In today’s contentious political landscape where candidates on both sides of the political fence are no stranger to controversy, aligning one’s business with a particular party or campaign can prove to be a risky move. Yet that hasn’t stopped Matt McLaughlin from adopting a “liberal underdog” ethos at his New York-based content shop Acres, where his team has created and produced campaign videos for a number of Democratic candidates including presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.
Tucked into a small office in New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood, Acres was founded by McLaughlin and Andrew Simkiss in 2013 in an effort to bridge the gap between the services advertising agencies provide and what production companies have to offer. Like a number of modern ad shops, Acres describes itself as a ‘content company,’ eschewing the word ‘agency’ and the connotations that come along with it.
“I like to say we’re something new,” says McLaughlin, who also serves as managing director of the eight-person shop that relies heavily on freelancers. When founding Acres, he envisioned a company that would be one of the first players to really own the content agency space, “so that when a whole lot of the bigger budgets were shifting over to the digital world, we’d have an established brand that could really be a leading voice for clients who are looking to figure out how to make that transition.”
Three years later, Acres has counted brands including Airbnb, Reddit and Acura as clients. Last year, the company helped Reddit produce the site’s first branded video series for Google Cloud Platform, and in 2014 the shop was tasked with creating a NYC-centric broadcast, print and digital campaign for Airbnb to help the home-sharing site win the hearts of New Yorkers.
But the work Acres has done for consumer brands only tells half of its story. Shortly after it was founded in 2013, Acres began working with Bill de Blasio to help the mayoral candidate develop a “video-driven campaign,” according to McLaughlin. At the time, de Blasio was a long-shot candidate, competing against better known rivals like New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
“We started working on the digital side and made a longer-format video that was the first one to really dive into his background,” says McLaughlin. “No one was really doing long-format digital videos at that point, and we really wanted to make a video about de Blasio and the things that are really provocative and interesting about him. In that initial video, he talked about growing up in a bad family with an alcoholic father and his wife coming from a similar background.”
The agency collaborated with AKPD Message and Media, a company that represents Democratic candidates, to create and produce a number videos for de Blasio that would help him stand out. One ad, which featured an endorsement from de Blasio’s biracial son Dante, served as a pivotal point for his campaign that led a number of media outlets to proclaim the spot ‘won’ de Blasio’s primary for him. Another spot, called ‘Our City,’ ran on broadcast and cable networks across New York City just days before de Blasio beat his Republican rival by a landslide.
Following its success with de Blasio, the company has brought its documentary-style political advertising to the national stage to try and help Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders win his party’s primary and beat Hillary Clinton.
Earlier this year, Acres joined forces with media strategy firm DML to produce a campaign video for Sanders. The four-minute online film, which was cut into shorter versions to air on TV, features Erica Garner, whose father was killed in a police chokehold in 2014 on New York City’s Staten Island. In the film, Garner tells the story of how she became an activist after her father’s death and why she thinks America should vote for Sanders.
With candidates like Sanders and de Blasio on its roster, it’s clear that Acres enjoys working with candidates who are not only liberal but also want to disrupt the status quo. McLaughlin, who describes himself as a “total idealist,” says that he has no qualms about making it known that Acres is only interested in working with candidates that share its political values.
“I didn’t start Acres to not have an impact,” he says. “It’s always difficult to know what someone is going to do, especially after they get into office. We have no clue, and it is a bit of a risk, but I would rather risk my company and get involved in something I believe in than sit on the sidelines and wonder why I didn’t use the power we have as communicators to have a real effect on the people around us and the problems that I see every day.”
So far, McLaughlin says the political work Acres has done hasn’t been an issue or cause for concern for any of the consumer brands it works with.
“If it has affected any of our business, I haven’t heard about it,” he says. “It’s been nothing but a bonus. I honestly think that everything we’re doing has been such a part of pop culture that it translates and make its very easy for us to leverage that experience into the consumer branded space. The experience and the work done in the political sphere has done nothing but make our strategies on the consumer side a million times stronger.”
And the agency isn’t working only working with big names like de Blasio and Sanders. Last year, McLaughlin took on the role of lead creative and media consultant for John Fetterman, an unconventional, tattooed Democratic mayor of a small Pennsylvania town who threw his hat into the ring for the state’s US Senate race this year.
Although Fetterman lost the state’s primary earlier this year to a better-known and well-funded candidate, his unique campaign videos that focused around stories of people whose lives he has affected – for example, one featured a gay couple who was married by Fetterman in 2013 even though same-sex marriage was illegal in Pennsylvania at the time – caught the eyes of many in the state leading up to the election. One of the ads that Fetterman ran was dubbed “one of the best campaign videos you’re likely to see this season” by a Pennsylvania reporter who noted that the spot should keep the mayor’s rivals “up at night.”
McLaughlin notes that Acres had to “play scrappy” with Fetterman because they were working with “maybe a tenth of the money” that the mayor’s competitors had. But tight budgets and even tighter deadlines in the political sphere have served to strengthen the agency’s work in the consumer space, since it often demands focus and a clear strategy.
He adds: “Everything is so strained that it really forces you to understand what the most important and effective stuff is."