Stacking Content To Beat Media Fragmentation – Zack Roday (Ascent Media)

Eric Wilson
May 1, 2024
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Stacking Content To Beat Media Fragmentation – Zack Roday (Ascent Media)
May 1, 2024

Stacking Content To Beat Media Fragmentation – Zack Roday (Ascent Media)

"That's one of the beauties of stacked content is if you employ it, then you are right there on a knife edge, always ready to go and you can seize that moment."

Our guest today is Zack Roday, Partner at Ascent Media, he’s been a communicator on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail for many years, including Joe O’Dea for Senate where he was campaign manager, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the Republican Attorneys General Association.

In our conversation, we dive into strategies for overcoming the fragmented media and platform landscape and how to create content that cuts through.


  • The fragmented media and platform landscape poses a significant challenge for communicating with voters during campaigns and advocacy efforts.
  • Stacked content is a strategy that combines owned, earned, and paid media to optimize messaging and reach voters where they are.
  • Buy-in from decision-makers, intentional planning, and clear leadership are essential for executing a stacked content strategy effectively.
  • The effectiveness of stacked content can be measured through metrics such as cost savings, earned media value, and message recall.
  • Being creative and authentic in content creation is crucial for engaging and moving voters.

Episode Transcript

Eric Wilson (00:03.449)
I'm Eric Wilson, managing partner of Startup Caucus, the home of campaign tech innovation on the right. Welcome to the Business of Politics show. On this podcast, you're joining in on a conversation with entrepreneurs, operatives, and experts who make professional politics happen. Our guest today is Zach Roday, partner at Ascent Media. He's been a communicator on Capitol Hill and the campaign trail for many years, including Joe O'Day for Senate, where he was the campaign manager.

the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the Republican Attorneys General Association. In our conversation today, we dive into strategies for overcoming the fragmented media and platform landscape and how to create content that cuts through.

Zach, one of the biggest challenges confronting anyone trying to advance an agenda in 2024, whether that's campaigns or advocacy groups, is that fragmented media and platform landscape where voters are spending more of their time consuming media and information across so many devices and channels, some of which we are able to reach some on, some of them we're not. What effect does that have on communicating with

with voters during a campaign.

Zack Roday (01:24.59)
Well, it's a profound effect. Frankly, it's everything. I don't even think it's the difference between winning and losing. If you can't overcome it, you might as well not take the field. I mean, it's that vital. Axios had a really good story this week that probably crystallizes how fragmented it is. It was titled Shards of Glass and kind of broke out the electorate or a target audience. It doesn't matter if it's a campaign or an advocacy effort into 12 groups.

Eric Wilson (01:39.095)
Mm -hmm.

Zack Roday (01:52.334)
And frankly, that should not have been a surprise to anybody that's in our business, that anyone that communicates that tries to persuade. Frankly, some of them were funny, you know, how the musketeers and new age grandmas made me laugh, but none of them should have been a new topic for us. And in fact, I think they left a few out. I'll point out two, one is definitely talk radio and one and two Americans listens to talk radio once a week.

Hugh Hewitt was quick to jump on that. That's the first thing I thought of as well. If we've been on campaigns, Eric, if you don't account for talk, you're making a large mistake, both in your paid effort, but obviously certainly your earned media. And then the other was the pacifist. I didn't think it deserved a 12th placement on the list because that's your presidential voter, your low prop for the election nerds. You need those folks. You need to figure out how to get them interested because they're busy.

Eric Wilson (02:28.889)
You're missing, yeah.

Zack Roday (02:49.038)
But it's totally true with the way it's fragmented. You have to be able to have an optimized piece of content going to where people are.

Eric Wilson (02:59.801)
And I think the best way to understand this is if you go back, our jobs would have been a lot easier 20, 30 years ago when you have people watching three TV stations, smattering of cable, they're reading a daily newspaper. The information diet of a voter is roughly the same. Now, our media intake is as unique as the media.

as our fingerprint, even within the same household. And so we need to update our strategies for this reality. And it seems like every time we get a new platform, a new way to reach people, we're kind of shut out from that with politics. So I think a lot of people, for example, thought CTV was going to be our savior because everyone was cutting the cord and not watching TV ads. But now we know that...

Not every platform allows ads and those that do don't allow political ads. So pull us back a little bit and explain where do most strategies fall short when it comes to getting cut through in today's media environment when it's so fragmented.

