New Wave of Post ’08 Political Agencies Emerges

ClickZ News - Politics & AdvocacySwiftcurrent Strategies is on the offensive. The right-leaning digital agency is settling into its new Peabody, Massachusetts offices – housed in an old leather factory – and gearing up to train college interns to create digital content like video, Twitter campaigns, and online petitions to help get Republican candidates elected. The new firm joins a handful of other digital consultancies that have launched in recent months to serve political, advocacy, and public affairs clients.

They are comprised of digital campaign staffers from winning election campaigns such as Barack Obama’s and the more recent Scott Brown for Senate effort; they are former independent consultants or even partnering firms. They represent the next wave of post-’08 election consultancies.

“Our mindset is…how do we actually help advance, push the ball down the field further, other than just sitting on the sidelines waiting to be called out onto the field,” said Rob Willington, partner at Swiftcurrent Strategies, and former online campaign strategist for the Brown campaign.

The time is right. The 2008 elections convinced many reluctant candidate campaigns and advocacy groups that incorporating a digital media strategy into their overall approaches is vital. While the market remains relatively nascent, the upcoming midterm elections are expected to create a new base of clientele from smaller congressional campaigns. Also, larger statewide campaigns, advocacy groups, and trade organizations running public affairs efforts are recognizing the importance of treating the Internet as more than just a place for a Web site, e-mail fundraising, or a stagnant Facebook page.

The barriers of entry to starting a business are lowering, suggested Mike Panetta, one of five partners at just-launched The Beekeeper Group, a nonpartisan outfit serving large trade associations and corporations running issue-based public affairs campaigns. “The amount of technology that’s available to a startup firm is amazing,” he said. Panetta said his agency can handle anything from e-mail and Web development to online advertising.

Digital media has become more important to election campaigns, particularly for fundraising and communications, said Andrew Bleeker, president of D.C.-based Bully Pulpit Interactive, an online ad and marketing agency dedicated to serving progressive and Democratic campaigns. “Overall the industry has gotten much more sophisticated, and it’s grown with the business. Campaigns now use the Internet far more. When the Web was just a brochure, all you needed was a Web development company,” he told ClickZ News. Bleeker was a key member of Obama for America’s online advertising team.

Founded in September 2009, Bully Pulpit Interactive has 10 fulltime staff, each with expertise in particular disciplines including search marketing, display advertising, media buying, and online ad trafficking. Post-Obama, Bleeker concluded that the Democratic digital consulting space lacked a firm focused on online marketing and advertising, so he created BPI.

However, although he believes there’s a viable market in digital political ad consulting, it’s not exactly profitable yet. “This is a horrible business. There’s not currently money in it,” he said.

The partners at Trilogy Interactive have been operating digital consulting firms for longer than Willington and Bleeker, but their recent decision to merge under the same name is indicative of a maturing sector. The joint venture, formed in February, brings together Articulated Man, Blackrock Associates, and Mayfield Strategy Group. The firms – which maintain their separate locations in California, Chicago, and D.C. – handle Web development and strategy for left-leaning advocacy groups and campaigns.

Newly-formed Craft aligns five partners with online and offline experience. Yet, rather than specialize in digital-only, the right-leaning consultancy aims to remove barriers between digital campaign efforts and traditional disciplines such as direct mail and television.

“As new media grows, campaigns are demanding a more varied skill set from their agencies,” suggested Peter Pasi, EVP of Emotive, a digital agency serving Republican campaigns that launched in 2004. Added Pasi, “The day of the single practitioner is kind of over.”

Follow Kate Kaye on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.

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