Joe Lakin is a partner with Victory Enterprises. Victory does online marketing for political campaigns and social causes and is based in Davenport, Iowa. Joe tells us why he calls his clients guaranteed to go broke startups, the similarity between a startup’s founder story, and that of a politician, how his agency helped defeat Steve king, the controversial longstanding Iowa Congressman, and why he values being Midwestern nice. I also share a story about a guy who told me back in college not to act like Bill Clinton who was eventually pardoned by President Trump last year. Enjoy the show.
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David Rodnitzky (David) (00:02): In this episode of Agentic Shift, we talked to Joe Lakin, a partner with Victory Enterprises. Victory does online marketing for political campaigns and social causes and is based in Davenport, Iowa. Joe tells us why he calls his clients guaranteed to go broke startups, the similarity between a startup’s founder story, and that of a politician, how his agency helped defeat Steve king, the controversial longstanding Iowa Congressman, and why he values being Midwestern nice. I also share a story about a guy who told me back in college not to act like Bill Clinton who was eventually pardoned by President Trump last year. Enjoy the show.
Joe, thanks for joining us today.
Joe Lakin (Joe) (00:39): David, thank you for having me.
David (00:42): Yeah, it's great to have you. Excited to talk to you because you have a business that's a little different than most of my friends in the digital performance Silicon Valley space. Tell us about Victory Enterprises.
Joe (00:55): Yeah. So Victory was founded back in the late ‘90s. Our founder is a guy named Steve Grubbs. Served in the Iowa legislature and ultimately he was in his 20s and looking for what his career after the legislature would be. And it was really interesting. A lot of people have a lot of awareness and understanding of how large campaigns work. They get covered in the press. Those things are a little more understood by the public, but you know, it's really interesting is that the state legislative, the local level, even some of the smaller congressionals, we are getting to a point where at that time, historically you had had large male firms. You have large TV firms. You have all these large agencies working in campaigns, but what you didn't have a lot of were agencies that were helping put all those pieces together.
It was sort of at the beginning of fragmenting of media in mass that we've seen accelerate over the last 20 years. And so Steve recognized the need at the time to have that comprehensive approach. And that made sense both from a message uniformity, a visual uniformity, but also from a business model. If you're hiring three different agencies to do three different products, you're probably paying their top dollar. When you're able to cobble those together, you're able to leverage that and the agency's able to cobble together their side of the business more efficiently than if you have different agencies.
And so Steve recognized that, and it's really interesting because you flash forward 25 years from there, and that has just accelerated. And we see that where at the time your media options were running network television on three networks maybe some local radio and local newspaper, and beyond that, there wasn't much, and obviously a flash-forward internet, radio, all the digital platforms, social platforms, sort of the changing of cable, connected TV, all those things that's accelerated.
And so I came into the political business in 2008. Like most people, I started working on State House race in rural Missouri. And my agency that I was working with was Victory Enterprises. I got partnered up with them by the party caucus, selects vendors, and sort of pairs them together with candidates. And I worked with Victory Enterprises. And then over the course of the next five years, we worked on a variety of campaigns together and grew to build the team at Victory like family. They asked me to come over a couple times. I got really close and then had one more fight I needed or one other campaign I was going to work on. But ultimately in 2013 came over, and then during that time, really been involved in standing up products within the company in the digital space.
David (03:26): And so who's your typical client today? Is it someone running for house? Is it someone running for some state position? Who do you work with?
Joe (03:33): Yeah. I would say like every business, you have those exceptions. But for us, we'll work for governors, we’ll work for US senate candidates. But I would say that the bulk of what we're doing is really in the congressional space, the state legislative space, races like down ballot statewide, which are like your state treasurers, state auditors, state attorneys general. I would say that's sort of our sweet spot. And again, that is because at that level, that's where our model and our value really shines through because we're able to come in, put all the pieces together, and build the most efficient and effective campaign for our client.
David (04:06): So if you're running for US Senate, let's say, does that typically mean that you're working with a giant agency, maybe one out of Washington DC or something? Who is doing those campaigns versus campaigns you're working on?
Joe (04:19): So typically, you may be working with multiple giant agencies at that level. So in a US Senate race, you're typically going to have somebody who serves as a general consultant. That person may or may not be also providing a product for the campaign. And then you'll also have different agencies that are brought in that serve in different roles. So you'll have a television vendor, you'll have a male vendor, you'll have a research vendor. And so at that model, you typically have a handful of teams involved in one team. And we certainly serve in those roles. We'll be a product vendor on a larger campaign like that. We'll also manage those races, but primarily we are working at the congressional, down-ballot, statewide, and state legislative level.
David (05:01): And what's the budget for marketing for your candidates? And if you know it, what's the budget for a senate candidate, a US senate candidate?
Joe (05:09): So obviously it varies greatly. The state, the size, there are a number of factors that go into it, whether it's a primary race only in a safe Republican state or it's a very competitive general election that tends to increase budgets significantly. I would say for most down-ballots, congressional, and legislative races, you’re looking at somewhere between [inaudible 05:30] million to a $1 million. And then on your US senate and your governor campaigns, you’re typically talking somewhere between $1 million and $5 million for the primary. The competitive general elections were national party committees like the Governor's Associations, the National Republican or Democrat Congressional Committees, those come in, you can see those go anywhere between $10 million all the way literally up to a $100 million between all the parties involved.
David (05:56): That's a huge difference. So it’s types of candidates you're working with like the state auditor role or something like that. What's the mix of media and what's the mix of objectives. Is it all about getting people to the polls? Is it fundraising? Is it just getting the other side not to go to the polls? What are you guys doing and where's the money being spent?
