How Obama's Campaign Manager Does Marketing Right

President Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina is one of the best copywriters I've ever seen. Here's what you can learn from him.

I want to meet Jim Messina. Heck, I live just 35 minutes from D.C., and he spends alot of his time at the White House. I'm sure I could find him on Facebook or through my press contacts and arrange something...

Why is he someone I need to know? Messina, President Obama's campaign manager, is one of the best copywriters I've seen. My curiosity about Messina began on Tuesday. My husband and I were headed to the city, and I was surfing the Web on my iPad while he drove. I saw a banner ad inviting me to Dinner with Obama. I was intrigued.

I clicked on the ad, and willingly entered my name in the contest. I already could envision myself winning that dinner, and the myriad questions I would ask Mr. President.

Within minutes, the email autoresponder arrived. It captivated me. Check this out, and read my reactions below:

Friend —

You're in for 2012: Welcome, and thanks.

Now forget everything you know about politics.

Because I can tell you that the coming months will be like nothing you've seen from a campaign. If we're going to win, we have to be tougher, smarter, and more innovative than ever before.

The President has a job to do, so he's asking each of us to take the lead in shaping this effort.

That work begins now in your community.

Sign up to volunteer today.

Your leadership today will help build this campaign over the next few months and right up to November 6th.

You may be asked to recruit other volunteers, register voters, or talk to your friends and neighbors about what they hope to see from this campaign. You may sign up to volunteer today and end up leading a canvass this summer.

I got my start empowering residents in mobile home communities in Missoula, Montana—a long way from Washington, D.C. As an organizer, I know it all starts in our own backyards. Committing to a campaign is a huge first step, but it's the decisions we make from that point on that determine success.

Whether you're a first-time supporter or a veteran volunteer, this campaign belongs to you. You own it, and you power it.

This is an exciting time to get involved—sign up to be a volunteer today:

Let's go,

Jim Messina
Campaign Manager
Obama for America

Set your political preferences aside for a few moments and hear me out. Messina does some things very effectively:

  • He speaks directly to you. When I read this letter aloud, I envision someone sitting across a dining room table in Anywhere, USA and inviting me to volunteer. Don't you?
  • He wastes little time getting to the heart of the matter: asking you to get involved. Messina knows that I did not make a campaign contribution, so he goes directly to Plan B: asking for my time and talent.
  • He tells a story to which many can relate. Messina wanted me to know that he is not a Washington insider. He spent many years outside the Beltway, and his roots are in Montana.
  • He is succinct. This letter is void of any political platitudes. He uses a few aphorisms, such as "this campaign belongs to you." He peppered the copy with just enough to make me keep reading.

What change initiatives or new marketing campaigns are you currently leading? How can they be communicated differently or more broadly to help you build a stronger constituency?

Just channel Jim Messina and see what happens.


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  • Eamon


    God bless. 

    Lisa, no disrespect to your article, but creative copywriters aren't found anywhere near political campaigns. Political advertising is everything wrong with our industry, the only creativity is spent distorting facts. Also, everyone unanimously hates the ads. Same goes for e-blasts.

    Also, all copywriters are also cynical assholes, foaming at the mouths to trash a guy like Jim doing his job well (it's as good as a horrendous donation email can be). So he was a victim of the article's headline subtext, and done at the beginning of the email text (when the copy started to suck). 

  • Lisa Nirell

     Eamon, I don't spend much time working on political campaigns; therefore, I cannot comment on how often they hire talented copywriters.

    I blog about topics and events that demonstrate success, touch a nerve, and provoke business leaders to think differently. I find inspiration in the oddest of places--including banner ads inviting me to dine with the president.

    Thank you for commenting.

  • Lisa Nirell

    Thank you for the humorous feedback, and for passionately supporting the copywriting profession.

    My roots are in advising B2B companies on strategic growth and marketing. I have worked with thousands of C-level executives and brilliant marketing minds. Most of them need help writing copy this succinct and simple. The post is intended to help busy entrepreneurs and executives who struggle to enchant and engage their communities, and need ideas on how to get across messages that can sometimes be challenging to convey.

