How an AW Creative Strategist Helped Shape Paid Media for Joe Biden’s Presidential Campaign

As part of an ongoing series that examines the rapid changes to our world and way of life, Artemis Ward is gathering thoughts and analysis from leaders and experts to shed light on what’s already happening and offer insight on what’s to come.

April 16, 2021
By Quinten Rosborough

Artemis Ward Senior Creative Strategist Ellen Esterhay is AW’s insights expert. In her role leading AW’s paid media and insights practice, her team provides the analytical foundation that ensures our work reaches the right people, in the right place, at the right time. With years of political campaign experience and creative strategy under her belt, she was asked to lend her expertise to Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential bid as a video producer on the paid media team.

Ellen caught up with Artemis Ward Senior Creative Strategist and Copywriter Quinten Rosborough to talk about her time on the virtual campaign trail, the lessons she’s brought back to her team at AW, and how to build a winning digital strategy during a global pandemic.

How did you end up getting connected with the Biden campaign in the first place?

I’ve either worked on or consulted for a few cycles in the past: particularly on Hillary’s campaign in 2016, but also JB Pritzker for the Governor of Illinois in 2018, and a lot of those folks were on the Biden campaign in 2020. They’re all great people, and I stayed in touch with a lot of them. And I was very fortunate that they had a need on their team that I could help fill!

3 photo portraits of Ellen Esterhay
With years of political campaign experience and creative strategy under her belt, Ellen Esterhay was asked to lend her expertise to Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential bid as a video producer on the paid media team.

When you were on the campaign, what kind of projects did you work on?

I was a video producer on the paid media team. My day-to-day included working with video editors to translate scripts into what were (most often) 15-, 30- or 60-second spots that would either go on-air as part of state or national TV buys, radio buys, or as part of our digital advertising program. My role included script writing, liaising with our comms, research, and legal teams, working with our scriptwriters and voiceover artists, helping our video editors pull stock and b-roll, select music, and make sure we were staying on message throughout our creative.

How is that different from what you typically do at AW?

It’s a very different hat than what I wear at Artemis Ward. At Artemis Ward, I lead our insights and paid media practice. I’m often working with our designers and other creative folks, and while I always love being a part of that process, I’m not there to be the creative brain in the room. I bring more of a strategic, analytical lens to our work.

So it was fun stepping back into a video producer role and getting to use that creative side of my brain a bit more. I was able to focus more on the look, feel, and messaging, and could really get in the weeds on how to tell the most visually compelling story.

Political ad-making feels like its own unique lane in a lot of ways. It’s not like selling shoes, where you can be conceptual at a high level…you’re trying to take a 10-point jobs plan and fit it into a 30- or 60-second, digestible format that people will understand.

–Ellen Esterhay

Did some of the strategy you’ve learned over the last four years change the way that you approach the creative that you that you did for Biden?

That’s a great question. It was interesting because 2016 was my first exposure to political ad-making, and that was before I had done any digital strategy work. It wasn’t until 2017—18 that I learned the ropes of paid digital advertising and overall digital strategy — and that’s really been my life since. So it was kind of neat stepping back into a video producer role; being more on the content side but having a better understanding of where and how that content was going to be utilized. I had a better sense of the bigger picture and where I plugged in, which I think is helpful for anything you do, in any role.

I think it’s always good for content creators to consider how their content is going to be consumed. And when you’re on the paid media side — by that I mean the media planning and ad trafficking side — that’s really all you’re thinking about. You know the platforms you’re running on, which ad placements, and how that content is going to be served to your audiences. So it was helpful to be making the content, but keeping in mind where and how the final product was going to be consumed.

In comparing the types of video work that campaigns are doing in 2016 to the types of video work that campaigns did this past cycle, were there any big changes that have come with how campaign communications have changed?