Joe (06:16): Yeah. There's a few different ways to look at this. So one, we tell every candidate in every campaign school, I heard it in my first campaign school, and I repeated it at everyone I'm involved in, and that is campaigns have two objectives. One to raise money and two to meet voters. And the reason you raise money is so that you can meet voters. So really at the end of the day, you're trying to figure on how you can best persuade voters. But then you sort of back off of that a step and you start looking at what does the race look like? So in a primary, for example, depending on who the candidates are, they may or may not come to the race with some sort of base, but you're typically looking at somewhere between 50% to 75% to 80% of voters in a primary fairly undecided going into it. So you have to convince the masses. You have to persuade them to your team.
Now, in a general election, we also use the, you'll have to forgive the saying, many years in the Bible belt here in Missouri, but we talk about the sinners, the saints, and the savables. And that's what a general election is all about. You've got your sinners, and those are voters who, because of your party, will never, ever, ever vote for you. So you don't want to spend a ton of time talking to them. You have your saints who are going to vote for you no matter what, no matter the weather, no matter the circumstances. They're going to show up, and they're going to vote for you.
And at the end of the day, you're talking about the savables. The savables, I think there's really two different groups of savables. One, those are your moderate, middle-of-the-road, independent voters that you're trying to persuade to support your candidate. But there's also those that fit in a sense in the saint category because they're with you no matter what, but they may have a lower propensity to actually turn up and vote. And so you want to make sure that you are turning those folks out.
So at the end of the day, the money in a primary is spent talking to a lot more voters. Tactically, these look somewhat similar because broadcast television is still a huge part of campaign, still the most effective way to persuade voters, but the way you sort of break out the tactics beyond that somewhat differ between primaries and general elections.
David (08:22): I like that concept of sinners and saints. And I have to say that from an outsider's perspective, it seems like that's pretty much like the way that the voting population has divided themselves. It seems more and more- look at the national campaigns, and it's like, there's 80 million voters who are voting for one guy and 80 million voting for another guy. And there's like a 100,000 people that you're deciding from.
I'd make the argument, love to hear your perspective, that on a national level at least, why even bother trying to convince people? Shouldn't you spend your money just trying to get your people, I guess your saints to come to the polls. Rather than spending a $1 million on a TV commercial during a Super Bowl, just spend a $1 million sending out a flyer every day for a month before the election to your voters saying, come to the polls, come vote. Here's where you vote. I'm sure they do that. I just sort of question even the value of advertising at this point with a lot of these campaigns.
Joe (09:15): There's probably a couple things at play there. And one, I tend to agree with you. The efficiency of networks can lead to a general election audience. To me there's a reason. If somebody is undecided on the presidential in the final four weeks of a campaign, it's probably because they're not very reachable or they're just the most stubborn person in the whole world. But at the end of the day, if you're not persuaded over the course of daily events, not even the election but in life, if you're not persuaded already, you're probably not that persuaded by network TV.
But I think there's also a little bit of that where you are still communicating with your base. You're letting them know your message. You're equipping your voters, your supporters to communicate to their family, to their people.
When somebody's getting the hell beat out of them like they do in a presidential campaign, you got to keep selling your story because they're saying some pretty terrible things about. You got to continue to go out and sell your story. And a lot of times, you're hitting the other candidate.
I tend to agree with you, except for a lot of times it's not an or; it’s an and. The amount of money spent in a presidential campaign is so significant and you're really talking of six or eight states that you have so much money that you're able to do both. And so you're just going to do both. Really, what I think the distinction between different campaigns is just how granular they get, how effective they are with different mediums. And it really comes down to the quantity. No presidential campaign, no US Senate, competitive general election is ever going to lack for resources. It really comes down to a quality of message and a quality of delivery.
David (10:50): On the national level, it seems like there's so much money that there just ends up being almost a lack of strategy. It's almost like they don't know where to put the money, so they just throw it into TV commercials. Anyways, I feel like there needs to be some change at the national level to be more effective. But again, this is just a layman's perspective.
Joe (11:06): I think you've seen a lot over the last 10 years. I would say it's interesting. The first campaign I ever worked on, state legislative race, a guy run for state representative. At the end of the day, on smaller races like that, the only time we are ever, and I shouldn't even say surprised because typically we know, but the only time where I feel like there's an upset is when that candidate or campaign, and a lot of it comes down to the individual, but it's when that campaign really, really prioritizes door to door canvasing. That is like the great equalizer in politics.
We've had clients who get outspent significantly and still win, and a lot of times, I would say in probably 95% of cases, money is the greatest indicator of success. You're just more able to tell your story. In a lot of times, being able to buy resources like polling and other things that allow you to better tell your story.
But the one great equalizer I believe in campaigns is door-to-door canvasing. And so you've seen a lot really over the last 10 years, that becoming a priority for national and large campaign. It used to be just focus on network TV, and then obviously there’s the fragmentation of media and digital different creative delivery strategies. But I think you're going to see a new era where that paid canvasing, door-to-door canvasing, whether it's volunteers, paid teams, those kinds of things, there's just a different impact on voters when they have somebody come to their door and say, Hey, I'm voting for this person and here's why. I think there's a power in that.
It may be my growing up in Iowa, but that's like a nostalgia thing for me. And I think it's the way campaign, you look at like the Iowa caucus where it's that hand-to-hand personal combat between campaigns. We're going to see that that becomes more and more important as the skepticism of institutions and traditional advertising continues to run off the charts in politics, especially.
David (13:00): It's interesting because probably if you were predicting 20 years ago what would be the future of success of political advertising, you would say, oh, well it's going to be the internet. I know you're not saying the internet marketing isn't effective, but you're also saying that like people have become fatigued by the amount of ads they're seeing online, and a simple thing like just getting someone to knock door to door, you might get 10 additional voters that day, which is more than what you might get spending $10,000 plastering someone with retargeting ads.
Joe (13:27): Yeah. In the arc of personalization, digital is probably right after what I would consider the direct mediums, which to us and campaigns are doors. We refer to stuff doors. That's knocking on somebody's door, phones. That's hyper personal. Obviously there's a challenge with phones. After that, to me, digital is in the middle of the spectrum.
