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Todd Van Etten on Optimizing Media for Maximum Impact

By March 15, 2023April 12th, 2023No Comments

Todd Van Etten, Chief Digital Strategist at Herald Group, shares the need for better tools to manage advertising campaigns and optimize media mix for maximum impact and provides insights into the challenges and opportunities of digital marketing in today’s rapidly changing media landscape. Watch our latest Screen Wars Thought Leader Interview here and read the full transcript below!

Michael Beach: All right. Todd, welcome to Screen Wars.

Todd Van Etten: Thanks, Mike. It’s great to be here.

MB: Would you mind giving our audience a little bit of background on Herald Group and the problem that you solve?

TVE: Herald Group is a full service public affairs agency based in Washington, DC. The three founding partners, (Matt Well, Taylor Gross, and Doug McGinn) are still involved, and have built a wonderful business that mostly focuses on highly regulated industries. What really sets us apart is the amount of time that we work with our clients. Many of them have been with us for a decade or more, because we understand the thornier issues that go into highly regulated issues, and what works, what doesn’t work. You can get creative with new approaches for these decade old fights.

I’m the Chief Digital Strategist at the Herald Group. It is my job to say, “What are we trying to do here? What is the piece of legislation we’re trying to change? Whose mind needs to be changed? How can we get in front of them? What’s the most compelling way to persuasively get someone else to see something a different way and say, ‘That needs to change?’” It’s a lot of advertising, website development, message testing, and things like that.

MB: We have worked together for over 15 years, back to our political days. It’s amazing to see the digital growth that politics, advocacy, public affairs and PR have had, and how far they have come today. How did you go from being a leader in digital to where you are today?

TVE: I frequently think about the state of the internet. This morning, I set a website live, and I was thinking about what it used to take to create a new website. From the development, to send it live, and then dealing with CDNs (Content Delivery Networks), and more. All of that was arduously difficult back in 2005. I think about that frequently, when now we just push buttons now and everything works easily. 

Like so many people in Washington, when I started, I didn’t have any connections at all. I did an unpaid internship at I had the great fortune to meet and work with Chuck DeFeo, who was the head of, and he introduced me to Patrick Ruffini, who is a legend in the right-leaning digital space.

Patrick gave me my first job at the RNC, and in the course of six years I went from being a low level staffer, to director of digital there for four or five different chairmen, which is rare. Then, I worked with Cyrus Krone and Todd Hermann, and I helped start Crowd Verb, which was an early analytics focused public affairs firm. 

The idea was to listen to the online conversation, and then come up with public free affairs campaigns based on what is said around certain hot button issues. So instead of doing multi variant testing, and putting stuff in front of people, why don’t we listen to what the organic conversation is and then say, “Maybe if we approach legislators with this type of messaging, we can have greater success.” Or if we’re trying to recruit advocates, “Why don’t we speak their language and use the digital fingerprints that they are talking about to get them to sign a letter or do a petition?”

After Burson-Marsteller purchased Crowd Verb, I worked there for about 18 months. Then, a good friend of mine introduced me to Mike Gibson, who worked with the Herald Group. After a while, the Herald Group reached out to have a conversation with me. That was almost nine years ago, which is crazy to think about.

MB: Looking back to the Crowd Verb era, it’s amazing how much more data would come out in just two or three years, versus what we were trying to do at the time, like social media listening. It’s amazing how that evolved.

TVE: It is amazing, but also the forethought that people like you had, looking at the available information that’s out there and saying, “There is a way we can package this in a way it makes sense to many people for whom it will be infinitely helpful.” 

I listened to the recent interview you did with Kyle Robert, and it’s a similar situation. We look at the amount of information that’s out there, whether it’s listening online, or advertising performance, or who’s buying what and when, among other stuff. And I’m endlessly fascinated by the way of thinking necessary to be able to pull it all in, understand it, and turn it into a product, that can display that information to many other people who are trying to do similar things.

MB: What are the biggest challenges that your customer base faces? You touch on communications, public relations, public affairs, a lot of different areas, but what’s a common use case?