Political ad-making feels like its own unique lane in a lot of ways. It’s not like selling a shoe, where you can be conceptual at a high level — although we certainly did some of that too. But oftentimes, you’re trying to take a 10-point jobs plan and fit it into a 30- or 60-second, digestible format that people will understand. You’re also trying to talk directly to the American voter and let them know that your candidate is looking out for them.

In some ways, that formula hasn’t changed a ton, but one of the cool things that we were able to do in 2020 was have a really robust internal video-editing and production team. We had a lot of internal production capacity for paid media, as opposed to outsourcing a lot of that work. And that was really awesome, because we were able to react far more quickly, but also churn out quality content at a much larger scale. We were producing ad agency-level creative in-house. Throughout the cycle, we tested 3,300 ads. Our paid media program was a $900 million operation…our team worked until 2 or 3am, seven days a week, we filmed across the country, producing ads often with one-day turnaround times, all in the middle of a pandemic.

What was the hardest part about making that transition from digital strategy at AW, to creative for the Biden campaign?

At Artemis Ward, a certain skill that we need to have is the ability to move from one client and one project to the next pretty quickly. In some ways the campaign was a respite from that, since I was able to just focus on one project for a number of months. In agency life, it can be fun to bop around a bit from one thing to the next; it’s just a different way of stretching your brain. So if anything, coming back it took me a little bit of time to get back into the groove of that.

On the flip side, joining Biden — this is also a testament, honestly, to the campaign and to our team — I was onboarded remotely. We were all working remotely. I was fortunate that I had met a lot of the team before, but certainly not all of them. Typically, I would be sitting with the video editors in the edit suite. Granted, some of them might have been happy that they didn’t have producers looking over their shoulder the whole time! But it was a really interesting situation, and very specific to the time that we’re in. And it’s also just a testament to the paid media team, and the broader campaign in general. We were able to move so much through and get so much done, all being in this wild, completely remote way of working. I’m pretty sure we had team members in every time zone within the continental U.S.

Was there anything that you took away from the campaign that you brought back to your work and that you’re now implementing?

I think it’s always great to revisit things with a fresh perspective. We were doing a lot on the campaign — on the paid media, but also the digital front — some stuff that was pretty innovative. I think being able to come back to projects that I was familiar with at Artemis Ward, but after wearing a different hat, on a different team, helped me see new opportunities that I hadn’t seen before on projects and connect the dots in a way I hadn’t before. I think a lot of that is just getting more perspective on something when you have a few months distance from it.

Is there any advice or guidance that you would offer somebody looking to take some of the skills that they’re using currently, in a marketing or creative role, and apply them to something political?

Be ready to work your ass off. You probably won’t sleep a lot. I honestly think a big part of it is just being willing to really — and I don’t, I don’t mean this in a negative way at all, because I think campaigns are really awesome, completely valuable experiences — but you have to be willing to put your life on hold.

I think it’s better to realize that before going in, instead of realizing it once you’re already in it. Because I think if you’re ready for that trade-off, you can get a lot out of campaigns. You get experience really quickly, it’s almost like a startup environment in that way. You have this organization that came from nothing a year and a half ago, or a few months ago, and there’s a lot of opportunity, because everyone’s in a “get it done” mode.

Is there anything else that we didn’t touch on that might be worth talking about? Any war stories or anything that you want to tell?

I’m just really excited for the day that we can get a bunch of the team in one room and grab a beer together. Although we did have a daily standing calendar invite for “the bar” at around midnight, since everyone was up and working every night around then anyway. You would pop in and there’d be some conversation and then some people looking kind of frazzled and staring at their screens.

That’s awesome. Was most of the team based in one place? Could you guys regroup a couple of months once things open up again?

Maybe! I think that was another weird silver lining to having to work in a pandemic. We might not have all been physically together, but we got some very talented people on the team that were West coast based, or from literally all over the United States. One of our main DPs I’m pretty sure lives in Arizona? Point being: we had a lot of great talent. We might not have been able to get all of those folks to pick up their lives and move to Philly, you know? A lot are in DC, some have moved to DC. There’s definitely hope for a team reunion in the future.


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