Douglas Quenqua
Nov 10, 2016

How advertising failed Hillary Clinton

She had a US$100 million advantage and Madison Avenue's coolest kids in her corner. And yet...

How advertising failed Hillary Clinton

The ad industry woke up Wednesday to yet another dissatisfied client.

Over the past 5 months, Hillary Clinton outspent Donald Trump on advertising by nearly $100 million in battleground states alone. She hired the hottest talent Madison Avenue had to offer. Even ad agencies not on her payroll—really good ones—were crafting ads in her favor.

And yet.

As America took stock of the stunning upset in the 2016 presidential election, advertising and communications executives grappled with the reality that, despite their best efforts at persuasion, they simply couldn't sell this product.

The cause of the loss will be debated in offices, articles and panel discussions for years. But the first round of incriminations on Wednesday pointed to fatal flaws in the media strategy, her dependence on data and—most notably—the messaging. 

"There were three phrases that were utilized in this campaign," said Rob Schwartz, CEO of TBWA\Chiat\Day NY. "One was 'Make America Great Again,' which is actually an old Ronald Reagan line. The second was 'I'm with Her,' and the third was 'Stronger Together.'"

"The copywriter in me says of those three, 'Make America Great Again' was the best," he continued. "It was clear, ambitious and about the voter. And if you look at 'I'm With Her,' it was about the candidate, and 'Stronger Together' was really about the party."

That Clinton may be remembered as the one with the egocentric message in this contest will feel bitterly ironic to her supporters. But it was a recurring theme among those assessing her loss.

"She focused us on the glass ceiling, and I believe the Trump organization sold us a world that is rose-colored," said Marian Salzman, NA Chairman and CEO of Havas PR Worldwide. "The glass ceiling ended up feeling self-serving."

That focus on her own accomplishments may also have been off-putting to young voters who associate that sort of ambition with their parent's generation. "Millennials didn't want to pick their mom, and she didn't figure out how to do a Bernie and engage them as co-conspirators in a brave new world," Salzman said, referring to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. 

Clinton wasn't the only one on the team with a lethal case of myopia, suggested Schwartz. Though some of her campaign's ads were beautifully produced and compelling, he questioned whether they were focused on the right people. "For all the 'cool kids' on Madison Avenue who worked on this: Who was the audience?" he asked. "Other ad agencies? Awards shows? Or was it really America? Did we really take the audience seriously?" Meanwhile, Trump's ads stuck to a familiar political formula: scary images of the opponent and promises of doom if she's elected, capped by bright, smiling images of the candidate.

"To me, this was a real issue of understanding the audience and customer journey," Schwartz said. "It's less about the creative—she had beautiful design, a lot of the films are moving and beautiful. I'm just not sure they understood who the audience was."

Of course, advertising was only one factor in Clinton's loss, and perhaps a minor one compared to the cultural, economic and demographic factors that redrew the electoral map on Tuesday. If the product is set, there's only so much the advertising can do. And Clinton, despite being highly qualified, entered the race with decades of political baggage and deep reserves of voter distrust.

In some ways, her massive expenditures on advertising could have exacerbated those issues, said Richard Edelman, President and CEO of Edelman. "In this election, it was seen as a way of trying to buy voters as opposed to earn their trust," he said. "Trump, by contrast, was totally and consistently involved in social channels." Though "scrappy" can be a tough mantle for a billionaire to assume, Trump's relatively small ad spend and dependence on Twitter became hallmarks, feeding his image as an authentic challenger voice.

"It was almost a contrast between the old world of 'We'll have ads' versus the new world of social," Edelman said.

Which is not to suggest Trump's media strategy was simplistic. In June, the New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenburg made the prescient observation that Trump—for all his seeming lack of sophistication—was essentially running a "prolific content production studio," whereas Clinton relied on traditional advertising. In years to come, it could be seen as a black mark on the industry that, after years of shifting toward content production, it fell back on old habits when the Presidency was on the line.

Others saw signs of old habits in other aspects of the campaign. "I think they discounted digital quite a bit from what I would have expected, and certainly compared to what we've seen in the past," said Jonathan Mendez, CEO of Yieldbot, an analytics and targeting platform. "If you look at what the Obama campaign did the last two cycles, it's a stark difference."

And the reliance on celebrities like Beyonce and Jay-Z may have backfired with alienated voters already frustrated with so-called elites. "It actually provoked Trump's base to come out," said Edelman.

Not surprisingly, the people behind the actual advertising were mostly silent on Wednesday. Though the Clinton campaign was always cagey about publicizing its relationships, emails released through WikiLeaks revealed that Wendy Clark, NA CEO of DDB Worldwide, helped design the campaign's logo before joining the agency. And Droga5 is known to be behind many of the campaign's most high-profile ads, such as "Role Model" and a film that ran at the Democratic National Convention in July. Other specialist agencies were reportedly involved, though the campaign produced several of its own spots, including "Donald Trump's Immigration Inkblot," one of the more abstract and artistic ads ever to emerge from a presidential campaign.

In an emailed statement, David Droga, creative chairman and founder of Droga5, acknowledged his role in the loss, but struck an optimistic tone. "Regardless of how I feel personally, I cannot dismiss the outcome," he said. "Because that's the thing about true democracy, you can't only believe and support it when it goes your way. We just need to move forward with open minds and mutual respect for one another, as that will define more where we are going, than the election result itself." (Clark was unavailable to comment.)

If traditional advertising took a body blow on Tuesday, it is probably mild compared to the wound sustained by the polling community. Most predictions gave Clinton a comfortable lead, utterly missing the Rust Belt uprising that swept Trump into office. For all their sophisticated techniques and models, the pollsters simply failed to see the big picture, leading many observers to declare that polling was simply "over."

It’s a hyperbolic reaction, to be sure. But there is a good chance the ad industry will face similar questions in the coming months. Does traditional advertising simply not work anymore? Are political ads "over"?

No one interviewed for this article seemed to think so. "It can’t be a total repudiation," said Schwartz. "Trump used traditional advertising as well. He just seemed to use a lot of utilitarian, not-sexy messaging." Whether the business and political communities see it that way remains to be seen. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed "Donald Trump's Immigration Inkblot" to Droga5. 

Campaign US

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