Value Added: A Political Junkie's Foray Into the Ad Wars

Amy Gershkoff helped start Changing Targets Media after developing software to help clients more precisely find the right audience for their political messages.
Amy Gershkoff helped start Changing Targets Media after developing software to help clients more precisely find the right audience for their political messages. (By Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)
By Thomas Heath
Monday, August 24, 2009

I much prefer the subject of business over politics, which makes me a distinct minority in this town. But businesses built on politics -- now, there's something that intrigues me.

Amy Gershkoff, an earnest 29-year-old political junkie with a doctorate in political methodology from Princeton University, has helped start a D.C.-based company built on politics.

My ears perked up when I first heard about it, even though the company -- Changing Targets Media -- is in its infancy, has only 18 clients and five employees, and has not yet turned a profit. Gershkoff projects the company will earn about $1 million in revenue next year, due largely to congressional elections, and will turn a profit by the end of 2010.

Here's my dumbed-down version of what the company does:

Let's say you are running for Congress and you are looking for "persuadable voters" who might be open to your pitch. Instead of paying a lot of money to buy advertising time on "Face the Nation" or "Meet the Press" in hopes of reaching those voters, Gershkoff finds the less expensive shows those viewers are watching and reaches them there.

Her secret sauce is a patent-pending software she invented called Precision Buy, which finds broadcast and cable programs that reach the highest number of persuadable voters at a cost much lower than traditional television spending.

This is no easy trick. The proliferation of cable and satellite television channels has fragmented the audience into niches watching hundreds of different programs on any given night. "There are more than 43,000 cable TV programs running in one week," Gershkoff said. "We know how to glue together the right amount of coverage on your targets at the lowest possible cost."

Take the example of "liberal-leaning sports nuts." They were a group of persuadable blue-collar men who had not made up their mind about some ballot initiatives in Oregon last year.

Using Precision Buy and various political, demographic and television data that they purchase, Gershkoff and her team found they could reach the sports nuts on NBC's "The Office" and pay a lot of money. Or, they argued, they could reach the same group by cobbling together a menu of much cheaper spots -- on ESPN and Comedy Central in prime time, on ESPN2 on weekends, and on Fox Sports Northwest -- that would cost much less than advertising on "The Office."

Gershkoff claims her research can pinpoint specific demographic groups and what they watch, and when. This kind of granular data could be a boon for corporate clients, although I have a feeling Clorox and Coca-Cola know where their customers are located. But Gershkoff thinks there are plenty of opportunities in the sector.

Changing Targets Media fees start at around $5,000 to tell a political candidate where to find persuadable voters. The prices can go all the way to $100,000 for a big statewide race that involves lots of data crunching.

The targeting business didn't come out of left field. Gershkoff worked for MSHC Partners, which has been finding persuadable voters and targeting them through direct mail for Democratic clients since it was founded in 1989. MSHC, chaired by Hal Malchow, is headquartered on 15th Street in Northwest Washington.

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