TVE: When it comes to the public affairs campaigns that we run, a lot of them have very big ad budgets and interesting problems that require quick action. For example, if there’s a hearing in a week, and we need to get in front of five members of Congress, what is the best way to do it? You need to approach it with a blue sky thinking, considering the pieces that we have at our disposal. What have we done before? What do we know works? At the same time, you need to get very creative and find new innovative ways that we can work into this campaign that are going to show additional value. And, maybe, get some additional impressions on the target that’s going to make them think differently.

When it comes to our campaigns, some of the challenges are surrounding the legislators themselves, and using all the available data about them. We usually focus on legislators as a group. Most of the time we’re talking about aggregate information for targeting, and in rare occasions, we focus on targeting at an individual level.

Digital video is a very important piece of that, and we use tools like Cross Screen to optimize of this cohort. What is their media intake? How can we use that information to then inform our buys? We know they’re watching Sunday shows, we know they’re watching this cable channel at a certain time, and then, with greater certainty, we know they are here on the internet doing these things, and you can saturate them that way. But then, we can also say that they probably drive to work. We know they generally live in this area. Is there a billboard along the way? Do they pass a bus stop? Are they on metro or another way of getting to work that perhaps gives us an opportunity to get in front of them with an additional eyeball? The big thing we’re trying to do with legislator campaigns is, how do we get in front of them as much as possible?

The big problem there is verification. We can register impressions, and reach, and frequency and all of that, but you have to trust the data on the front end, and that the impressions are going to the right people, either the principal themselves or their surrounding network, who could impact them in a good way.

The other piece of the advocacy puzzle is reaching constituents. This is a similar process with different messaging. Legislators ultimately are accountable to their constituents. How do we find, educate, persuade, and mobilize people in their district who care about this issue enough so that they’re going to raise their hand and put in a phone call, sign a letter, sign a petition, or take some other action to apply pressure from the constituents side to members of Congress so that they vote the right way on a piece of legislation?

The verification problem is one of the most important ones. With the advocate side there are quantifiable letters sent through a portal, or clicks, or other ways to judge success. When it comes to the other side, we can just saturate the market and see what happens.

MB: I want to get more into what brand advertisers could learn from what you do. You just talked about a fascinating use case. You got this really short turnaround period and something that really impresses me, is that your clients really rely on you for that data. Because they’ve got to make a really quick decision. You have to put a media plan together in a week, for example, and even if you put one ahead of time, the conditions can change dramatically between that planning stage and when you go live.

What are the hardest parts of that, and looking at the wider market, what do you think other people could learn from that?

TVE: I feel like up until about five years ago, media planning was largely based on experience. It was about knowing the creative channels for distribution that you can turn around in a short amount of time. There was a lot of gut instinct involved, you could assume, “people are probably watching Sunday shows, people are probably watching cable channels, maybe Rachel Maddow, or Sean Hannity at night.” Based on the demographic features of your targets, you can assume those types of things. But that’s not always correct. And with the amount of screens that people have now in front of them on a daily basis, there are many more opportunities. So, the last five years have been about planning.

Planning for public affairs is still on the frustrating side. Through our DSP, a company called StackAdapt got a great media planner that allows you to get a general sense of an optimized media plan based on things like display, video, CTV, native, and other components. With tools like Cross Screen, we lean on hard for the video component of that. But I feel that with planning, it is still in its infancy, at least when it comes to the full cross device. There are so many chances that you can digitally get in front of someone out of home, and it would be really neat to have a planning tool that is able to take advantage of that. For example, taking a holistic look at that and then display a media plan that shows you a plan like, “They drive to the office this way, they then spend five minutes on this site, and then watch this television.”

MB: I’m sure. We looked at a couple of the elections, like the Georgia Senate, had really high saturation, with more frequency than you would ever see a brand buy in the Atlanta media market in October. And we really found that they were still missing so many people that were the target, they just couldn’t reach them. 