Zack Roday (04:14.286)
Well, you nailed it at the top. When you said 20, 30 years ago, it might've been even frankly 15 to 17 years ago, where a standard issue content with maybe a lack of creativity and customization, that used to work when you had a lot of eyeballs in one place. Now it's just a recipe for failure, wasted spend, no ability to actually persuade in a way that gets you your victory.

Um, and so, uh, as a, as an agency, uh, ascent where I work as an agency that, that specializes in content, uh, both in the creation of content and then how we message it. And so you have to have incredible discipline to execute relentlessly toward your goal and the content, how it's delivered, if it's stale and it drives no emotion and makes no connection to an audience, then, then you have no shot. And, and so.

It's cliche to stay, you know, stay on message, stay on message. And to an extent, you do need to do that in the right forum, but the message landscapes changes by the second now, and you need to change your messaging to where your audience is moving. That's, that's really important, but there's still a consistency element and that's the through line of a brand. People sniff out when you're not authentic right away. They have a great radar for it. So the brand should be something that is repetitive.

and add some flavor of course, but it's, you know, your message, it's going to have to change to where people are, you know, delivered to them where they are. Um, and the content has to be really sharp and bold.

Eric Wilson (05:49.817)
Yeah. And it, it really highlights the, the, the, the challenge of, of if you're not evolving with this, this new delivery and distribution, you're really just missing out. And so this idea that, you know, you could drive a message, um, with a single TV ad is just so outdated and it does have to be, uh, in, in conjunction. And so one of the strategies that you and your team,

have developed is called stacked content, which I really like the name of that and how you lay it out. So give our listeners a preview of what that means in terms of an overall strategy.

Zack Roday (06:34.574)
For sure, well, Lisa Lehecky, founding partner at Ascent, and we're always talking about this vertical or that vertical and your talent, the employees are your power, your specialty. And we have such talented creators and communicators who are just thinking about, well, let's just stack our content. These are things that we already do in this field. But let me get first to it's a.

that that actually a story with shards of glass. It's pulling all of those shards of glass together into a single window pane that's optimized for wherever you are. Because content is only effective when it's seen, because that's the only chance you have an opportunity to make an impression and then obviously force that action, whether it's a vote on a bill, if you're a lawmaker or a vote for an elected official or whatever. And so you have to be able to punch through the fragmented environment.

And what it looks like in practice is taking concepts that we all know in our industry, owned media, so your editorial control, your blogs, your social, and any kind of communication that you are the editor for. That's your own media. You have your earned media, which is the press corps, still very, very important, from the right to the left, to the supposedly nonpartisan. And then obviously paid media, which you reference on a, you still want a large paid media,

Eric Wilson (07:45.049)
Mm -hmm.

Zack Roday (08:00.046)
budget on broadcast television because it's part of the pie. And so at Ascent, Stack Content, we take all three of those, we fuse them together. So if you're doing it correctly, you actually save money and you can drive a message through a range of communication channels that persuade, that hit a narrative and allow for you to amplify what the earned media is covering that you're generating. And so what we've seen is that

It's really the only way to operate in today's environment.

Eric Wilson (08:33.337)
Yeah, I think we're going to look back on the 2024 cycle. I know everyone wants to make this about AI, but I don't think it's going to be the AI election. But we're going to look back on the most effective campaigns are going to be the ones that were able to re bundle all of this attention that has fragmented and separated. So just like you're saying, put all those broken panes of glass back together so you get that unified picture.

Give our listeners an example of stacked content in practice.

Zack Roday (09:10.254)
Well, there's a bunch that we, I mean, your firm, our firm, many firms, they do this, but are they marketing in this way? And is it really seamless? I know you guys do a good job at this even without the term, right? And so Glenn Youngkin's Secure Your Vote Initiative in Virginia is one example. And then another cool one on advocacy I'll get to next. But on Glenn Youngkin's effort, we knew that we needed, we...

We would have the resources because of his ability to raise money and we had great partners like the RSLC and others. But the real question was how are we going to drive this to kind of penetrate over the top with a key messenger and that was Glenn Yonkin. He was all in. And so we didn't just do some mail and some text and have a field program all incredibly important. We added this stack content approach to it where we were everywhere. And it really mattered. I mean,

I remember a first poll that came out in the summer and the awareness around the absentee and early vote program that Republicans were driving. It had a name ID awareness above 50%. The Democrats were in the single digits to maybe even teens. It was really pretty profound that folks had a recognition of what our effort was. And in a state like Virginia, the Commonwealth of Virginia, the margins are so tight and you're running up a hill.

