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How Democratic Mega Firm SKDK Sees the Midterm Media Landscape

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Campaigns this cycle are in a content arms race and that has one top Democratic firm eyeing companies that do influencer marketing.

Early in 2020, SKDK made the first two acquisitions in the firm’s history ,  acquiring Seward Square, which had an expertise in digital persuasion, and making its founder, Jason Rosenbaum, the head of its digital practice. It also bought financial/corporate media relations shop Sloane & Company 

Now, as Doug Thornell prepares to take over from Josh Isay as the next CEO of SKDK, the firm has influencer marketing companies in its sights.

“[I]f you’re looking at how both corporate brands and also other entities are communicating and trying to reach customers, social media influencers are becoming more and more important and many of these folks are viewed as trusted voices,” Thornell told C&E. “I think that’s an important part of where we’re headed.”

OTT is another critical part of this cycle’s content race.

“We’re doing a lot more OTT streaming content than we have,” said Thornell, a 12-year veteran of the media/comms consulting firm who will remain head of its political advertising department until he takes over from Isay in January. “That’s just going to become where the market goes.”

As for finding the right media balance heading toward the November election: “It’s OTT, it’s streaming, scalable content and it’s also figuring out how you deploy social media influencers in a smart and appropriate way. Those are the things we’re looking at.”

Thornell recently spoke to C&E in a wide-ranging interview about the future of the consulting industry, but he also touched on a more immediate debate for the left: whether to invest in base mobilization or persuasion advertising at the end of a midterm cycle that has been one of the most tumultuous in recent memory.

“I think it’s a mistake for any campaign or, quite frankly, the Democratic Party to think about these folks as just GOTV targets who you communicate [with in the] last three to four weeks,” he said. “You have to treat them as persuasion targets that you communicate with very early on.”

Thornell noted that he ran a program for the NAACP in 2020 that advertised in 30 markets, starting in July with a message to recruit volunteers through radio, digital and some TV. The program then deployed those volunteers in the fall to talk to infrequent voters.

“It was heavily focused on digital content that was motivational,” he said. “It’s not just Black voters, or Hispanic voters, this is young voters, too. These are voters who should be voting Democratic, who will if they feel like they have skin in the game. I believe that base voters are persuasion voters and we need to treat them that way.”

He also touched on the “immense” appetite for content in this cycle.

“It’s a mixture of things that we’re used to traditionally like the 30-second TV spot, but now [it’s also] quick 6-second, 15-second videos. More content can get out there, not just on paid platforms, but also social platforms. I look at all my campaigns that I’m working on now, and they’re just putting out a ton of content. The more organic it looks and authentic it looks, the better.”

Part of what’s helping SKDK meet the content needs of its clients is its staffing strategy. In 2021, they hired an additional creative director, Ryan Rose, to focus on that vertical. At the same time, the firm is working on retaining talent and ensuring that its offices, where staff are required to work at least three days a week while in town, is a place they want to come.

“Collaboration is really important and I think seeing each other some number of days a week is really important — especially for younger people who are just getting out of college or this is their first or second job,” Thornell said, noting perks like a free, healthy lunch await staff at the office.

“I know just from my own experience in terms of coming off campaigns and working on the Hill, how important it was to see people at work everyday and build that network so that I could get to a place like this.

“You can do really good work outside of the office, too. I think we’ve found a good sweet spot here.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been amended to clarify that SKDK does do some influencer marketing work in-house.

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