And you could take a look and say, “If they’ve got this problem, then everybody else who buys less than 2000 points a week has this problem. How do we solve it?” Because, like you said, streaming video is not necessarily going to be the answer. Even with all those things together, you could still be leaving 20% of the target on the table, and then you got to use display, and you got to use out of home, and all these methods. 

It’s always interesting to have someone in your seat, who is responsible for all of that, and that has to glue all the pieces together. That’s already a complicated thing, and even more doing that on the fly.

But I always think that there’s potential for an application in the wider market. Even if you don’t have a week to plan, if you can do planning and optimization in that same timeframe, then you can surely have a test and learn culture in a brand. Because you’re not waiting three months until the thing’s over and get your book back. 

It’s a different use case, but I’ve always thought that that was the area of learning from political and public affairs that the wider market really would benefit from if they adopted it.

TVE: Yes. The hardest part about the election stuff is that it is different from general advocacy. Sometimes, with advocacy, you can have smaller or incremental wins. That’s much harder with elections because you have one election day, and that’s it. 

We are increasingly finding that with the tribalization of populations within a state, it is getting harder and harder to accurately pole them, take their temperature, and use that as a proxy for validation of advertising.

So you don’t know if you are reaching the right people until election day. I have also seen the reports about Georgia, about not getting to the people who they need to be getting. I wonder if reach and frequency was up very high on people who were already engaged, and there was nothing new to say to them. I feel like that’s another case where the amount of data out there is saturating people who don’t have the tools, or the preparation, to say, “This is what success looks like. We’re confirming our existing strategy,” or “We need to pivot because we are not seeing the type of things that we want or need to see.”

That’s why as more and more channels become available to get your message out there, you need to become smarter about how to wield each of those channels and piece together a coherent media plan that gets the right repetition, across the right platforms, at the right times. That’s another piece that my dream tool for planning/forecasting would have. Something that says more than “Here is what’s available,”, but, “We know exactly the type of people you’re trying to reach. Here is the perfect way to do it with what’s available and according to your budget rate.”

MB: Absolutely. I think that a lot of people, likes when a platform like TikTok emerges, where there’s a bunch of reach, but that actually makes your job more complicated. And there’s always this disconnect between buyer and seller, where the seller comes in boasting,“We’re #1 at 11:00 PM with left-handed firemen.” No one ever pitches that they’re not number one at a given niche. But you’ve got to reconcile all that and make a plan. What do you see as the biggest disconnect between buyers and sellers?

TVE: Thinking only about the conundrum of buyers and sellers… Due to the speed in which we have to work, there is a lot of leaning on the things and the channels that we know are going to perform well in a given time period. There’s not a lot of time to test new things if a new vendor comes in and says, “We can reach this many people,” or “Here’s our unique approach.” 

If I need to do something that week, it is hard to say, “Great, let’s do a test and get an apples to apples comparison on you and the existing tools that I have”. I’ve done this a few times, and I always try to entertain any vendor pitch. I’m always interested in the latest and greatest. And after doing this for 20 years, you can listen to a sales pitch and within three minutes say, “I know exactly where you fit into the market, and I know exactly what you’re trying to do. I know who your competitors are, and I probably have three or four people I can talk to right now that are going to give me the skinny on what you’re trying to do.”

But at the end of the day, it is performance based. Even if a vendor seems to be selling “snake oil”, there have been instances where I will engage a vendor that is promising something, and I found something that is novel about how they do things. I found StackAdapt as a vendor because I saw a really pretty native ad. Native was not something I did a lot of, but I reverse engineered the ad, found the domain, reached out to them, and they’ve been a trusted partner for four or five years. It wasn’t necessarily a need, but they were doing something innovative that allowed me to say, “That’s interesting. Let’s take a deeper look.”

MB: I got just a couple more questions. First, how does your customer base view streaming video?

