By Marian Salzman, Tuesday, September 1, 2009, at 2:51 pm.
I blogged back in July about how one of the biggest winners at the 2009 Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival was a brand the whole world has quickly grown to love: Barack Obama. Actually, it was his presidential campaign, headed by strategist David Plouffe, that won two major awards. He received the Cannes Titanium Grand Prix, which “celebrates work that causes the industry to stop in its tracks and reconsider the way forward,” and the Integrated Grand Prix, for an innovative campaign that successfully and creatively incorporates multiple mediums, such as TV, print and the Web.
The Obama campaign was defined by a fresh new brand; an interactive, collaborative approach to communication; deep buy-in and involvement from the top to the grassroots; and smart integration of new and old media. New media boosters championed the campaign’s digital smarts, and Plouffe himself has pointed to the importance of a state-of-the-art Internet platform and successful technology management. At Cannes, he also played up the traditional aspects of the campaign, describing it as a historic marriage between digital technology and grassroots campaigning. He rated TV advertising as a key part of the campaign as well—though the team flipped that convention on its head too, putting $3 million toward a single half-hour spot.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Obama campaign was its focus on specific places and voters. As Plouffe tells it, they deliberately sacrificed reach for target. Remember, the margin of victory in raw numbers wasn’t huge: Obama won 53 percent of the popular vote against McCain’s 46 percent, but thanks to smart targeting, his victory in the electoral college was 365 vs. 173.
Not everything that contributed to Obama’s victory was masterminded by his campaign. Cannes jury president David Droga called the campaign’s leaders curators as much as creators: They built a framework and allowed others to contribute. The importance of grassroots is what really stands out for me. The Obama campaign figured out how to connect with people and get them actively working for the same purpose.
So it’s hard not to feel a little dismayed while watching the health-care debate and campaigns for midterm elections. The Obama campaign’s mastery of new digital tools has been replaced by town hall meetings—among the oldest of old-school formats—that have seemed to showcase the worst of America. The unsophisticated shouting matches, with all their “death panels” and “Keep your hands off my Medicare,” didn’t reveal a grassroots movement but a clumsy Astroturf campaign, clearly traceable to the interests that started it. Television commercials and robo-calls are affecting Americans’ views.
President Obama is trying mightily to regain control of the story, but he’s using old media to do it: public appearances, prime-time addresses, and he’s scheduled to appear on an unprecedented five Sunday morning TV talk shows on September 20. I don’t fault him for doing whatever it takes, but I have to wonder: Where have all the new media mavens gone?