I think campaigns that make all these pieces work together are the ones that are going to be most effective. And what you see a lot of times, just like in corporate advertising, corporate work, in life in general, you have these siloed approaches where everybody's doing their piece and they may be doing it well, but to me, the real difference makers are you making those pieces work together.
And so digital's huge. I do it all day every day. It's hugely powerful and impactful. But when you are doing it in a way that is complimenting and personal and not just, it used to be just TV ads put onto Facebook or into pre-rolls. That was digital advertising and campaigns. I think it's funny. A lot of people think there's a mystique behind political campaigns.
And I say all the time, I work with companies all the time. Politics is years behind anybody else. And to a degree, why wouldn't it be? I mean, a campaign is a two-year, probably at most, startup. You start on day one, you have no brand, you have no visuals, you have no staff, you stand it up. And then your goal is to win. And the way you win is by spending all of your money by election day. And so it's like a guaranteed go broke startup over the course of two years.
And so where does the innovation come from? And so really the innovation is driven by the agency side, and there are some very good innovators in the space. I think there are many, many people who do a poor job of innovating, but to me, a lot of this, and it goes back to the way Steve Grubbs founded our company, it's having an understanding of how all these pieces work together. Whether you're managing them yourself or doing them yourself, it makes you better at the product you're doing within the campaign. It makes you better at being the general consultant if you're in that role to make all these pieces work together and give voters a consistent visual, a consistent message, just a consistent feel about what campaigns are about.
And there's challenges to digital too because there's a situation where you're now able to be everything to everybody because you're able to target so effectively. But there's also something that gets lost in that is what is your overall brand. What is your overall narrative and message you're trying to sell? And campaigns can fall into the trap of, and again, people are very skeptical of politicians, maybe with some good reason at times, but at the end of the day, it's not like campaigns are going out and saying things that candidates don't believe to different audiences. They're not saying to David, yes, we should raise taxes to support infrastructure and saying to Joe, no, we shouldn't raise that. But again, you get to that point when you're able to tell everybody what they want to hear and you know it. I think a lot of times you lose sort of the lifeblood of the campaign and that is what is this person about.
And so there's a challenge in balancing that ability to micro target with having fidelity to the brand and what the candidate’s about and why they're running in the first place.
David (16:35): Yeah. I think those are great points. And as a voter, it resonates with me. You talked about how internet advertising, along with the door-to-door canvasing sort of lockstep, maybe two most effective ways to market. So you've been doing this for a long time and you started out on the candidates side and you said that political campaigns feel behind corporations. What was it like in the early days, either on the campaign side or when you were working at the agency trying to convince candidates and campaigns to invest in digital marketing and how has that changed?
Joe (17:03): Well, I will tell you it's a challenge, and it's a challenge both for candidates and for us as agency partners, campaigns. And when I started, you know, it was 2008, the Obama campaign did a really nice job with digital advertising. That came four years after Howard Dean had really done a pretty nice job and they were at the forefront of digital advertising. But when I started, in 99% of the campaigns I was working in, you weren't doing anything on digital. Political advertising on Facebook didn't exist. And so it is a challenge because there's a ton of pressure. I joke all the time. There's the budget you come up with before the arrows start flying. And that always has a lot of the new innovative strategies. And then once you get punched in the face, it's like well just put it all on the network and let's fight back there.
And you revert to your old habits when you're under pressure. And we all see that every day in our business and personal lives. It's like when things get hard, we tend to revert to what we know. And so there's certainly a learning curve. I think politics spends significantly less than it should in digital advertising. I think some of that is historical effectiveness of network TV when you're in a primary and you're able to talk on the 10 o'clock news. There are a lot of primary voters watching the 10 o'clock news. And so there is a huge effectiveness piece of it. There's also just historical habits. So you're just kind of wrestling with those in the course of a campaign. And even us on the agency side, there is certainly a lot of pressure to dismiss digital as a piece.
I think there are a lot of people, and there's a lot of bias built into business models among competitors. Digital has really, in a lot of agencies, you know, folks are trying to figure out where it fits in. And you've seen other agencies that either did TV or mail that are now trying to do digital because it's a huge percentage, 10%, 15%, 20%, 30% of their previous budget is now going to a different product that they don't have. And so they're trying to figure it out. And so there's just a lot of pressure to revert to old habits, and it's easy to dismiss as archaic, but it's one of those that you have to keep. And in politics, you just see the slow walk where a lot of brands have realized, Hey, this is the future. This isn't a part of the solution. This is the solution in campaigns.
And again, most products have some market that's smaller than everyone. There are obviously some products that are mass market, but in politics, the struggle is are we a mass market product or are we not? The answer is both. I think it depends on the situation. So it's almost a struggle to get budgets for digital where they ought to be, but I think they're probably headed the right direction. I just think probably 10 years behind where we should have been.
David (19:52): Makes sense. So you talked about microtargeting. I'd love to know what has changed in digital marketing since the Cambridge Analytica blow up with Facebook. I think in that instance, there was microtargeting combined with a violation of terms of service to really try to, for lack of a better term, mess with people psychologically to get them to move a couple inches one direction or another. How's that impacted the way people think about digital marketing or has it?
Joe (20:19): Well, I think the campaigns are water and they're going to find cracks. They're going to find a way to their voters and campaign operatives are trying to find the most effective way to communicate with voters. So there's always going to be that give-and-take between the platforms and the campaigns. But you've seen a lot of change, more at the platform level than at the campaign level.
We saw last election cycle, major DSPs drop out of the political space months before the election, left hundreds of millions of dollars in business on the table, which in our industry is a lot of money. I think in some of these big tech platforms, it's a drop in the bucket. I think these companies and you saw after the election, Google and Facebook, both turned off political advertising for60, 90, 100 days. And you're going to see attention in a business decision that the tech platforms are going to have to decide, is it worth the political business that we get to get dragged before Congress and raked over the coals for things that happened on our platform.