We had to do this. And so we got a ton of earned media because we put the governor out there. We were using his own media channels to drive news coverage and to drive a conversation. And of course, we were doing really smart tactical buys to your paid media with him as a central figure in it. And so that was really exciting. But as you know, newsmakers make news, you know? And so it's a bit easier with a Glenn Youngkin.

Eric Wilson (10:58.649)
Well, right. And you'll. Right. Well, and you you'll remember we did the survey post -election survey through the Center for Campaign Innovation in Virginia, and we saw that because the governor asked me to was one of the reasons that popped out for people adopting an early voting practice in Virginia. So so you did see it work. So it's. It's it's.

not just creating your message in a bunch of different places and formats, it's the, I guess you could say the coordination across silos. So it's a consistent message. Is that starting to get at what stacked content is and how it should work?

Zack Roday (11:45.294)
That's exactly right. That's exactly right. That's right. I mean, another example in advocacy where I think this is really where stack content comes into play is alluding to it before. Like Glenn Youngkin's a newsmaker. He speaks, there's news that happens. You know, if he does a paid message, he's known, he's got an almost 100 % name ID in the Commonwealth. The electorate listens. It's, you really make your, this special when you're going into a really tough issue terrain like drug pricing.

There was HR3 was on the Hill. I think it was in 2019 not to date this but it just shows you how relevant it is and it's even more so and and and so we did a video blog series is a six -part series for a c4 it was called so here's the good news use some really well -known tax experts Grover Norquist and Ryan Ellis we did it at a local location well known on Capitol Hill in Washington DC called Bullfeathers.

Eric Wilson (12:14.873)

Zack Roday (12:41.102)
And we broke out, we broke down really tough policies that the house Democrats and their then speaker, Nancy Pelosi were pushing. And, uh, and, and we made it fun and we made it digestible. The real, and I was on the committee that oversaw some of this at the time in Congress at house energy and commerce. And there, it was just a really creative way to break down tough policies. And this case they're trying to get, um, a bipartisan vote against HR three, which was a signature.

legislation from Nancy Pelosi and three Democrats flipped their votes previously. And so it worked. I mean, Slate and other left leaning publications praised the advocacy effort because it was different. Busy audience, Capitol Hill, all those folks that work there. And it wasn't a boring white paper with a tip sheet reference. It was instead really optimized content on Instagram reels and in people's faces.

and making it really difficult for their bosses to vote for something that had a salient message attached to it. And so that was a combination of a really light paid media effort, a great own media effort that drove a ton of earned and ultimately flipped three votes.

Eric Wilson (13:55.545)
Yeah, that's a great spot. It's really fun to watch. Hey, can you just pull up your, I'm getting scratch again on your thing. Yeah. No, no, no, it's not too bad. We can take some of it out, but I just don't want to create too much work. All right. You're listening to the Business and Politics Show. I'm speaking with Zach Roday from Ascent Media about stacked content and how you get cut through in today's fragmented media landscape.

Zack Roday (14:04.27)
Oh, sorry. Should we redo that?

Eric Wilson (14:23.159)
Zach, what does someone need to know if they want to embrace this strategy? So you've convinced them they're ready to put in practice, what changes about their approach?

Zack Roday (14:36.718)
Well, I mean, you've referenced it right there. You have to get buy -in from the decision maker, the person with the budget sign off authority. And then, and then you have to be intentional. You have to plan, plan, plan some more. Because when you identify an opportunity in the news terrain, you need to fly. You know, being first beats being the best. But if you plan, you can get both. And then I'm real intentional about this. Then you can chase viral moments. You can never, we can't create viral moments.

We can't guarantee it, I should say, but you can chase it. And so that's, that's one of the beauties of stack content is if you, if you employ it, then you are right there on a nice edge, always ready to go and you can seize that moment. And so that's, um, that, that's what, that's when you're all in around, around that strategy. And you got to, you have to have that buy -in from the top because you know, you need to, you need to be cutting edge. Sometimes you need to be a little bit risky on your message, sharp elbows. And that's gives you that opportunity to really like,

fuse all three elements together where a small spend can get you a lot of eyeballs and some good news coverage.

Eric Wilson (15:41.369)
Yeah, and I think that's what's really important about the visual concept of stacked content. What you're doing there is you're piecing together a bunch of different content streams, earned, paid, social owned, and putting it together. Because it's kind of like that, like a Lego tower or Jenga tower, you can move pieces around if you need to. And so it is flexible, it's adaptable. And...

