Elizabeth Warren’s DIY Campaign: No Outsourcing to Political Vendors

Nathanael Yellis By Nathanael Yellis • Last Updated May 18, 2021

Rejecting conventional wisdom to leave vendors out could result in operational leverage and a competitive edge.

Conventional wisdom tells a campaign to outsource everything. Thus the core jobs to be done on a political campaign are typically outsourced to vendors. Polling? Vendor. Messaging? A few vendors. Content? Hire an agency. Buying ads? Get an ad agency. Even if the people doing the work sit in the campaign offices, they’re often employees of a private company.

The conventional wisdom is rooted in an era when these core campaign tasks were tricky to execute and required lots of experience. The vendors were companies created by experienced operatives who hired sharp teams to navigate complexities like running telephone polls and mailing the right TV tape to the right station in Podunk, IA. In a pre-digital era, the work was trickier and vendors were probably warranted.

It’s 2020, or at least the 2020 cycle, and the era ain’t pre-digital. Software has eaten the world and political campaigns weren’t excluded.

But no one told the vendors: campaign budgets are still eaten alive by vendors and agencies, each created by a few old hands, but each now staffed by just a handful of young staffers who click the buttons. The buttons are only just harder than any consumer grade application. Ever bought an ad on Facebook? All it takes is a credit card and the ability to write an English sentence--there’s no secret sauce.

In other words, vendors hire the same people campaigns do: experienced junior staff. And the vendors spread the staff time across multiple campaigns. That’s the only leverage they have to juice profits. This leaves campaigns with expensive and less good work.

Choosing to hire core functions internally could be a real innovation in the campaign space. And I’ve long wondered why campaigns don’t do more of this. If your campaign’s communications team can’t handle your social accounts, what are they doing?

Elizabeth Warren appears to agree. After declining to retain a pricey Democratic polling firm, according to Politico Warren’s campaign is using this approach with other core campaign functions:

And now, the campaign told POLITICO that it is shunning the typical model for producing campaign ads, in which outside firms are hired and paid often hefty commissions for their work. Instead, Warren's campaign is producing TV, digital and other media content itself, as well as placing its digital ad buys internally.

Given that all ad tech companies, led by Facebook and Google, are building consumer-grade buying tools, there’s very little specialized knowledge a “digital firm” retains that’s substantively better than what a small internal team can quickly build.

When a campaign retains a vendor for a core function, like content production or advertising buys, the vendor will assign the actual work to a team of low-level account managers. For a similar budget, any moderately sized campaign could hire a similar team. Why rent when you can buy? Conventional wisdom says it’s cheaper to rent experience than to buy it. But the conventional wisdom isn’t quite right, as the Politico piece goes on to say:

Warren's approach is a rebuke of the consultant-heavy model of campaigns — an often lucrative arrangement in which the people advising campaigns invariably tell candidates that the best political strategy is to buy what they sell, namely TV ads and polling.

While the actual work a vendor does is performed by lower-level staff, the vendor’s pitch is always headlined by the advice the most experienced principal in the firm and the advice s/he will offer. That’s how firms get away with charging the equivalent of “cost-plus”: hourly rates for staff time, a commission on any variable expense, and a retainer on top of it all for “strategic advice.” The principal delivering that advice takes the form of a sales pitch the campaign has paid to hear.

I’m not sure if Warren’s approach will work, or, frankly, if the story they dropped into Politico is actually the strategy they’re using. I do know this: it’s time to rethink the conventional wisdom that campaigns should outsource everything from fundraising to polling to messaging to advertising.

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