Jim Margolis, OC ’78, visited campus Monday to give a lecture, titled “Forward: The Re-election of the President,” as part of the celebration of Black History Month. Margolis worked as a senior advisor and guided advertising strategies during President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. As president of GMMB, a communications firm and consulting agency, Margolis has also worked on international elections, advertising for nonprofit organizations and other high profile American political campaigns such as the election of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
You’ve been involved in some international elections in Africa, Europe, Asia and Latin America. What are some of the challenges of working on international elections? The part that I love about international work is that I learn as much as I’m able to give in terms of advice and counsel because [I’m] just in an entirely different place with all sorts of different issues. So, for example, in Mongolia, you’re working in a country where the majority of the people are still living in yurts … and a lot of people are still riding around on horseback, and it’s not like television is going to be the medium through which you communicate. It’s going to be for a very small part of the population, and instead it’s local door-to-door or personal interaction that will be the most important things that affect the campaign. The challenges are often the lack of infrastructure if you’re in Africa or the ability to get past corruption and other kind of influences which really go at the integrity of a campaign. But the benefits are seeing people who are in entirely different circumstances trying to participate in an electoral contest.
You worked on Obama’s negative ad campaigns in the last two elections. Do you feel negative advertising is an essential part of the campaigning process? And why or why not? I think that it is important for people to understand the differences between candidates and it’s important for people to understand positive programs and proposals that a candidate has. The question is, are you doing it in a responsible way or an irresponsible way? A debate between two candidates will often contrast different positions, and most people think that’s fair game and appropriate and helpful. The question is, in advertising, are there appropriate ads that contrast, maybe give both sides of the argument or, in fact, highlight your opponent’s record? … I think that that is totally appropriate if done properly, and I would argue that within our campaign we spent a lot of time talking about where that line existed. We incidentally often felt that if you crossed that line, it would hurt you and I think that that was the case frequently with a lot of the ads that attacked the president, that they went so far that they were unbelievable. The people turned off [the ads] when they saw them [and] it was actually destructive in the process. So it should be done carefully.
What place do you feel advertising has in politics and social change? Well, I think it’s a tool. Advertising is a tool, and I think that if it’s the only tool in your box you’re not going to be very effective. … It’s when it’s a part of something bigger that I think it has [the] most impact. Occasionally an ad comes along that captures people’s attention, but I don’t even think in those circumstances it will do much if it’s just out there alone.
What role do you see viral marketing and the Internet playing in future elections, or even the present? I think the question is, how do we connect with people and what are the best connections? … The best connections are [between] you [and] someone who trusts you. So, social networks, to the extent that they can be harnessed for political candidates, or for a cause, or for anything, is one of the most potent ways to have an impact. … I don’t know what the new thing will be, but I do believe that when one person is communicating with another person they know, whether it’s at the door, on the Internet, on a mobile device, or on a telephone, that that is one of the strongest ways to open people’s eyes and at least get a moment to have that opportunity to connect. [The] questions would be: How do we do that better — how do we more precisely identify what we care about — and then connect to that? And that’s what a lot of the data and analytics allow you to do: take all that information about someone and then be able to zero in a little bit more on what it is that will be important to [them].
What element or elements do you feel make an ad effective? I think effective ads are authentic. … When you look at them you say, “Yeah, I believe it.” I think that having a narrative that people can relate to is very important. Storytelling can be very important. That at the end of the day, having something that feels real and credible and authentic — [those] are the elements that I look for in an ad. If it comes on and you just immediately say, “Political ad. What they’re saying is garbage,” we’ve gotten nowhere. I don’t care how many ads you run; you’re actually being counterproductive. If you can pull people back and let them take a moment and have something that feels real, you’ve got a chance.