign couldn’t afford. You’ll also benefit from optimization across clients when your account manager knows what is and isn’t working for other clients.
On the other hand is the question of cost savings, which I suspect is an important part of how the Warren campaign arrived at its decision. Suppose, for the sake of easy math, an ad agency charges a 10% placement fee on ads. The difference between a $100,000 budget and a $200,000 budget is an additional $10,000 in placement commissions but ultimately not that much in terms of additional work. By bringing ad buying in-house, the campaign eliminates $20,000 in placement fees in exchange for roughly a quarter’s worth of salary and benefits for an employee who can now do other things for the campaign beyond simply advertising or can spend all day optimizing your ad budget, conversion rates, creative, etc.
The team of talent, including front-end developers, designers, and systems admins, you need to build a website properly is cost prohibitive in the context of a campaign because once a website is built, there’s little need to have this full complement of staff on board. Properly built, the website can be maintained with a reasonable monthly retainer.
Candidates themselves must be responsible for at least one social media channel. There’s no other way to authentically capture their voice and engage online effectively. Once a candidate posts on Twitter or Facebook, staff can repurpose that content for other channels.
But social media is also a two-way conversation. You need staff to help respond to and interact with your campaign’s online community. This can’t be outsourced.
The person responsible for managing the campaign’s email marketing also needs to be fully integrated into the team. Sure they need to understand the message and strategy, but the most difficult part of an email program is the approvals process. You need someone who can go bother people at HQ to get sign off on an email if you’re going to send the quantity and variety of copy you need to be successful.
I think it’s a smart move for major campaigns and large organizations to bring parts of their digital operation in-house, but it has to be part of a larger strategy of integrating “digital” into everything else that you’re doing. For presidential campaigns focused on building an online infrastructure to last through Iowa and beyond, it’s mission critical.