And that is the biggest threat to digital advertising in the political space is not the, I don't feel like the rules, the terms of service. I think as long as everybody's operating in the same terms of service, it's fine. It's like if the post office changed their rules, we would just know the new rules and operate accordingly. The concern is that they shut it off. They just turn it off.
I read an article last week, I forget who published it, but really projecting that these tech platforms probably just shut off political advertising at some point, which I don't actually think solves anything. I think you're just going to have unpaid content on the platform. That's still filling it up. For some reason, people love to get on the internet and argue about politics. I do this for a living. That's the last thing I want to argue about. I want to argue about football. But that's what people do.
So it's really interesting. Facebook just released some new guidelines and rules probably about a month ago. They basically eliminated their partisan affiliation data. Now you're still able to upload external data that has that. And then politics, there are tons and tons of sources. So the question is going to be, where do we go as a society on these types of things and how do we handle it? I can understand the tech platforms and their concerns. And I'm sure there's a lot of pressure internally from employees and others to say, why are we even doing this? It's a drop in the bucket. But there's also, it's interesting in Washington, there's probably a pressure to really ratchet down what they're doing. But every politician in Washington DC got there using these tech platforms in the course of their campaign and they built huge assets as part of it.
So I think it's going to be an interesting discussion. And candidly, we probably head to a more and more regulated. I think you look at the European model and some of this stuff. I think you probably see federal regulation. You've got a lot of states that are pursuing Virginia, California, others that have pursued a number of reforms. And I think it's going to be an interesting few years to watch how these platforms handle it, but it has become bipartisan sport to beat the hell out of the tech companies.
And so they're going to have some decisions to make. And candidly, I don't know that I know where it goes. I think you probably see rule changes rather than mass shutoffs, but I wouldn't be shocked either way.
David (23:30): Yeah. I would say that my experience primarily with Google is that they shy away from controversy, and they have a list of probably a hundred different categories now where you can't advertise them. And some of them are obvious like illegal drugs, but some of them are maybe less obvious, like you can't sell hunting rifles on Google and ammunition and drug treatment centers and a bunch of things and payday loans. And these are all things that are legal. Of course they're banning the illegal things, but anything that has any hit of controversy, they've just decided it's not worth the bad publicity and the litigation and all that stuff and our brands to run these things. So from that perspective, I think you're right. That there's a good chance that they'll just say for most people, an extra billion dollars would be great for us. It's a rounding error.
Joe (24:23): I think this is a truly sad situation we have in our country is our political discourse. I grew up in Iowa. I know you've got Iowa blood. It’s like we'd go to the Maid-Rite and John McCain would be having lunch. We were so exposed to politics growing up. I think there's a Scandinavian influence. I had a college professor who we asked the question, “What's somebody's favorite day that lives in Iowa.” And I was like, “I have no idea.” And he said, “The day they get jury duty.”
We love politics, public service. My grandparents one set were not, I wouldn't say hardcore Republicans, but were regular voting Republicans, poll watching, election day judges. They were involved in the political process. My other grandparents were Democrats. And I can't remember a single time that we got into a yelling and screaming match about this stuff, but that's just the way it is now.
People so identify with their politics and I think we can't have a discussion. And so for that reason, it wouldn't shock me if these platforms decided this is not worth the consternation. And I think people really underestimate the internal consternation at these companies over this. Their employees have strong opinions. I'm sure about where this stuff is headed and what they're participating in. And as we know, we're in a workforce crisis in this country and no company can really afford to lose any employees. And so it's going to be really interesting. I think you probably see either some combination of federal regulation to create some uniformity or you see some additional restrictions continue to be layered on by the tech. I think that's probably. Most of the time, these things land somewhere in the middle, but again it's going to be an interesting debate to watch in this country
David (26:07): For sure. I think we could talk about this for a long time because I'm fascinated by the fact that you're at the ground level of this, but I'm going to transition actually because I want to ask you about some business stuff, not just politics. We'll probably end up talking about politics anyways as I go through this. The question I wanted to ask you next was what are your specific challenges that you have with the business? What keeps you up at night?
Joe (26:28): I think embracing change is number one. We just have to be prepared that these rules change any given day. And I will say, from our perspective, because we have had in our company's DNA, this embracing of fragmented media since our founding, it's something that keeps us up at night a hell of a lot less than our competitors.
If you've set up a digital shop and the tech platform shut it off overnight, they shut your business off. And I will say most of these businesses have found some different ways to get in the corporate space or do different things. I think that is a big piece. I think embracing that and anticipating constant change. Digital, to me, is the embodiment of that change in media. It’s the thousand pound gorilla, but it represents that we are moving into this era where our media's consumed in so many different ways.
And I don't think that's all a good change. I think it leads us to read information that confirms our biases more than it does anything. But digital represents that. So that's probably the biggest thing is just the ongoing change. I tell people all the time what used to be, we'd have these, what we call change elections every decade, every two decades, these big mass events that they typically at the federal level, where we throw out the party in power, we blame them. We knew who to blame. And a lot of times we were not wrong. We play, they were to blame.
Things happen, but we're in this environment where every 10 years is a change election. We are going to see, I think in 2022, an election not unlike 2010 where you see 80, 70, 60 seats change hands. That hasn't happened I think in 2010, I think in ‘94. I don't remember that previously, an election where you saw that much change.
And so the reason for that is voters are mad as hell. They think that politicians, whoever's in charge are failing them. I tell people all the time, they are sick and tired of broken promises and they're going to take it out on whoever's in power. There's this distrust for institutions that contributes to it. Institutions used to moderate some of the anger. And these institutions, whether you look at the media, you look at church, you look at law enforcement, depending on people's perspective, the institutions they used to lean on to say, okay, we're doing all right. Things are not that bad. I think there's a distrust for them.
