Washington, D.C. is clearly the center of the political universe, which is why many digital political consultancies are based there. However, as demand for digital media and advertising services builds among political and advocacy organizations, some — including Republican digital shop Engage — see a future out West.
California is a political beast unto itself. Consultants not only count on electoral races occurring across the enormous state, they rely on work from advocacy efforts centered on an array of ballot initiatives and propositions. Coupled with the technological powerhouse that is Silicon Valley, the California market seems ripe for digital political consulting firms.
“In the past, technology companies went to D.C. to [attract] political consultants,” said Karen Jagoda, E-Voter Institute president and longtime proponent of digital media usage for political campaigns. “Now political consultants are coming to Silicon Valley.”
There isn’t exactly a mass migration of D.C.-based consulting firms heading West; yet, companies such as Engage, and Blue State Digital — a larger digital political firm with a Los Angeles location that serves Democratic and left-leaning clients — might be forward-thinking in opening California offices.
Jagoda suggested that having a California presence makes sense, in part because there are so many political issues associated with the state, such as gay marriage, water usage, and a possible state constitutional convention. It helps to understand the unique sensibilities of California voters, she added. A presence in California also can generate campaign work in nearby states like Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.
“Just by the nature of the ballot initiatives and propositions, [California is] the right market for political work,” explained Engage Partner Mindy Finn. “That, in conjunction with it being so forward-leaning when it comes to technology, it’s the natural place we’d venture after D.C.” The consultancy has four full-time staffers in addition to working with contractors.
The firm recently opened its San Francisco office, which will host its sole California staffer, David Kralik. Now Engage’s California Director, Kralik has built a name in California politics serving as director of Internet strategy for Newt Gingrich’s organization, American Solutions for Winning the Future. He also has done digital marketing work for the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Association of Home Builders.
Political people typically don’t understand technology, and tech people rarely get politics, suggested Chris Nolan, co-founder of San Francisco-based Spot-on.com, a political content syndicator that also runs an online political ad network. “The more people are shrewd about how to bring technology and politics together, the more successful they’ll be,” she said.
Firms such as Engage and Blue State Digital could act as links between the two worlds. Indeed, Engage’s goal in setting up shop near Silicon Valley is to assess new technologies for political use. Though some technologies are devised with the political market in mind, often political campaigns discover them after they’ve been embraced by corporate advertisers.
The consulting firm expects Kralik’s presence in Silicon Valley to help foster relationships with tech firms. “We want to be at the forefront,” said Finn. However, she stressed the company would not fall into a tech-for-tech’s-sake trap. “By no means will it change our approach to one that puts technology first,” she said. “On the contrary, it will allow us to ensure we’re perfecting the tactics we’ve employed in the past.”
California’s most prominent political race today is for the state’s 2010 gubernatorial election. Several primary candidates have ties to the tech industry, including Republicans Steve Poizner, a tech entrepreneur, ex-eBay CEO Meg Whitman, and Tom Campbell, formerly a Congressman serving Silicon Valley. Engage is working on Campbell’s campaign.
Nolan believes the GOP as a whole could benefit if a firm like Engage were to gain prominence through a successful tech-savvy campaign. In the least, such a campaign could help burnish the party’s reputation. It so happens Engage’s founders are closely involved with Rebuild the Party, a coalition promoting new digital strategies for modernizing and injecting youth into Republican campaigns.
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