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February 28, 2008

Putting policies and positions aside for this discussion, Barack Obama has created the most sophisticated marketing program I’ve ever seen.

Decades of GM, Coca-Cola, and Proctor & Gamble efforts can’t compare to what this guy’s done in one year.

In the interest of full disclosure, yes, I donated a small amount of money to his campaign. And it gave me a window into a marketing operation that should be a case study in any college marketing textbook or agency account planning handbook.

It’s a marketing program that’s both run from the top down and organized from the bottom up. Sure, he has a team of advisors and full-time campaign managers and staffers. But millions of people have become involved and engaged thanks in large part to sheer marketing savvy.

I’d like to cite a few examples.

Obama’s team created a website that not only links to a dozen social networking websites, it is a social networking website unto itself. Featuring a searchable database of local and regional groups. And where anyone can have their own “my.barackobama.com” web page, with their own personal blog and fundraising goals. A friend of a friend of mine had set one up, and that’s the page through which I made my donation. I’d never met this person—but he contacted me personally to thank me. A new connection made.

After that, I’d get e-mails from the campaign, regularly. Yes, it’s weird to get an e-mail in my in-box that’s marked “From” Barack Obama. But they’re targeted, sophisticated e-mails. Less than 30 minutes after Barack Obama was declared the winner in Georgia’s primary, I got an e-mail thanking me for my support.

When Hillary Clinton decided she’d loan her campaign $5 million, I got an e-mail from the Obama campaign trying to match the amount. The e-mail had a running total of the money raised. And every time I opened up that same e-mail again, the money amount would be changed and updated in real-time. Maybe I’m a bit naïve about rich e-mails, but that was a “holy shit, that’s cool” moment for me that no consumer ad campaign has provided lately.

Then there’s the citizen-generated content. YouTube videos, posters, songs – much of it generated by ordinary citizens, some created by professional musicians, artists, and ad people. This is the kind of marketing that’s being preached by the “let’s have a engaging two-way conversation with our customers-as-friends” crowd. With Barack Obama, it’s become fully realized. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the least impressive portion of the campaign appear to be the official TV ads. They’re good, but hardly different from most political commercials.

In the face of all this hype, adulation and fast success, Obama supporters have been called a cult. That’s OK. So are Apple fans and Harley-Davidson owners. If you think this is bad for America and politics, remember: This is the world advertising created, one where a name or a product can be made to stand for more than its functionality.

But product performance is still the key. Let’s say Obama gets elected President on the strength of this brand he created. He still has to give good customer service for 4 years. And people will be disappointed if the product doesn’t reflect the hype.

I wish more agencies and clients would learn from the Barack Obama campaign. Yes, it’s an expensive, unique campaign – but it’s also well-staffed. There are lots of people doing the work, both at headquarters and in the field. It’s a fast-responding organization despite its size.

Plus, it appears quite a few of Obama’s people, particularly the web staff, are empowered to react. They know how to move fast in a way that advertising agencies and clients don’t. Some of my clients sit on little jobs like brochures or emails for days or weeks before they approve or reject them. Some have taken a year or more to refine their brand identity. And we can’t convince them to quicken the pace for their own good. Is it any wonder people think ad agencies are out of sync with the pace of today’s world?

Perhaps someone will create an advertising model that’s built on this type of campaign—one where a large, fast, intensive, results-oriented team takes a major marketer’s $75 or $100+ million annual budget and creates a national integrated campaign. Then that team disperses and reforms as needed for other major efforts. No, it’s not the most stable of organizational models, but that’s how political marketing works, and Barack Obama showed how it can be done to generate awareness and results far above and beyond what many ad agencies accomplish today.

Too many advertising people hold their noses up at political marketing, and for good reason. For too long it’s been condescending, nasty and pedestrian, and perhaps we should get rid of it altogether. But it’s here, it’s being done well, and the advertising industry should examine the success of the Obama campaign for ideas and tactics.

Maybe then we’d get some change we can believe in.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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