TVE: We do a lot of streaming video. Generally, when we talk about advocacy, we think about a marketing funnel. The top of the funnel is the people who we assume are going to have any level of interest. And video is almost always the medium that we employ to find those people at the top of the funnel. The amazing thing about streaming video and digital video in general is that it provides with much more information. You have access to much more than just the direct response, like clicks, finishes, quartiles, or however you want to judge success with the actual show stuff. But also, with video, you can observe any type of engagement. And for our campaigns, we call any engagement at all enough of a verification to move someone down to the second step of our advocacy funnel, where we show them a harder ask, like follow this page, click here to learn more. Some type of call-to-action that confirms their interest.

Following on the state of the screens, the majority of Facebook posts now involve video. That’s pushing up the premium of agencies generally, because a lot of people don’t have video capabilities in-house. There are neat platforms out there that will help you create little, snackable items for social and that kind of stuff. Algorithms are going to prioritize them, but there are always going to be questions about whether they are right for imparting the message, or communicating something that is hard to understand. 

And that’s a challenge we’ve run into when people ask for animated explainers, and you say, “No, we’re talking about a 500-page research report here. We can’t simply have an animated person explain this and assume that it’s going to be as easy as anything else.”

In advocacy, a lot of what we use video for is the direct-to-camera advocate story, which are really helpful. They also allow for a longer form. You can cut them into shorter bits, but if it’s done in a compelling way, you will get people who watch the three to five-minute videos about someone telling their story. But where we lean heavily on tools like Cross Screen, is on the actual deployment of it, to question, is social the best way to get this particular video out? Or is it expanding beyond to other places based on the demographics and the geography of who we’re trying to reach?

MB: If you could wave a magic wand and fix one thing about video and local video, specifically, what would it be?

TVE: Programmatic cable, and things like that, are at the top of the list. That would make the optimizations easier, and it would allow us to be quicker. It’s all about planning, and looping video into the larger matrix of advertising channels out there and saying, “Here is my message, here are my targets. Here’s who I’m trying to reach, and what the end result would like to be.” What is the best media mix for that?

Thankfully, we have a bunch of experience in doing that, so the value of my firm, and firms like mine, go way up because we know exactly how to do that. But it would be neat to have a tool that is able to take all the data out there, make sense of it, and then say, “Based on your objectives, this is the most effective media mix that we can think of.” And do that with certainty.

MB: Excellent. One last question, because I know you’re a fellow podcast host. What’s your favorite question to ask?

TVE: I’m a big fan of icebreakers, but I focus on asking about tools. Everyone gets pitched by lots of vendors doing lots of neat things, and I as I get older and experienced in this, I try to slim down the amount of tools that I use. Rather than having a plethora of tools for small things, how can I consolidate and get down to two or three things that I rely on more heavily? 

That is an interesting question to find people who, sure, they use the Google Suite or the Apple Suite, but have one thing on top of those things that is most helpful for their daily life, or their work life, or anything like that.

MB: Excellent. Tom, I appreciate your time. I know our audience is going to love this conversation. Thank you very much.

TVE: Michael, this has been great. Thanks very much.

Todd Van Etten is a veteran of political advocacy and digital strategy campaigns, having for the past two decades worked closely with candidates and clients to craft industry-leading online programs. He has been at the crossroads of technology and politics for as long as they’ve been intersecting.
Todd leads The Herald Group’s digital department, including oversight of online advertising, social media programs, analytics, and creative direction. He counsels corporations, industry trade associations, non-profits and coalitions to implement innovative activation and mobilization strategies, turning online results into action.

Cross Screen Media is a leading CTV activation managed service for marketers and agencies, built on a proprietary technology platform that enables advertisers to plan and measure advertising across Connected TV and audience-driven Linear TV at the local level. We seamlessly fit into existing workflows to help agencies scale, differentiate and deliver high-impact campaigns for their clients. For more information, visit

Michael Beach

Michael Beach is the Chief Executive Officer of Cross Screen Media, a media analytics and software company that enables marketers to plan, activate, and measure CTV and linear TV at the local level. Michael is also the founder and editor of State of the Screens, a weekly newsletter focused on video advertising that is a must-read for thought leaders in the advertising industry. He has appeared in such publications as PBS Frontline, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Axios, CNBC and Bloomberg, and on NPR’s Planet Money podcast.