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It happens all the time in advertising. A big campaign ends in disappointment. A once-dominant brand is no longer selling like it did, and the formerly hot agency overseeing the account seems to have run out of magic. Who’s to blame? Is it the product, or is it the strategist? The account is put up for review, and ultimately the client must decide if it’s time to move the marketing budget to a new agency to find a new genius.
Such is the situation in which GOP donors now find themselves in the wake of a disappointing presidential campaign. Their candidate lost. Their market share in Congress decreased. Their brand is suffering. As a result, a question hangs over the party: Should Republicans continue to rely on Karl Rove as their top marketer?
For the past two years, Rove’s political groups, Crossroads GPS and American Crossroads, have served as the primary agency of the GOP. Together, the two organizations aired presidential election ads 158,246 times during the general election campaign, at an estimated cost of $125 million, according to Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks political ads. “You’re always going to get recriminations after a loss,” says Shane Ginsberg, senior vice president of corporate development at the digital ad agency Organic. “In this particular case, it was a very one-dimensional campaign. All they did was blanket the world with advertising. The account is now definitely up for review.”
In similar circumstances, an ad agency would typically scramble to absolve itself of blame and insist things would have been worse without their work. “The agency will often say, ‘Well, it was a bad product,’ ” says Allen Adamson, managing director of Landor Associates. “ ‘I did the best I could with what I was given.’ ” Holding on to the account becomes a battle of perception. “Sometimes agencies don’t get fired after they work on a bomb because the client still has confidence in the person or thinks it wasn’t totally their fault,” says Adamson.
For the time being, some donors continue to express confidence in Rove—at least in public. John Dowd, a partner in the Washington law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, who made several contributions to American Crossroads, says he’ll keep giving to Rove’s groups. Dowd blames Romney, not Rove, for the loss. “The Romney camp blew it,” he says. “I wish Karl had been running the campaign, then Romney probably would have won.”
Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for American Crossroads, declined an interview request, but said recently on MSNBC that the group has been talking to a lot of its donors. “Everyone is disappointed with the results, but everyone also fully understands the contribution we had in the 2012 election,” he said.
Rove has been busy deflecting blame, attributing the loss to forces of nature, such as Hurricane Sandy, beyond any ad man’s control. That may be enough to save face, but not necessarily to get the job the next time. “A flop, especially a visible flop, is very damaging,” says Adamson. “Competitors will jump on it.”
The bottom line: Rove’s groups spent $125 million on ads during the campaign with poor results, calling his reputation—and business model—into question.