We don't trust big things in this country anymore. And that is contributing to a very hot political environment. And what that does is it means we're just going to throw out whoever's in power every two years. And so that is a challenge as a business to anticipate that, to advise our clients on how to handle that. Because I will tell you, there are a lot of angry voters. There are a lot of people running for office who aren't angry. They're frustrated, there are things they want to do, but they're not mad. And so trying to package for angry voters, what it is candidates for office believe is a huge challenge. And when you have really good people running, who just aren't at their core mad, they're frustrated, disappointed, they want to do things differently or better, figuring out a way to package them for voters is a real challenge, I think.
David (29:51): Yeah. I'd say a couple things. One is I've half-jokingly suggested that politicians should announce KPIs during their campaign, key performance indices, so that when they are elected, they can be measured on what they promise. So they could say, I promised that unemployment will be at this percentage rate, that GDP will be at this percentage rate, and we'll have this many fewer troops deployed overseas, whatever, and then measure them. Because right now we just let politicians get away with like, I'm going to make the economy better, and you're all going to be happier. And it's like, okay, well, what does that even mean? It's just hot air anyways. That's one theory.
The other thing is just, you talk about all these people who are mad and distrustful. And is there a challenge in trying to balance positivity and negativity? Is the compass leaning more and more towards the negative side and the easier thing to do is just rile up your base rather than talk about how great the candidate is.
Joe (30:50): Well, yeah. You look at it again and we didn't touch on this a ton earlier, but there is the persuasion of voters piece of a campaign, but there's also, how do you raise money? And at the end of the day, you're raising money from your voters, from people who support you. You're not raising them from voters in the middle. So you're really running two campaigns. You're running one to your base to raise money for like-minded people. And then you're using the resources from your base to go persuade people who are not at your base. And so there's a challenge. That's why you see some of the political rhetorics so over the top and people are like, who is buying that? And I'm like, well, the bases are buying it. That's who's buying what they're selling.
And you look at where you get media. Everybody gets it from a source that agrees with them. I think that's a terrible trend in our country. I love sitting down and talking to people who I disagree with about things that we disagree about. You get interesting perspective. It makes me better at what I do for a living. If I'm able to understand what different people think, I'm better able to help my candidates communicate with them. So that's a huge challenge.
I also think, as you look at practically how these campaigns work, the good thing about our system is it has a way of coming back to center. I'm an optimist in general. I'm optimistic that we get through this era of being so angry about this stuff. We're the wealthiest country in the history of the world. We have great opportunities in this country. We have a lot at our disposal, and I feel like we are really arguing over some great things. Our arguments are over things that countries all across the world, people all across the world would be thrilled to be arguing about.
And so that perspective ultimately takes hold. Sometimes we romanticize the past a lot. There are lots of things in our history, both near term and long term that are politics, haven't always been a gentleman's game. It's been a rough and tumble sport since its founding. And so it's important to keep that in mind. Our country was created by throwing out the rulers through war. This isn't a gentleman's game here. And so I think, again, there's this balance in all of this, between keeping perspective about where we've been, where we're going. At the end of day, things tend to come back to center. It’s America. We love underdogs. We’re not going to let one party take over forever. It’s just the way the system is created. The founders were, I’d like to say, some diabolical guys. They set the system up where it’s really hard to change things.
And so I think that's frustrating. When you have a one-seat control in the US Senate and you have the majority in the house and the presidency, it's really frustrating when you can't get done what you want to get done. So there's a tendency to want to change the rules, but a lot of this tends to go back to center. And again, I'm optimistic that we get out of this, but again, I’m afraid, as long as we consume our information from people who confirm our biases, we're going to have some challenging times, because there's not a lot of incentive to go out and listen to opposing views.
David (33:49): Yeah. Well, that's another thing about the internet that people 20 years ago predicted that there'd be this just massive flow of information, and it would just create educated and informed citizens because whatever question you have, it's at your fingertips. And really the opposite has happened. It's just people have just stuck their head in the sand and said, I'm going to listen to someone who's going to tell me what I already think. And it's just amplified echo chambers, unfortunately.
Joe (34:14): And also destroyed our short-term memory as far as I'm concerned. I have to look up an address 30 times. You don’t have to retain any information. I mean, it's like, why do we have a brain?
David (34:28): Yeah. To your point, I was a pizza delivery driver and a pizza delivery driver growing up in Iowa, by the end of working a summer, I knew every street in my city. I bet you, the pizza delivery drivers today, they don't know. They just type in the address on their map and just drives them there. And they're not listening to what the city is. There's some dumbing down of all of us through this stuff.
Let me ask you if you have a favorite client success story. Is there a particular campaign that you worked on where you felt like you really did something that meaningfully drove them some success?
Joe (34:58): Probably the campaign in my career I'm was proud of, a guy named Randy Feenstra, a State Senator from Iowa, in 2020 decided very early in the election to challenge Steve king who's a lightning rod Member of Congress from Northwest Iowa. He'd been in Congress nine terms at that point or was just elected to his ninth. That was a campaign where really nobody thought we would win.
He started down. I think we were down like 35 points to start. And one of the biggest challenges in that race it's heck of a lot easier to beat an incumbent if you get them to head. When you start having multiple people running, they're dividing up the anti-incumbent vote. And so one of our imperatives of that campaign was to keep the race as clean as possible to come out as strong as we could. And we failed miserably at that and had like four other candidates in there. If you told us very early on that those candidates would all run and stay in the race, we thought throughout the course of the campaign, a couple of them may have dropped. They didn't end up dropping.
And so it really made it challenging for us to go out and find our votes. And really, I will tell it was a Republican primary. It's a very, very, as you know, very conservative part of the country, and we were able to run a campaign about results, talking about how our client was going to be able to deliver for the people of Iowa and about how the incumbent had not. And our message on day one, without any polling, without any information was the exact thing we were talking about on election day.
And to me, that's important. That is why does the candidate want to run? And a lot of times you get into polling before the race. It tells you certain things and the candidate’s trying to find ways and the campaigns are trying to find ways to fit the candidate into that box. And that's terrible for two reasons. One, it's terrible for voters because you're making the candidates something they're not. And two, that's terrible for the candidate. Why would you spend that time and energy and get the hell beat out of you by people to not be somebody that you are, to not be able to run on who you are. So that race for us, we ended up winning by 10 points. The incumbent only got 36%. So like 65% of voters were looking for somebody else.
