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Political Advertising|By Elizabeth Wilner, March 12, 2013

It’s barely March of the out-year, yet here they come: a drip of TV ads targeting lawmakers on the ballot in November 2014. In 2012 and 2010, the earliest TV issue ads captured by Kantar Media’s CMAG in congressional races aired a year before Election Day.

The 2014 air wars won’t just start earlier—they’ll be smarter and more efficient. We’re coming off a presidential race won by a weak incumbent who schooled future candidates on how to maximize every play of the ad targeting game. The midterms offer statewide and district-level laboratories for advertisers of both sides to apply lessons learned. 2014 will be the year traditional ad buying techniques are jettisoned and a new mainstream approach starts to gel.

The real question is just how far beyond the days of placing on Fridays, staying dark in the summertime, and living and dying by GRPs we’ll move in one cycle. “Will 2014 be a traditionally bought ‘saturation election’ or a more targeted, data-driven election?” asks Tim Kay, director of political strategy for the nation’s local cable systems. The Obama campaign’s use of analytics was “a new approach which is difficult because it breaks the system.”

Even the authors of the President’s reelection playbook would agree that many techniques they used are ones that savvy media strategists, Republicans and Democrats alike, have long preached to their clients. Chicago “simply”— helped by scores of staffers and immense resources—brought these techniques to bear all at once.

The new ingredient was Big Data. One tactic embraced by Chicago, reserving airtime early, “saved us tens of millions of dollars,” says top Obama strategist David Axelrod, but using analytics to more precisely target certain programming “probably saved us an additional 15 percent and made our advertising much more efficient.”

With that question hanging in the balance, here are a few predictions for the least we can expect in trends of the 2014 air wars.

Stealth placement is over. The media buyers and broadcasters I spoke with agree: of all the ad strategies deployed by the Obama campaign, their early placement was the most important lesson for 2014. Early reservations of airtime later in the race ensured that they paid as little as possible and stretched their ad dollars further against a better-financed opposition.

The days of placing ads on Fridays to hit during the weekend are mostly over. “The cost savings are so much more beneficial than that element of surprise,” says Angela McCann of GOP buying firm Mentzer Media.

“Laying in” early doesn’t require legions of staffers; any campaign media shop can do it. Stations are happy to help because it means they’re less likely to have to bump—and annoy—their regular advertisers other ads to make room for last-minute political buys in the fall.

And for candidates, reserving early has the added benefit of telegraphing your plans to your outside-group allies, enabling them to place ads that legally aren’t coordinated but practically speaking, seem very much so.

Spring and summer are the new September. Instead of laying off the throttle from April through August, many advertisers will take advantage of fresh cable programming and sporting events like the Stanley Cup playoffs, NASCAR and baseball to ramp up their ad buys. For some candidates, paying higher rates (because their guaranteed low rates won’t kick in until after Labor Day) may be worth the rewards of bigger audiences and less crowded airspace.

At the House level, gerrymandering may shift more advertising from fall to spring and summer. My colleague David Wasserman expects another uptick in the number of competitive primaries and possibly even fewer competitive general elections than in 2012.

And at the statewide level, per my colleague Jennifer Duffy, interest in influencing the outcomes of Republican primaries also may bring out more advertisers sooner—not just from within the GOP family but from Democrats hoping to grease the nominations of less electable conservatives (see: McCaskill, Claire and Reid, Harry).

Geo is the new demo. As a “national” campaign, Obama 2012 probably focused more on targeting by demographic rather than geography. As meticulous as they were in adjusting their buy every day, a savvy statewide or House campaign can try a few things the Chicago folks didn’t. In states or districts with distinct geographic areas, we may see TV ads produced to air only on local cable, something even Chicago, which often had 20 unique ads on the air at once, didn’t try. Advertisers looking to stay within district boundaries also will more fully exploit online media including video, predicts Will Feltus of GOP buying firm National Media, Inc.

Layers are the new black. Statewide and House campaigns will get more sophisticated about creating layered ad campaigns that engage voters across TV, radio, the Internet and social media. That said, they have a long way to go. Almost no 2012 TV ads included Twitter hashtags or Facebook pages.

It will take more than one cycle, but in 2014, the media buying silos for “traditional” media like TV and radio and “new media,” i.e., digital will begin to break down. Someday, McCann suggests, campaigns might even stop throwing their late-October digital ad budgets into TV.

GRPs hit the wall. Nielsen’s time-honored gross rating points tell you how many impressions your TV ads get but can’t tell you whether you’re reaching your targeted audiences within programs, as an Obama consultant told me after their win. As campaigns get more sophisticated about burrowing into TV programming to find their targeted viewers, and creating ad campaigns that stretch well beyond TV to other platforms, GRPs will be of less and less use—even as the political world casts about for a more comprehensive metric. Meanwhile, even the GRP’s default status as the white-gold standard will be challenged in 2014 by an upstart rival.

Spot count is the new spend. The greater the disparities between what candidates and super PACs pay to advertise, the less useful spending is as a means of comparison. While equating spot occurrences across media markets is an imperfect metric, too, a 30-second spot sponsored by a candidate during the late evening news for $400 and a 30-second spot sponsored by a super PAC during the late evening news for $4,000 are both, at the least, 30-second spots. The media might continue to focus on dollars, but advertisers needing a more apples-to-apples metric will rely increasingly on spot counts.

Ad buying is the new elite chit-chat. As the political elite become better versed in the previously impenetrable world of media buying, it will join polling as a popular cocktail party currency.

That’s an analogy for something bigger. Like public affairs polling, the political media buying industry is a small, highly individualized community of people with their own particular experiences that guide how they each do their work. Unlike polling, media buying doesn’t have a professional association, much less any kind of formal accreditation. As part of the new mainstream approach to media buying that emerges from the upheaval of 2012, clients will be better educated and buyers will be held more accountable. Not a single buyer I spoke with found that idea to be a bad thing.

CMAG’s Andrew Fitzgerald contributed to this article.