Shedding Light on the World of Media Ad Buys

One of the dirty secrets of politics on both sides of the aisle is the outsized amounts of cash made by television ad buyers, who rake in exorbitant amounts of money for doing not all that much work, and regardless of their particular level of campaign success.

Washington Monthly has covered this beat for a long time, foremost with this excellent piece by Amy Sullivan. Other examples of the genre are here and here.

During the 2008 Clinton campaign much was rightly made of Clinton’s not-too-effective high priced consultants, and now there are even questions about the Sanders campaign’s ad buying firm. It’s medium.com, so many grains of salt associated with it, but this articledoes raise some interesting questions.

Basically, the Sanders campaign has contracted with a fairly new firm Old Towne Media to do its buying. It’s hard to learn much about the principals of the firm due to multiple layers of secrecy, but it appears to be linked to the same people who run Canal Partners Media, which boasts an impressive Democratic client list all over the country with nothing to be ashamed of (unlike, say, folks like Mark Penn.)

So why didn’t the Sanders camp and Canal Partners just do business together, instead of going with new creation Old Towne Media?

Who knows. But it does highlight the weird and often sordid world of ad buyer consulting, which is one of the biggest rackets in politics. Media buyers try to pretend to their clients that there is a complicated secret sauce to buying TV ads. But there really isn’t. The networks and cable companies know their audiences better than anyone and are desperate to sell advertising.

As a campaign manager, I know from personal experience that as a campaign you can go directly to networks and cable companies, tell them precisely what demographics you want to target and what your budget is, and they’ll present the precise ad buys you will need to hit your targets, giving you a range of subtle options to choose from. You sign off on the buy, provide them the ad in a digital file and send them a check. That’s it.

The fact that many of these consultants take a stiff percentage of the buy, often in the millions or tens of millions of dollars, for what amounts to at best a few hours’ oversight and management work is frankly an outrage. Add to that the fact that many consultants are well connected, and that favors in terms of endorsements and other deals are often traded in exchange for certain favored consultants receiving this sort of lucrative work, and the outrage doubles.

One hopes that as media democratizes and media buying simplifies, the amount of money shelled out to shadowy consultants will decrease as well as candidate campaigns start to take these matters into their own hands.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.