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5 Questions to Ask Before Bringing Digital Ad Buying In-House

By: Alex Kellner and JD Bryant

It seems like there’s never enough people, money or time to get everything done. Striking the balance of allocating resources between your own, internal digital advertising program and external partnerships is a consequential decision for every corporation, campaign or non-profit. We’re already seeing 2020 campaigns and political organizations choose different structures, some doing all their buying in-house and others using agencies. And it’s not unique to campaigns — a string of Fortune 500 companies have taken creative or digital-ad buying in-house as well including Walmart and Verizon over the last couple of years.

While no one team of people at a campaign or company are the same, we’ve laid out some universal considerations for allocating resources — and no, the answer is not always to hire an agency.

Yes, you’re reading this correctly: An agency is making recommendations on whether or not you should hire an agency. Why should you trust us? Collectively, the authors of this post have led digital strategy on eight electoral campaigns and political non-profits, and for over 100 clients during their time at six agencies. We know that every organization has a different answer to this question. And, surprise! The answer is not always “hire us.”

We start with the shared belief that getting more smart people involved in digital programs at every level leads to better outcomes. Given that most of us on the left don’t supplement our digital work with an army of Russian trolls, time and resource constraints require more thoughtful deliberation on organization structure our opponents.

Given the number of 2020 campaigns underway, we’ve framed our questions and considerations for campaigns and other political organizations, but we think many of these apply to corporations and non-profits as well.

What should we budget for tech & talent to accomplish our goals?

For teams responsible for digital communications, fundraising, and organizing, staff and technology are some of the biggest line items in that budget. From CRM’s and CMS’s to social media meta-management platforms, the tools and expertise needed to manage those tools are changing and expanding constantly.

When it comes to advertising, technology costs dwarf the rest of digital combined. Over the past ten years, we here at BPI have spent more than a million dollars building a technology infrastructure that allows us to build more complex campaigns, launch them faster, run them on higher-quality inventory, and optimize them more efficiently (and the results below speak for themselves). There are very few campaigns — even at the national level! — that can justify that kind of infrastructure investment.

Depending on the complexity of your goals, the marginal ROI of better-run campaigns may not justify a lot of extra tech cost. When you’re working with a digital advertising agency, in all likelihood their fees will net out to something between 10 and 15 percent on top of your media cost. As a budget decision maker, you should always ask yourself if the tech and talent in which you’ve invested will get you, on their own, to at least 85–90 percent as strong a program as the one you’d run with external partnerships.

How big is the talent pool?

Ad operations manager, senior programmatic director, Google Ads specialist, social media manager, senior media planner, media analyst: These are just a few of the titles and specialties that can live on a digital advertising team. Because most campaigns can’t hire an advertising team with 15 or 20 unique positions, hiring managers understandably look for “unicorns,” or people who can manage several distinct workflows at a time. This is in direct opposition to an important trend in digital marketing: The industry is increasingly fostering specialists. In a cycle like 2020, the competition for the few people who can fill multiple roles will be intense.

For political organizations that are building for the long-term, investing in people through training and ongoing professional development is just as important as technology — and it’s good for the future of progressive politics, because it expands the talent pool for organizations and campaigns to come. Our partners often navigate this by bringing certain elements in-house that require less expensive technology or have a broader talent base of buying expertise (elements of Facebook, Twitter, Google Search, for example), but use outside help on platforms and campaigns that require more technology or specialization.

How long is our runway?

Campaigns and organizations purpose-built for a single electoral cycle don’t always have the luxury of fully onboarding new specialized digital advertising staff and rolling out new organizing tech right at the outset. And, not every set of digital organizing tools should be rebuilt from scratch: The institutional knowledge that agencies develop across a wide range of programs can serve as a starter pack for resource-constrained campaigns in their infancies. A strategically-built campaign leans on specialized expertise from outside its walls early on, and building out teams able to take on more complex digital organizing tasks as Election Day approaches. For example, if it’s August of an election year and you haven’t hired your in-house team yet, it’s almost certainly too late. But if you are asking these questions of yourself today (and have the budget to hire now) you have many more options.

How much buying power does our organization need?

Organizations that are running exclusively last-minute, rapid-response campaigns on Facebook don’t need to worry about their relative buying power in the space. However, larger groups that plan out their budgets and campaigns in advance should take advantage of upfront media reservations. Individual campaigns and non-profits may not be able negotiate the same friendly rates that agencies buying on behalf of scores of them can. For context, BPI was able to save between 10–34% on the most important platforms for our persuasion & motivation campaigns given the combined buying power of our clients. Depending on the size of your buy, having access to lower rates can make a substantial difference.

How much latitude is there for mistake?

In digital programs (and in digital advertising), we’re playing with live fire. Putting a decimal point in the wrong spot can lead to a budget-busting mistake. If you have complex campaigns with staff new to digital paid media, it may make sense to work with an agency on strategically-selected pieces of your program. A big advantage of working with an established agency are the institutional safeguards they have in place to prevent and catch potential media mishaps like overspend, showing up on questionable content, and improperly disclaimered ads. Beyond the cost efficiencies that scale offers, working with a tested team reduces the risk of the wide array of execution mistakes that can have real costs for your campaign or organization.

Your answers to these questions should guide your decisions about how to structure your program — big or small. Whether you’re in the very early stages of mapping out your org chart or ready to launch a campaign tomorrow, we’re here to help. Let’s chat.



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