Democratic women poised to shake up male-dominated industry with new political media firm

Recent success stories about women in politics are about candidates breaking barriers. There’s a female vice president. More women than ever before serve in Congress. But when it comes to the people who help get them elected — specifically the people who tell their stories in the still wildly influential form of TV advertising — diversification has taken much longer.

Political consulting is still a male-dominated world, and that’s particularly true for ad making. The number of female-owned TV ad firms, on both sides of the aisle, can practically be counted on one hand.
That’s beginning to change, though, with a notable shift even since the 2020 elections.
Three longtime female Democratic strategists are launching their own firm this week, the details of which were shared first with CNN. Mindy Myers, the first female executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Tracey Lewis, most recently the Georgia state director for the Biden campaign and a senior adviser to the state party during the twin Senate runoffs, and Sarah Callahan Zusi, who’s made ads for six presidential campaigns, including Biden’s, are joining forces to create MZL media — a rare media venture that’s led and owned by three Democratic women.
    “It’s a moment for us,” Myers said, “to step up and be more out in front. … There’s a lot of great women consultants out there who are doing great work,” she added. “We just happen to believe there needs to be more of them.”
    The women at MZL are not the only ones putting their names on the door of a new shop announced this week. Meredith Kelly, former communications director for Kirsten Gillibrand’s 2020 presidential campaign and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is a co-founder and co-owner of Declaration Media, a new firm launched with veteran ad maker AJ Lenar and strategist Trey Nix.
    “We’ve had a breakthrough since the 2020 elections,” said Martha McKenna, a veteran Democratic strategist who started her own ad-making business 10 years ago, back when Mandy Grunwald and Ann Liston were essentially the only Democratic women in the game.
    “At the time, you know, it was a very male-dominated industry. Ten years later, it’s a very male-dominated industry,” McKenna said. But she’s actively encouraging other Democratic women to step up, and those women are eager to blaze a path.
    “Women are driving the conversation in politics, and helping to change the direction of our country,” Lewis said, noting that in 2020, Black female voters helped lead to wins in states like Georgia.
    “I was the first African American woman to run a coordinated campaign in Massachusetts,” she said, “and taking a line from Vice President Harris, I may be the first but I won’t be the last.”

    Combining expertise

    Political ads are ubiquitous. They’re often the primary way voters are meeting candidates — especially now, during a pandemic.
    But the process of making an ad — what goes on behind the camera and who’s calling the shots — is a little more opaque.
    “It starts with research, and understanding the town you’re in, the state you’re in, the problem you’re solving,” said Callahan Zusi, who’s been making political ads since 1992.
    She met Myers in 2006, working on Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s campaign in Rhode Island, where she made an ad that to this day Myers recalls as one of her favorites — it spotlighted Whitehouse’s community dinner series, showing him connecting with real people.
    “It’s not the most provocative of ads, but it was so important to us — strategically important,” Myers recalled, explaining how essential it is to tell candidates’ unique stories. “Now more than ever, cookie cutter, kind of generic campaigns don’t work.”
    The veteran of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has never lost a race. She’s managed three Senate campaigns — for Whitehouse and Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — and served as a chief of staff and adviser for Warren. She stayed out of the 2020 presidential primary but later advised Kamala Harris during the vice presidential selection process.
    “I used to advise on the candidate side and had people come in and pitch, and I would say (to candidates), ‘Think about who you want on the other end of the phone.’ ” Her pitch for her firm is about the range of experience that she and her partners bring.
    Lewis, who first met Myers in New Hampshire in 2008 on the Obama general election campaign, has spent years in the field, across 17 states, especially places like Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. All three partners see that on-the-ground experience, particularly in traditionally red states, as a crucial part of their ability to tell authentic stories.
    “Especially early on, being one of the few people of color on a campaign and in a leadership role,” Lewis said, “people would say how excited they were that they were supporting a campaign that hired and had people in leadership roles that looked like them.”
    In 2018, Lewis helped her longtime friend Ayanna Pressley unseat a 10-term Democratic representative and become the first Black woman elected to represent Massachusetts in Congress. Lewis later worked for former Rep. Joe Kennedy’s primary bid against Sen. Ed Markey in 2020 — an effort that Myers assisted with an independent expenditure campaign.
    Knocking out longtime, often White, incumbents has been seen as a way of shaking up an aging Democratic caucus and diversifying Congress. But for consultants, the work has sometimes been risky business. In the 2020 primary cycle, for example, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee promised to blacklist consultants who worked against incumbents.
    Will MZL take on challengers to Democratic incumbents as clients?
    “We certainly don’t have any plans to right now, but certainly also have not ruled it out,” Myers said.

    Women’s voices

    Female ad makers agree that they are well-positioned to tell female candidates’ stories and communicate with female voters.
    It seems obvious. Yet women haven’t always had a seat at the table. “I’ve been on a lot of shoots and in a lot of rooms where I am the only woman,” Callahan Zusi said.
    The consequences of not including women in the decision-making process can be strategically costly, multiple female ad makers said.
    “Imagine this. You see a woman … a middle-class White woman standing at the window, holding a cup of tea, staring out the window at the rain,” said McKenna, the longtime ad maker.
    “That is the stock footage that was used over and over and over and over again, whenever an ad — positive or negative — mentioned reproductive freedom for women. And it’s like, that is absolutely not how women approach their reproductive health care.”
    Being able to communicate with women is especially important for Democrats.
    “You cannot win a primary or general election as a Democrat if you aren’t appealing to women in a major way,” said Kelly, who helped Democrats flip the House in 2018 in large part by electing women. “To have a consultant team and a campaign team advising candidates without any women at the table is complete malpractice.”
    Ad-making has been male-dominated on the Republican side, too, where there are fewer women-led media firms. But having women involved, female Republican ad makers said, is just as important.
    “Women bring a unique perspective to storytelling and I think we understand the importance of imagery and little moments that drive emotions and which leads to persuasion,” said Liesl Hickey, a former executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee who is now a partner at Ascent Media.
    That extends to winning over female voters, too.
    “What’s important to women in advertising is very different than what resonates with men,” said Ashley O’Connor, a partner at Strategic Partners & Media, another GOP firm.

    More work to be done

    The puzzle no one can answer is why media consulting has lagged other political jobs, like pollsters or campaign managers, in diversifying its ranks.
    To be sure, starting a business is expensive, and that’s especially true for ad makers, who are compensated as a percentage of the ad buy that a campaign makes. That means ad makers may not be paid until months after a shoot, maybe not even until right before the election. Money, as in all aspects of politics, has a way of shaping access.
    With more diverse voices holding higher-level jobs, though, there’s now a pathway. “There’s no doubt we need more women leading campaigns to victory, and I know Mindy and Tracey will do just that,” Warren said in a statement to CNN. Both women worked on Warren’s 2012 campaign before eventually landing at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Lewis later advised her presidential bid.
    “It’s all about the pipeline,” said Kelly, who went from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to the Gillibrand campaign. “It starts with who’s working on and then running these campaigns, and then who gets these high-level strategic jobs at the committees.” Over time, those roles have diversified, and, she added, “that has slowly but surely led to the consultant class diversifying as well.”
    That’s a shift that these women are hoping to hasten.
    “I hope to change that, and we look back in — I don’t know how long — and it’s not such a rarity that it’s a women-owned and -led firm,” Callahan Zusi said.
      Does more competition worry the women whose firms came before?
      “I look forward to losing a pitch to another woman,” McKenna said. “That’s a good sign. That’s a good day.”

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