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Taking a page out of the political playbook: What marketers can learn from 2024 presidential campaigns

Two hands holding red and blue cards deposit them in a slot within a smartphone on top of a man's body.

Illustration by Nick DeSantis / Shutterstock / The Current

Political marketers are anticipating a massive year in terms of digital ad growth ahead of the 2024 presidential election. In fact, this year, U.S. political ad spend on digital platforms is projected to reach $3.46 billion, a 156% jump from the last presidential election in 2020.

As political advertisers gear up for arguably their biggest year ever, it turns out that there’s much that marketers outside of the political sphere can learn from their campaigning counterparts.

Mark Jablonowski knows this truth firsthand as chief technology officer and president of both digital media company Optimal and political agency DSPolitical. The Alaska native, who worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and whose agency will support roughly 2,000 candidates in 2024, applies his political advertising and technology chops to the campaigns he works on across other industries, such as auto and retail.

“Other sectors would be wise to study political campaigns,” says Jablonowski. “With their first-party data assets and the high-stakes pressure they face to break through and reach audiences that may not even be receptive to hearing their message, campaigns occupy a uniquely challenging space in the media landscape.”

Being highly targeted

Marketers take note: One area political advertisers are well versed in is the ability to target audiences with effective channels. For example, with political ads, linear TV can often fall flat when the goal is reaching audiences across specific locations and demographics, according to Tom Pino, CEO of Polaris Strategies, who has previously worked for Hilary for America and Senator Amy Klobuchar. This, he says, is due to congressional districts and media markets spilling into other districts and states. The political advertiser will lean into geotargeting and connected TV (CTV), says Pino, while the traditional route he calls “cost-prohibitive.”

More and more, political advertising campaigns are turning to CTV to help reach the exact voters they need to win on the biggest screen in the house. Jablonowski estimates that about 25% of business was CTV advertising.

Regardless of whether it’s political advertising or a yogurt brand, focusing on targeting tactics can be particularly beneficial when it comes to relaying messages to younger audiences, who tend to stream TV much more than tune in to traditional channels. A 2023 GWI survey found that Gen Z viewers (the oldest of which can vote) watch almost three times as much streaming content as linear TV content.

“People watching traditional TV skews older, but it still has limited reach,” says Pino. “If you want to talk to younger voters, if you need incremental reach, digital CTV is absolutely critical.”

Creativity under pressure

Unlike other sectors, political advertising has very little lead time, with all creative and spend operating with one goal in mind: winning a campaign. Pino says that often money comes in and, just as quickly, is planned and executed on. Generally, cash is paid in advance, so if the money needs to move around, it needs to do so quickly. More often these days, political campaigns are starting earlier and campaigns have to be supported year-round. Pino says this is often a blessing in disguise.

“Having constraints sort of forces you to be more creative,” he says. “I can’t rely on one vendor to have scale, so let’s get creative with figuring out proxies to do the same thing.”

Jablonowski compares the high stakes nature of political advertising to that of the opening night of a new movie. “So much of a movie’s success is riding on that one release date,” he says.

Translating that sense of “it had to happen yesterday” mentality to other verticals can give marketers a competitive edge, he says.

Working with large sets of data

Brands these days are working with large swaths of data to the point where it can be overwhelming. Political advertisers, meanwhile, are used to working with large sets of voter data. For decades now, advertisers have been able to see what parties people are affiliated with, and that can act as the foundation of their campaigns.

Making sure brands’ data sets are working for them in a privacy-conscious way, and determining which data partners to work with is something Jablonowski believes brands across categories should emulate, since “data is more and more the lifeblood of organizations,” he says.