And as long as each one of those pieces is effective, done well, you can take it from this stack over here and put it over in this stack if things change. So I think that metaphor just, you can keep digging into it of how does this all work together.

Zack Roday (16:33.646)
That's right. That's exactly right.

Eric Wilson (16:36.889)
Jack, one source of tension we see in the business of politics today is the debate over who should do what. For example, should the TV ad buying agency by CTV or is that the digital agency's purview is one such debate. How does stacked content come together across the multiple functions or teams on a campaign?

Zack Roday (17:06.062)
It's that is the that is the key element. You have to have good leadership and a bit of a chain of command. I'd say it like this. The reason it worked so well with Governor Youngkin is there was a clear central command structure, a convening force. It helped us on secure your vote in a tremendous way. It also helped us in our messaging around crime and safety in the economy and in particular, abortion, which I know you referenced in your in your recent podcast on Virginia's

Eric Wilson (17:32.759)
Mm -hmm.

Zack Roday (17:35.982)
uh... seminar so uh... but back to governor young can i mean we worked with the rslc we work with a ton of third -party groups we worked at the house of delegate political leadership in the state senate political leadership uh... none of us were in the same place uh... you know physically we were all over the place uh... and we weren't you know we weren't working on the governor's campaign you know we were working on at least that doesn't uh... races in the in the virginia uh... general assembly across

the House and the Senate and sometimes surging up to a dozen and a half. So a lot of different focuses. We had media consultants and we had communications consultants. Everybody was in a different space and we were not at one firm. And really having that central command allowed us to be so effective when a false story came out on abortion. Or if we saw something popping up,

Eric Wilson (18:09.143)
Mm -hmm.

Zack Roday (18:31.822)
on secure your vote, which, you frankly, because of how aggressive we were across the board, there was great buy -in from the grassroots all the way up to Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham. Like we had great buy -in across the spectrum. And it really came down to having the governor leading on it as the convener and a really good team, central command. And then I think if you have that, then it can be successful.

regardless of how many different experts are in the room and people doing different jobs.

Eric Wilson (19:05.657)
Yeah, it was certainly a good example of a coordinated effort. The Democrats talk a lot about their coordinated campaign and that's, we don't use that language necessarily, but in order to do this effectively, in order to execute, you've got to make sure all the incentives are aligned. And so that's where having that one person in charge, the

the command and control who can make sure the incentives are aligned, communicate that to everyone on the team. And I think that this only works, right? If it feels like everyone is working from the same cookbook with the same recipes. Otherwise you start to get this kind of Frankenstein where there's a different logo on the mail. There's a different logo on the TV. There's a different logo on, on digital. And it's like, this is not part of the same thing.

So that's a really key insight of making sure that you have clear direction. This is not a strategy for kind of a committee approach.

Zack Roday (20:14.158)
That's right. That's right. I mean, we were very collaborative, but we did have an ability to bring all the people together and then run together and move forward together. And it just wouldn't have been successful without it. And so there's definitely a model there. And it comes down to good leadership and a good central command. And if you're able to institute those two principles and elements into your plan, then you can be successful.

Eric Wilson (20:43.171)
Another challenge that we face is the push to data -driven. Sorry, let me start that over, Adam. Another challenge we face, another challenge we face is the, all right, we'll pick it up there. Another challenge we face is the push to be data -driven on campaigns. And some tactics have clear metrics while others don't.

And I think that can be a blessing and a curse sometimes. How do you measure the effectiveness of a stacked content strategy when you're going to have some that have clear metrics and some components that don't?

Zack Roday (21:26.606)
That's right. Right. I mean, in some of these spaces, I mean, you certainly you, you can run analytics on your own channels and see where your growth is, what's performing the best. You know this well with your background. And so that's, you constantly need to look at that on the paid side. And, you know, typically you're looking to see if your move, your messages are moving voters in your next survey or if there's good recall and a qualitative survey and.

And so those are two elements in earned. I mean, you get, there's certainly programs where you can, you can see where your pickup was with, with our launch at secure your vote, Virginia. We were everywhere. I mean, local state national, we were everywhere. And so it had a huge earned media value and we were booking the lieutenant governor and the attorney general. And of course the governor and even, um, legislative leaders on national radio and TV constantly. So, you know, there's a lot of ways to, of course, just observe and then, and then.

assess if you're moving the ball, if you're all on message. But to me, it's somewhat intuitive and it's very, very simple. Are you saving money? Because if you're doing it right, you should be. Are you getting good earned media because of a light paid media spend? Did you grow your own media channels in this process instead of just spending a ton of money to grow your following?

