Grist: Politics, Passion -- and Profits
"If Howard Dean had gotten the nomination I would probably have made a million dollars."
A woman named Katie Cook recently told me that. Katie is an entrepreneur in Alexandria, Va., who writes for a living. Specifically, she writes direct-mail pitches for politicians trying to raise money. For 12 years, she was a partner in a Republican firm. But in 2002, following a disagreement with a partner, she opened her own shop. A year later, she met Howard Dean, then a little-known Vermont governor, and agreed to write and test a few direct-mail packages. She was stunned by their explosive response rates: four times the usual.
Clearly, Dean had struck a nerve, and Katie wanted to be part of it. But there was the matter of her long-standing Republican connections. She briefly considered splitting her company in two and serving both sides. But the business of politics is too polarized. You simply cannot work for Republicans and Democrats, just as you couldn't represent both Wyle E. Coyote and Acme Products. So Katie walked away from her lucrative Republican candidates and put her heart and soul behind Dean. All was going well -- until the Iowa caucus and the infamous "I Have a Scream" speech. Now, instead of overseeing a booming business, Katie is working hard to pitch her company, Direct Line Politics, to wary Democrats, many of whom still eye her with suspicion despite how much she sacrificed by opting to work with Dean.
When it comes to running any company, passion and profit go together. But nowhere are the two as connected as in the business of politics. Most people don't realize it, but the vast majority of the political ads we're bombarded with every election cycle are the product of a clutch of small organizations, most of them run by political junkies who have found a way to merge their political views and their entrepreneurial energies.
Is it all about the money? When I put the question to consultant Whit Ayres, he started chuckling. "There's a cause element in the business, the desire to advance one side of the battle," said Ayres, whose firm, Ayres, McHenry & Associates, based in Alexandria, Va., helped Bill Frist defeat Sen. Jim Sasser in 1994. "If we didn't care about the outcome, we'd be doing something else." Indeed, other than those at the very top, there are few political entrepreneurs who make as much as they would if they were toiling on the commercial side of things. How could they, when the market heats up only every two years and 50% of potential clients are off-limits?
Entrepreneurs get loads of advice about, say, finding a niche and building a business, behaving in a socially responsible manner, or giving back to the community by supporting charitable work. But the confluence of political commitment and entrepreneurship hasn't been given that much attention -- either directly or as a model for other businesses. Yet the hundreds of small firms involved with politics -- polling firms, strategy consultants, direct-mail outfits -- demonstrate that you can turn strongly held beliefs into business success.
Entrepreneurs often talk about transforming a business paradigm or redefining a marketplace. But how many talk about changing the world? Those who feel that urge more often than not gravitate to the nonprofit world. I think that's a loss, both for our culture and for entrepreneurs themselves. The marketplace provides all sorts of opportunities to combine social passion and capitalist muscle -- and not just during election season. I'm sure there are entrepreneurial solutions that can help address the health insurance crisis in this country, ideas that can spring out of the private sector rather than the House or Senate. Just the other day, for example, I heard a story about an entrepreneur who started a website to help those whose IT jobs have been shipped overseas.
People love to hate political advertising, and all the pollsters, consultants, and spin doctors who traffic in it. But I think we have a lot to learn from these folks. Say what you will about it, but theirs is an industry driven as much by conviction as economics. Just ask Katie Cook. We need to honor that. Turning negative advertising into something positive? I'll vote for that.
Adam Hanft is founder and CEO of Hanft Unlimited, a Manhattan-based consulting, advertising, and publishing firm.