We didn't think the number would be that high of people who were willing to vote for somebody else. And that's why we were so concerned about the other candidates in the race, but at the end of the day, we were successful. The congressman's a great guy doing a great job. He's a first term member of the house, obviously in a very contentious time. But that was a race where we won, we stuck to the reason he wanted to run. We built a brand around that and we delivered that message all day, every day, integrated across all mediums and were just highly consistent. And voters rewarded that consistency on election day.
David (37:49): No flipflopping.
Joe (37:50): No. He was who he was, and it wasn't a brand that was created for him. It was based on his time in the Iowa Senate. It was based on his career in business. And we stuck with that and we ran it all the way through election day. And we really never veered off that message, which I take great pride. A lot of people in politics take pride in the win. I've been around this long enough to know. Some of the best campaigns I've ever run were unsuccessful. We knew they were long shots going in, but I take pride in well-run campaigns. We get hired to execute campaigns and ultimately so much is beyond the control of the campaign and the candidate.
There's so many factors beyond their control. That to me, it's more important to build a great plan, stick to the plan than it is to try to answer every day to the whims of whatever's driving the day. I just don't think you can run campaigns that way. And a lot of people do. And at the end of the day, I don't watch the news. You know, I do this for a living. I don't watch the news because I think it's a distraction. And obviously I have some awareness to it. It finds its way into my Twitter feed. But at the end of the day, this is about building a great message that works with voters and delivering it with consistency as often for as long as possible.
David (39:02): I'll just share two things on that. First of all, the Randy Feenstra campaign that you ran, that's the only time in the history of politics that I personally donated to a conservative candidate. And I was convinced by your partner, Dave, how important it was to get Steve King out of that position. So you guys reached across the aisle and got me to contribute money to a conservative. So good job on that.
The other thing I'll say just about politicians trying to be everything to everyone, when I was in college, I was the editor of my school newspaper. And a guy, I won't say his name, but he wrote me a note when I became editor. He said, “Hey, David. Congratulations. Just remember, don't be like Bill Clinton. Don't try to make everyone happy because you'll make no one happy.” And I always thought that was good advice. And I will say the end of that story is he ended up being pardoned by Donald Trump for something he did that he became a very big part of the Trump circle.
So there was politics in the beginning and the end of that story. I thought that was interesting. But anyways, are politicians hardest to have as clients, especially if you're talking about the digital marketing side. Is there a knowledge gap? What are the expectations? How do you deal with challenging clients?
Joe (40:10): First and foremost, I'll say I love all of my clients and appreciate their business. In all seriousness, there certainly is a huge information gap. These folks running for office are not experts on campaigning. Some of them are more involved in the day-to-day decision making on a campaign, but most of them, and I would say the best of them, they hire teams that they trust to execute. And at the end of the day, we're hired in a position of trust to execute on these things.
And it's funny. I have clients call once a week, once every few weeks. They say, did you figure it out yet? A lot of times I say, no, I haven't figured it out yet. Like we're trying to figure out in our brains and values how do we, at the end of the day, put this all together in a way that's going to make them successful.
And there are environmental factors to consider, there are opponent factors to consider, there are financial considerations. There is a lot that goes into it. And the thing that we provide the most value in is, are just thinking about how we're going to make them successful.
But at the end of the day, most of these candidates don't really understand how all these pieces fit together, and why should they? I mean, they either run a law firm or run another business and they're not involved in any advertising or marketing. I mean, they don't come to this as experts of campaigns. And that's a lot of times what people misunderstand about candidates.
We all say like candidates should be candidates. There are things that only they can do. Typically that is raise money and persuade voters at a personal level. And that's all we want them doing. They are not in the org chart as far as I'm concerned. They're their own separate entity. They are the product that we have. They are not a part of the org chart. And so it can be a challenge. But I will say we've been around long enough. We've had enough success for our clients. We've built a reputation of doing what's right for them that very rarely do we ever get into a significant disagreement with client on strategy because they know. We're waking up every day, both thinking about this for, from where the industry's going, what the best practices are, and how all those things apply to their race and their situation.
David (42:21): Have there been ever candidates who decided they want to do the majority of the marketing in-house?
Joe (42:27): We run into a little bit. A lot of times, we're the out-of-state vendor, the out-of-town vendor, and they’ll say, we want to do this with a local printer. And for many, many reasons, that doesn't make any sense based on the way our business model works, based on the creative we're putting into. It just causes more problems than it's ever worth, but we don't have that much.
We'll occasionally have the candidate rewrite the script for an advertisement. At the end of the day, we tell people all the time, it's their name on the yard sign. They're ultimately in charge. But for me, that doesn't mean they're in charge and they're having to produce. It means they're in charge of signing off and making sure we're doing and saying things that they're comfortable with. And so I don't want to act like they're aloof to the process, but for my perspective, they they're getting an ultimate sign-off on stuff. They're not expected to be involved in the day-to-day development of what we're doing.
And I will say when we start the campaign, it is incumbent upon us to really spend a little bit of time learning who they are and what they're about. And a lot of times, they don't think they have interesting stories and we find really interesting stories in everybody we interview. Every person on this earth has. You talk about the founder’s story. Everybody has their founding story, and why they're the way they are and why they do what they do for a living. What instructed them. We all have those events in our life that inform us.
And so for the most part, once we've done the discovery with them about who they are, what makes them tick, we found the cool stories and then that builds their brand. Ninety-nine percent are like we trust you. That's why I hired you. I'm here to be the candidate. That's why I want you to do what you're doing. But every once in a while, again, you have different degrees of how hands-on they are, but for the most part anymore, it's pretty minimal.