    Few of my clients swim in the deep end of the pool with people like you and Jim. My job is to give them the fundamental breathing and stroke techniques.

    Keep the ideas flowing! - LN

  • abiaggne

    Thanks for the response Lisa. Again, this isn't a slam on Jim. What he wrote works. However, your article reminds me of how many copywriters aren't serving their clients by utilizing the points you made. As a writer, my first job is to listen to my client's needs, concerns, questions, thoughts, beliefs, fears, hopes, dreams, passions, phobias, rants, ambitions, jokes and tastes in music. My second job is to cut out the 95% of useless information and zero in on what he or she really needs. My third job is to write that out so when they read it they nod their head and go, "That's exactly what I said!" We shake hands, move forward and they become the hero to the company, which in turn gets them promoted, allowing them to buy that big fancy car they've had their eyes on for weeks. 

    Here is what my job is not. My first job is not to listen and nod my head. As a writer, I am a filter of what works and what doesn't. I whittle information, discerning what the consumer needs to know and what needs to exist on the legal page that no one ever reads. There's a reason we call them "agencies". We are agents of the client, guiding them into opportunities that will make them successful, not blindly follow the easiest path to the purse strings. Conversely, my second job is not to push my own agenda. This doesn't mean I can't be creative. But it also doesn't mean I shouldn't assume that my way is the best way simply because I am a creative. The best creative is 90% strategy, 10% creative, and that most of that strategy comes from the client. Well, at least that's how it should be, right? 

    Understanding this doesn't make me smart, and certainly doesn't make me the best copywriter out there. If anything, it reminds me of how many writers simply aren't doing their job for those thousands of C-level executives who need good words for their great ideas. 


  • Lisa Nirell

    Tony, it sounds like you have job security for decades to come! Thank you for sharing "a day in the life."

  • abiaggne

    And by, "shouldn't assume" I meant "should assume". This brings me to third thing of what my job isn't: To be an editor. God bless those poor souls and all the copy they've saved thanks to my jittery fingers. 

  • abiaggne

    First off, all my little political agendas are sitting approximately five feet away watching some new Japanese anime cartoon so I assure you they have no involvement in what I'm about to write. 

    Now let's get down to business. In your article you claim that Jim Messina is one of the best copywriters you've ever seen. You support this stance by acknowledging his ability to get straight to the point, keep the message simple, direct and relatable to the audience. After looking into the promotion you mentioned, I think you may have discovered a sad truth about the 21st Century copywriter: Most of us suck at what we do. Jim Messina followed the very basic rules of what makes any copywriter a decent copywriter. He kept it simple, short, to the point and relatable. He even threw in the classic "Hey, I'm just like one of you" tactics they teach in advertising 101. He used all the tools just as his professors taught him. Does this make him one of the greatest in the industry? No, it just makes him employed. If I build a birdhouse using a hammer, saw, some nails and some wood, does that make me one of the greatest architects around? Last week my doctor used some basic tests to determine my ankle was sprained. Is he one of the world's greatest doctors? He certainly charges like one (zing!).

    Here's what Jim and his team accomplished: They created a classic bait-and-switch promotion, offering dinner with the President, which in turn got you to submit your information so that they could pitch what they were really offering which to ask you for your support for the upcoming elections. You, by entering the promotion, supplied an orgy of data to their team including voting history, spending habits, what movie you saw last week and your preference of shaving cream which they will in some way use to their advantage. Don't worry, we all do this (I prefer Gillette Fusion Extra Sensitive in case you were wondering). Never mind the odds of you winning a dinner with Obama are absurd. You entered and you were inspired to volunteer. I wonder if you really will. Actually, I wonder how many people who enter the contest will take up the cause and act, because really, that's the true measure of a successful campaign. 

    Jim, if you ever read this, congratulations. By following the basic rules of copywriting, you have been heralded as one of the best copywriters ever. To all the other copywriters out there, I think it's time we stepped up our game, because the "best of" example pool just got really shallow.