Were you able to grow your own media channels because you're doing the earned and the paid mix so well and then sprinkling in like real news coming from your social page? And so if you do it correctly, you can drive your message, you can build a brand and you can do it at a cheaper cost because you don't need referencing the beginning of the conversation. You don't need to go and establish a 60 % name ID with a statewide TV buy. You can go and...

This is if you're a bit established you can go and you can actually go win arguments and a tactical level Deploying the deploying the strategy and and you don't have to use that that huge spend at the start

Eric Wilson (23:29.273)
Yeah, and I think this goes back to a topic we've discussed in the past on the show with with macro metrics versus micro metrics. And if you are going to pursue a stack content strategy and try and overcome this this media fragmentation, you you want to measure results from a bunch of different domains. And so it's important to have what is that North Star metric that we all agree on in the case of.

early voting in Virginia, it was absentee ballot requests, right? So, you know, what you're, you can see the impact of that. So I think for our listeners who are thinking about embracing this approach, you've got to figure out what is that macro metric that is agnostic from any one channel or medium or platform that you were driving to.

Zack Roday (24:26.478)
That's right. Yeah, that's right. I mean, you have in Virginia, in Virginia, we had that goal of 51 in the House and 21 in the Senate. We came up just short, but secure your vote objectively was a success. I mean, it expanded our, our, we had, we had a five and a half, 6 % growth on our absentee and early vote program from 2021, a gubernatorial year, pretty unprecedented. And if you just run through the battleground states, I mean, the majority for the Democrat goes up to 10 seats in the House.

probably goes up to five or six seats in the Senate if not for this program. And so it was a success. And then you obviously go micro and you look at how we did certain elements of it. Like how are we doing with the core Republican base? How are we doing with swing voters? And you can peel back based off of the metrics that you're running through your paid campaigns. And obviously your earned media that you're trying to do intentionally around those voters.

Eric Wilson (25:26.745)
Well, Zach, before we wrap up, where, where is a content opportunity that you think most campaigns or advocacy groups are missing out on?

Zack Roday (25:36.718)
Don't be boring. You know, have something to say. There's so much rinse and repeat out there. It's so unoriginal. I mean, you can take anything and be creative. Anything. I worked on the Capitol Hill for years and I was guilty of posting the picture with the constituent. There's a use for that, but you can take that and like maybe it's a young group and go work out with them in the morning and post a video about that. You know, you can make anything interesting if you're intentional. You know, I was likened to

I liken it to comms because that is my background. That's my bread and butter. And when I first started out on Capitol Hill, it was hitting send and then walking away on a press release. That was the first piece of advice you got as a communicator. No, no, no. Pick up the phone. Pick up the phone, call the reporter, call the stakeholder, call the influencer. We had them back then too. And work and put the effort in. And so in the fragmented media landscape,

Eric Wilson (26:22.713)
He he.

Zack Roday (26:34.926)
You know, you can, you have to level up. You have to do that. You can have a beautiful ad, great graphic treatment, wonderful sound design, but the story is, is the special element, the authentic humanizing story. And you got to work to find those. And if you do, uh, if you do your content, you know, that's when it has the ability to really move people and you can, you can attach on these other elements, uh, to it. You know, you can have an earned media plan around a really interesting story and, uh, you know, really interesting paid ad.

that you do, that you create. And that should be the goal. That should be the goal that you're hitting. You're hitting a high functioning level across all of these efforts, earned, paid, and owned, so that they can reinforce one another and drive your message forward, hopefully get you to victory, whatever you're pursuing.

Eric Wilson (27:24.985)
Well, my thanks to Zachary O'Day for a great conversation. You can learn more about his work at Ascent at the link in our show notes. If this episode made you a little bit smarter, gave you something to think about, a new strategy to try, you know, all we ask is that you share it with a friend or colleague. You look smarter in the process. More people learn about the show. It's a win -win all around. It really works. Remember to subscribe to the Business of Politics show wherever you listen to your podcasts so you never miss an episode.

You can also sign up for email updates on our website at businessofpoliticspodcast .com. With that, I'll say thanks for listening. See you next time.

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Eric Wilson
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