David (44:10): Yeah. It's interesting. You talk about the founder story of these candidates, and it really is the why. When you tell your founder stories, it's the why? No one's founder story is like, well, I was really interested in making a lot of money. So I thought I'd get into the agency world. It's like this thing happened to me, and I was inspired to try to do things differently or better or whatever. That's the same as a politician, I guess. The politician doesn't say, Well, I'm really interested in power.
Joe (44:37): It's a mix of power and prestige I'm after. I tell them all the time, like you're not a set of issues. You are a brand. We want to tell a story about why your life experiences inform. Because in most, even general elections, especially in primaries where everybody tends to believe almost all the same things in a primary, even in a general election, for the most part, they're all trying to get to the same place.
They're all trying to make the economy stronger to get the budget under control, relieve the burden on people, help people at all levels succeed. They're all trying to do the same things. And so at the end of the day, it comes down to the credibility. And I think the credibility comes from your story. It's why do I believe that you’re best? Or why do I believe you, period? And then why do I believe that you're the best person to do the things you're going to say you're going to do? And that's why their story adds so much credibility to what they're doing rather than just saying a TV ad that says, oh, I'm going to cut income taxes by 4%. And I'm going to improve healthcare. That's a boring advertisement that doesn't help with credibility. So it's almost that blend between what they believe and why they believe it that is most powerful in advertising.
David (45:54): That makes sense. Let me ask you a little bit about the team that you have working for you. My first question would be, do you have core values or core promises that you adhere to with your team?
Joe (46:05): Our motto is winning campaigns the right way. And for us, that means the ethics of what we're doing. It means the way we treat people externally, internally. I mean, at the end of the day, we are primarily Midwest folks. We're Midwest nice. I can't tell you in politics how many times a competitor, either on the agency side or the candidate side ultimately becomes a partner on a future campaign or a client down the road. And that happens more than you would think. We beat in an election five years later, calls us, and wants to work with us.
And so for us, we are passionate about winning, but at the end of the day, we're good people who are in it for the right reasons, and we want all of our employees to embody that. And any of our competitors, some of them may not like us a ton, but they would tell you we pretty hard to dislike. So for us, it's doing things in a moral and ethical way, working for good people, and ultimately doing it in a way that we're proud of at the end of the day.
David (47:04): That's definitely a good definition of Midwest nice. Minnesota polite I think it’s what it’s called. When you’re hiring team members, what are the characteristics you are looking for?
Joe (47:13): It fits into what I just talked about. We aren't looking for the superstar personality. We're looking for folks that fit right into our culture, into our business model. We're different from a lot of agencies. The biggest challenge, and I probably should have spoken to this earlier, but the biggest challenge in politics is the cyclical nature of it. We probably spend, I'd say 60% to 75% of our campaign budgets in the final five months of an election. So between mid-June, July, through the end of October, that's when almost all of the campaign budgets are spent, which is where we make our money. And so you've got basically an 18-month window where we're helping our clients and we have a lot of clients, but we're helping them keep their cash on hand as high as possible.
It’s the metric by which the viability of campaigns are measured. So our model is to really make sure we're assisting in that process by not bleeding campaigns of resources early on. And so our business is different because a lot of our competitors will hire temp employees or they'll bring folks on or independent contractors for the crush of business. And then they'll let them all go.
And for us, we've just never believed in that model. And so we retain, I'd say probably 95% of our employees. We may bring on a few temp folks at the very end to help with some support roles, but we really have tried to build a durable team that carries over from cycle to cycle because we've got really great people, and they know that we're not going to let them go, that we're not going to miss paychecks, those kinds of things, and those things happen in politics. And it's a hugely challenging business for that reason.
So to answer your question, it's a building people that are long-term solutions, people that grow with us, people that are ultimately going to become key parts of our team, we're building within our processes, hiring at entry level and ultimately growing those people into really significant contributors in the campaign in our company over the long term.
David (49:19): I have a friend who is a political operative, for lack of a better term. He works on campaigns and quarter to quarter, he's just bouncing around the country. He's in Southern Texas today. And then he'll be in Wisconsin six months just looking for a job, looking for a ship. There’s a book called Looking for a Ship that made me think about this about merchant marines. It's like looking for the next job. It's challenging.
Joe (49:40): Yeah, it's tough. And our durability is an advantage. I don't have an employee in our company that I wouldn't let interface with a client. I just don't worry that they, from a culture and a expertise standpoint, our folks probably on average have been with our company 6, 8 years, which is unheard of in politics. We have people who have been around 20 years, but for a 25-year-old company, that's pretty significant to have folks around that long.
There are some cold months and an off-year waiting for the next campaign to get going. But I think, think that's easier than it would be to try to go rebuild the team every two years because there are long days in the course of a campaign and late nights and long weekends and having people that understand those expectations year over year and not having to retrain folks every two years is well worth it. I think our products reflect that.
David (50:31): Yeah. We end up with a higher quality team. Two part question. What do you think is the future of agencies in your space? And then related to that, what are your aspirations for Victory?
Joe (50:41): Yeah, so the future of agencies, it's going to be, I think, largely moved to big comprehensive media solutions like ours was built. There's been a lot of outside investment into the political space. And some of these agencies, I think, you're seeing some of these one-man, two-man small shops have blended and merged into larger shop. So that's a trend which is a reflection of fragmenting media. It's the same dollar is being spent, but it's being spent on 50 tactics where it used to be spent on 3. And so larger helps with that.
That is certainly a trend. Aspirationally, again, I beat a dead horse because I'm a Midwest person. I'm trying to plot along and grow steadily. If we can keep doing what we're doing and a little better and a little bigger every year for the next 30 years, I'd be thrilled with it. Hiring great people that our employees, our partners are like family. My business partner, Dave, who you know is the godfather of my daughter. That's the culture we've got. For me, it's more the same. Again, a little bigger, a little better every year, continual improvement, but we're not looking to have a 300-person agency. And it's just not the place we want to go to.
David (52:01): This explains why you're such a big Hawkeye fan because you're okay with 9 and 3 any season pretty much is what you're saying.
