What Political Firm Owners Learned In 2020

Originally Published on Campaigns and Elections

This was a year that transformed the U.S. economy and changed the way millions of Americans live and work. The campaign industry was no exception.

Firm owners have had to adapt to unprecedented challenges to their businesses. What they learned along the way is instructive, so we asked a cross-section of industry leaders for their takeaways from 2020. Here’s what they told us:

Nicole Schlinger, founder and president, CampaignHQ: 

“Business fundamentals matter and they do apply to political firms and consultants! There was a stark divide between firms in a strong financial position and those betting on a big windfall in the fall of 2020. Firms with cash reserves and lower overhead could put financial worries aside and focus on the immediate needs of their clients and staff. During the election surge, firms that either panicked or were forced to lay off workers in the spring had a harder time picking up where they left off.”

Francesca Dulce Larson, partner, Mosaic:

“Running a business in a pandemic through a social change movement, takes stamina, resilience, and creativity. It also takes trust. Trust is not something that comes easily to a black woman in America, especially in 2020. This year, I leaned into trusting our team, our company values, our clients, and even my own survival instincts. In 2020, a strong foundation and a bit of faith secured our business.”  

Cheryl Hori, founder of Pacific Campaign House:

“2020 has been challenging in more ways than we can count, and this year we’ve never been more appreciative of the resilience of our team. We’ve always been a work-remotely agency, but the parents on our team had daycare or school they could rely on during working hours. The stay-at-home orders meant parents weren’t just employees between the hours of 9-5, but also teachers, home cooks, and IT support to the little ones running around. 

This year we saw a new standard of working that involved more flexibility: earlier and later hours while kids were still asleep, a greater need for communication, and patience amongst team members — all while delivering content that met both our creative standards and deadlines. 

The election wasn’t moving, but with so many additional demands this cycle (different blackout periods, inventory limitations, etc.), putting our people first and making sure they were set up for success was something we’re really proud of.” 

Adam Probolsky, president, Probolsky Research:

“Our resiliency planning worked. In 2008, we had too many corporate clients that disappeared in the recession. Since then we retooled and diversified our client base to include governments and non-profits in addition to politics. This insulated us from major losses due to the pandemic.

I was wrong about remote work. I used to want everyone in the office every day. Since March we have worked almost entirely remotely. We are so much more productive and have the ability to recruit staff from anywhere.

We saved six-figures on business travel in 2020 and I don’t think we missed out on much business because of it. Our CEO used to call my business trips, ‘vacations.’ She was partially right and we will not bring back business travel like before.”

Mark Jablonowski, managing partner and chief technology officer, DSPolitical:

“As if a mismanaged pandemic wasn’t enough to handle in a single year, the 2020 election cycle showed us that innovation remains king for companies that want to succeed in the targeted digital advertising space. This was especially important when dealing with the unpredictability at the hands of platform giants like Twitter, Facebook, and Google. Without our amazing team, I’m not sure how we would have made it through a year with such monumental challenges.”

Mike Nellis, CEO, Authentic Campaigns:

“More than anything, I learned the importance of leading with your values and giving people grace. As the pandemic unfolded this year we were pretty quick to close our offices, establish updated remote work and leave policies, create work-from-home stipends, and more. Unlike a lot of other companies, we didn’t layoff staff or take a PPP loan.

All of that was rooted in an understanding that we had a responsibility to keep our staff safe and help them get through this isolating year. We did a lot of small things like virtual parties, movie nights, daily debates on small topics that, especially in the beginning, helped to bring our team together. We also tried to give people the space to adjust to the “new normal” while also making sure our clients were getting the service they expect from us.

The same was true during the George Floyd protests, which was such a difficult time for everybody. We have one of, if not the, most diverse teams of any agency in the digital world with a majority of staff and our leadership teams identifying as BIPOC. Similarly, we led with our values and tried to do everything we could to give people space to process and get involved with the protests. We made significant contributions to bailout funds and other racial justice organizations on behalf of our team, established new policies to give people the ability to take action without it impacting their work, and hosted an anti-racism training for our entire staff.

We also did a lot of listening. Our staff has always been really empowered to give us feedback on how we’re handling things and how we can do a better job, and this was an important learning moment for me as a manager and a leader at the company.”

Brian Ross Adams, founder, Trust Messenger:

“The COVID-19 Pandemic had most campaigns and candidates unable to execute their usual field programs and, therefore, many of them increased their digital spend to reach voters where they are: inside and on their smartphones. This increased investment in time, funds, and strategy led to better coordination between digital ads and traditional mail ads — all the ads reinforcing key messaging based on strategic intent. 

So, for me, the key takeaway, was that better coordination between all aspects of the campaign was possible and that the days of putting digital in its own silo are outdated.”

Jason Boxt, founder, 3W Insights:

“As a new business owner, I had a hunch that running my business would be hard — under normal circumstances. Obviously, we’re a far cry from those. But I think the principles are probably the same, as I don’t think I really did anything dramatically different this year, in terms of running the business or chasing down clients, from what I had planned before the virus.

Cultivate and grow my network, remain salient in the minds of my potential clientele (friends, former clients, and former colleagues), keep up to speed on issues of importance to my clients — current and potential. So trying to stay one step ahead of clients was something I’ve always tried to do — maybe it was harder to do this year, but it was still a business imperative. 

The nature of the work didn’t change terribly much. Things were a bit slower, and a bit more expensive, but those are manageable obstacles if you know about them going in. I guess the biggest thing I learned was more a validation of what I have joked about with colleagues for years: if things were easy for my clients and potential clients, they wouldn’t need people like me. Consultants like me exist to help guide clients through the toughest of times.” 

Brent Buchanan, CEO and founder, Cygnal: 

“You have to take risks to drive forward in big leaps as opposed to incremental improvements. Also, people are the most important thing in your business, even more than clients. Take care of your team, and they’ll in turn make customers feel valued.”

Andrew Bleeker, president, Bully Pulpit Interactive: 

“Protect your people, particularly when it’s hard. That’s all an agency is.”