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Biden’s ad agency and its ‘beautifully chaotic’ creative setup that flipped key states

Nothing is more satisfying for an agency than watching a campaign it’s sent out into the world make an impact. How then, must it have felt to see red states flip to blue in 2020 US election under your watch? We speak to Barbarian, the ad agency that did just that, to find out. Along the way, we also decipher the lessons its small creative team gleaned from an ‘always on’ push to make Joe Biden President.

It was late September last year when Barbarian managing director Courtney Berry got an out-of-the-blue call from one of her contacts asking if she knew a digital agency that would like to work to work with the Biden for President campaign. As it turns out, she had the perfect team in mind: her own.

The world looked a little different then. The genetic sequence of the first Covid-19 vaccine had yet to be published, America’s borders were still firmly closed and Donald Trump was still in office (and still on Twitter).

The 2020 US presidential race was an election like no other. In total, Trump and Biden splashed $14bn on campaigning, their messaging (more than double the amount pumped into the 2016 vote). Ahead of the ballot, the voting public were wary after four years’ worth of social media vitriol and division, as well as reeling from the impact of the pandemic. US citizens were also wading through a sea of misinformation, and information, around increasingly complex voting methods which varied from state to state and were updated on the regular, causing confusion around postal votes amid other factors.

Sensing the postal vote would be critical in some states in order to seat Biden in the Oval Office, the now-president’s team set Barbarian a clear brief: educate Americans on the different, sometimes new, ways they could cast their vote (such as early and mail-in voting) and ensure their slip gets into a ballot box on time.

“Voter mobilization across the bout of battleground states was the number one brief that we were tasked with,” explains Berry, saying this meant looking closely at Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, all of which ended up playing a transformative role in the election.

Resh Sidhu, Barbarian’s creative director, admits the real job was to “motivate a very apathetic and rattled public”.

“We weren’t only in the midst of the pandemic. The country had just come through the Black Lives Matter protests, and so we asked ourselves how to best connect with people in what I believe is probably the strangest time to have lived through.”

The result was a mammoth (and reactive) campaign that tested the speed, bravery and resilience of the agency’s small team.

A fun, ‘weird’ and relatable campaign

Over the course of seven weeks, Barbarian's creative team developed 700 assets to support the original brief, which – as time went by – was spun into dozens of briefs designed to address changing rules around postal ballots on a state-by-state basis.

From animated shorts to plane banners, bus wraps to billboards, the work was varied and Sidhu acknowledges that the team knew it would have to fight hard to capture people’s attention amid an ever-changing news cycle.

Instead of “scaring” voters into action, or boring them with generic education content, Sidhu says agency decided to dispel misinformation (which, remember, was literally being pedaled by the White House at this point) and levelled positivity, relatability and entertainment to drive voters to ballot boots and mailboxes.

The fruit of this was Votey McVoterson, a cute, warm and “weird” character reminiscent of the educational films many Americans grew up watching in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Brought to life by the legendary animators at Pysyop, the throwback-esque videos were customized for every swing state. They featured multiple sets of state-specific voting instructions and two different narrations by comedian Margaret Chow and talkshow host Andy Cohen. The shorts translated into hundreds of memes and GIFs online too, helping Biden’s team engage the critical youth vote.

The campaign didn’t stop at Votey, though. The agency also created a diverse suite of “edutainment” bursting with famous faces and characters as events unfolded day by day. It also pulled off stunts like taking the campaign to the world’s second-largest billboard in Vegas.

“As we could see laws change in real time – like the need for privacy envelopes in Pennsylvania – we kept pushing out creative to counteract that,” says Sidhu, pointing to a radio ad the agency produced with the likes of Hamilton star Leslie Odom Junior.

“We were turning these things around in three days, all in-house and then people in these affected states started sharing them and talking about how to make their vote count.”

Biden’s team were “surprisingly flexible” and kept saying yes even as the ideas got more flamboyant. For Berry and Sidhu, the work the agency has done on the campaign has shown the limitless potential of what can be achieved for a client in such a short time span.

“As a creative director, it’s been a game-changer,” reveals Sidhu. “I’ve worked with hundreds of brands but the speed at which we were able to get creative out and respond to the brief in real-time was incredible.”

A ‘beautifully chaotic’ creative model

Of course, this approach required the agency to rethink its inner workings and “move at the speed of culture” says Berry.

Biden’s team wanted an agency that could more quickly and “make a move even when it wasn’t clear what the next move was,” she adds.

“Agencies have a reputation for being slow, inefficient and moving into a black box without involving the client. So, we created a custom team and a custom model for them.”

With staff working remotely up and down the US, the agency initiated a 24-hour virtual newsroom. In the lead up to the vote, staffers were split into day shift and night shift so they could dream up ideas in response to the news cycle and pitch these to the client.

“It was a constant rotation of team members handing over whip work to the next team in order to get it over the finish line,” Berry says.

Sidhu, meanwhile, calls it “beautiful chaos”.

“We selected individuals that we knew could handle the chaos and move at speed, but not compromise on the craft and quality,” she adds.

The agency has taken many lessons from this. First of all, digital agencies don’t have the “luxury” of bringing work to “complete perfection” before it goes to market sometimes.

“The more you overwork something, the more you run the risk of missing the exact moment you wanted to cash in on.”

This is a working model the agency plans to leverage with other clients in the next 12 months, but Berry implores clients to meet their agencies half way and be open to quick, responsive creative too.

“Agencies and brands need to be open to iterative processes. A lot of times, the industry is precious about things and we want to nail the brief, but it’s about getting out there and getting 90 for the 10 out into the world and reappraise as we go along. We need to get better at being uncomfortable in an uncomfortable space, because it’s so liberating.”

Of course, we all know the ending of this story: the campaign worked, and Biden is now in office. 2020 also had the highest voter turnout of any US election since 1908, with 46% of people voting by early or mail-in ballots.

While Barbarian itself admits it can’t take sole credit for swinging one of the most contentious elections in modern history, it is proud of the role it played in changing the course of it.

“The whole team was online all day on 20 November,” laughs Sidhu, “no work happened. Texts and Slack messages were flying – ‘we got Penn state’ – and so on. As the results rolled in it was a defining moment for us that the creative had worked and there is no better reward than that.”