Joe (52:08): Well, I will tell you, 9 and 3 over the course of 20 years has you in better shape than Nebraska and a lot of these other so-called Blue Bloods. To me, the Marty Schottenheimer is one of the greatest NFL coaches of all time, and they said he couldn't win the big game. I've got plenty of teams I root for that never played in the big game. I'd rather still be interested in football this time of year than not. I'm just not a believer that certain people can't win the big game. They may not win it, but I don't believe it's because of it. if you can win 13 games a year in the NFL and get into the Super Bowl every year, you got a hell of a lot better shop than somebody who's going 7 and 9.
And again, our business is built this way. You hire good people, you teach them, you grow with them, you mentor them, you help them, you're loyal to them. I think you've got a better shot of being successful than you do trying to win it the cheap way. And so I don't know. It's probably my Midwest mindset that a lot of people think I'm archaic, but that's the way I’ve been programmed.
David (53:04): It's the classic story of Icarus who flew too to the sun.
Joe (53:08): That's right.
David (53:10): The opposite of Kirk Ferentz, but we don't have time for a Hawkeye football podcast, which we could certainly cover a couple hours on that. Let me just ask you two more closing questions. The first question is, do you have any books, marketing or leadership books that you really love that you'd recommend?
Joe (53:26): It's a good question. My business partner, Dave, is a big, big book reader. I probably read as much as anybody and probably as few books as anybody. From my perspective, I'm a big believer in flooding the zone with the things you want to grow in. So it's like, you look at the people I follow on Twitter. That's where I want to go. I try to build in my media economy around the places I want to go.
David (53:54): Who are the people you follow on Twitter? Let's hear some of those folks.
Joe (53:57): Yeah. So there are folks in Missouri, a guy named Brent Beshore is a really interesting entrepreneur, always telling really great stories about companies. I will tell you, I'm really inspired by people that are in politics that are also in business. I've got a couple clients. One of them is a guy named Scott Fitzpatrick. He's the state treasurer in Missouri. He got into politics at 24 years old, started his business in high school, and has built a really successful business. So he's a guy that I find really interesting. I have a huge bias towards business people being in politics. I think there's a skillset in management. It's one thing to pass policy, but it's another thing to understand how it's going to be enacted. And if you don't have executive experience, I think it's really hard to understand that.
At the end of the day, I'm one of classic guys. I spent my 20s working nonstop. When you have a kid and then get married, it kind of changes your perspective a little bit. And so I really try to flood my information with hobbies and passions. And again, one of those is obviously football. I'm a sucker. My wife laughs every Saturday, Sunday morning. I'll have some sappy ESPN story about something that I probably shouldn't otherwise care about that I'm totally drawn to. I'm a big documentary fan. I'm a big short sports story. I find inspiration in people.
David (55:20): Like ESPN 30 for 30.
Joe (55:21): I could watch every one of them 50 times. I just could. I spend a long time wanting to know what every elected official and candidate in every state was saying and doing, and I just found that to be not that productive for my growth for helping my clients. They don't benefit from me knowing something was said about something that doesn't matter to them.
And so I've really tried to flood the zone with things that are passions of mine, things that inspire me. It’s a blend of that kind of stuff. A little bit of business, a little bit of sports. I'll spend a lot of time with family, both immediate and extended. It's hard to convince a young person that having that balance helps them be better at their job. It's easier to just think working more makes you better at your job. And it's important to find time to think. And I really try to do that, and I do a fair job of it. I certainly don't do as well as I could, but I try to find those things that inspire me. And that helps me be in a position to grow.
David (56:16): I'll just say that my 30 for 30 episode is The Greatest That Never Was about Marcus Dupree, Oklahoma running back. It’s a fantastic documentary. I’d recommend it for anyone.
Joe (56:27): That’s a fantastic one. I tell you what, I've probably seen the Fab Five one about 50 times. I'm a big 10 basketball fan. To me, and my clients may wonder, well, why are you watching sports documentaries? What does that have to do with me? But you think about the power in those stories and how that helps you tell candidate stories. I think that's the most important thing we can do with our clients is, one figure out that brand and then figure out how to deploy it.
David (56:52): Totally true. Totally true. Sports is probably the greatest brand story there is when you hear the story of a great athlete.
Well, I think we're at time. So, Joe, this is great. We deviated a little bit from the standard Agentic Shift process, but I just think that the area you're in is so interesting. I had to just go down that rabbit hole. Thank you. Really appreciate you coming on today.
Joe (57:14): Thanks for having me. I hope everybody finds it helpful in understanding what goes into a campaign and why candidates do what they do and why we do we do as we approach these campaigns.
David (57:25): Maybe seeing how the sausage is made is not as bad as we thought it'd be.
Joe (57:29): (Laughs)
David (57:30): I did an Iowa pork sausage, you know?
Joe (57:31): Yeah. That's right. I hope it lets people understand. Tell you what, there are good people running for office all over the place. It's harder and harder for good people to convince themselves to run for office or be convinced to run for office. And as a society, showing them a little grace and understanding that most of them are out there for the right reasons. It's a really tough business. They're putting themselves, their families, their businesses at risk by doing this. And I think at the end of the day, if we can maybe be a little slower to believe the headline, seek the context, it both helps get good people run for office, but I think it helps all of us to understand and be less outraged by things or feeding the outrage model in this country. We got a lot to be thankful for, and I think we should be a little less outraged at times.
David (58:21): Well, from your lips to the American voters ears.
Joe (58:25): We'll see if they listen to me on this one.
David (58:27): Yeah. Let's hope this goes viral and this changes the course of politics.
Joe (58:30): Gotta start here.
David (58:31): Yep. All right. Thanks, Joe. I appreciate it.
Joe (58:33): Thank you so much.
David (58:36): A new episode of Agentic Shift drops every Wednesday. Subscribe on your favorite podcast platform or visit agenticshift.com to see the latest episode.