Smart Media Group analyzes $1B in political ad spend

As the fastest-growing media firm in Washington DC, Smart Media Group provides clients with political media buying services. In this interview, analyst Sarah Stone spoke with us about how Tableau enabled her team to track and analyze one billion dollars in political ad spend for the 2012 US presidential election.

Tableau: How does Smart Media Group use Tableau?
Sarah Stone, Analyst: Anytime you see a political ad on television, someone decided exactly when and where to place it, and that somebody is us. Our bread and butter business at Smart Media is taking a client's message, figuring out exactly who the demographic is and who we're trying to reach, and then putting it in the exact right program so that they'll be able to watch it. There's a lot of research that goes into planning a media buy, a lot of front-end qualitative research to figure out the different media outlets to buy. After that, we use Tableau to track not only how much we're spending and where over time, but more importantly what our competition is doing.

It's really cool to use Tableau to see our budget and the competition's budget, and look at what we're doing as far as advertising goes and what they're doing. You can really figure out who's winning the ad war where and at what point of time.

Tableau: How did you start using Tableau?
Sarah: We were looking for a different way to organize and access all of our data. Prior to Tableau, we just used a bunch of different spreadsheets that were saved all over our network drive, and they all looked different, and they were all in different places, and we could never really figure out exactly what was going on as a big picture.

From the moment we found the Tableau website and downloaded the trial version, we thought, “Okay, we might not be computer people, but we think we can handle this.” Tableau is so user-friendly that it really worked out for us. We got our data in there and started to play with it and found it incredible that we could look at broadcast spending, cable spending, radio spending for different advertisers across different years in different places, all in one place.

Tableau enabled me to track over a billion dollars in ad spending in 2012. If I didn't have Tableau, there's no way I could have done that.

Tableau: How has Tableau changed the way you work with your clients?
Sarah: We use Tableau every day to communicate with our clients. Whether that's having them log onto Tableau Server to interact with dashboards themselves or sending them a PDF report of a dashboard. Our clients are always looking at our Tableau reports to understand their media buys in comparison to the competition's media buys.

Tableau: What's made Tableau useful as a data analysis tool this election season?
Sarah: One of the greatest things about using Tableau and using the dashboards is that our customers can get on Tableau's server at any point— it's 24/7 access. That’s extremely important in the political campaign world, because people are working all sorts of hours and they always need access to the data. So Tableau Server has been really great for us to use because our clients know they can log on, check out what's happening, and interact with the dashboards.
The other really great thing that our clients have loved about Tableau is that, they're used to seeing reports made through Excel and they're used to seeing it a certain way. Tableau still gives us the flexibility to modify and format reports in a way they're used to seeing, but we can interact and change the data as we need to.

Tableau: What has Tableau meant for you personally?
Sarah: I love Tableau and it has helped me out tremendously this election. Using Tableau has enabled me to track over a billion dollars in ad spending in 2012 alone. And if I didn't have Tableau, there's no way I could have done that.

One of the greatest benefits of Tableau is that it has cut down the time of receiving information and then making actionable differences with that information. Tableau has saved me hours of time in getting reports out to clients. Before, we would get all our data together and figure out what's happening, then spend half the day formatting it to all look consistent. With Tableau, since it's all already there we can use the same dashboards, turning around this critical information faster so our clients can make decisions faster.

Also, the turnaround time of our reports is less than 24 hours, always. So the ability to put new data in our database and then have Tableau refresh it automatically, and then publish it to Tableau Server or send out a PDF report has been extremely beneficial to us. It has really allowed us to quickly get information out to campaigns so that they can make different decisions. It has been so nice to know that, okay, I'm going to refresh my data and things are going to change, but the basic dashboard that I know and I trust and I know works is still going to be there, and I don't have to sit there and fiddle with it and re-format it all the time.

Tableau: How reliant are you on IT with Tableau?
Sarah: As long as someone can help me set up the initial SQL database connection, I can tap in there and I'm good to go on my own as far as updating it and creating reports and working with the data that's in there. So, that has been extremely, extremely helpful.

Tableau: What would life be like without Tableau?
Sarah: If we didn't have Tableau, I'd be in a mess of spreadsheets, and it would be awful. It would be so, so bad. Tableau has just really cleaned things up for us. It's made it a whole lot easier to really attack a big set of data that we didn't even know we had. It has just allowed us to organize and make reports that we would never have been able to make. So, it's just made the hugest, biggest difference for us.

Tableau: How has Tableau Server been important in your deployment?
Sarah: Tableau Server has been beneficial because we can constantly update it wherever we are. It's been awesome because our clients can log in at any time to interact with their dashboards, and it gives them the ability to change the data and really extract what they want to get out of it. A lot of the times, I'll send them a dashboard and tell them what I think is important, but they'll want to have changes made or want to look at it a different way, or want to add more or subtract more. Tableau Server really gives them the power to go in there and interact with a specific set of data.

Tableau: Can you give us an example of a specific insight gained from Tableau?
Sarah: In tracking the ad spending in this year, it really has been different post Citizens United. If you just take the presidential race, if you look at the two candidates, Obama and Romney, sure, they spent millions of dollars, but now that the issue groups and super PACs can also spend unlimited millions and millions of dollars, we've really seen it change. On the Republican side, Team Romney was composed of 80 percent spending from the issue groups, and then Romney spent maybe about 20 percent of that. With Obama, it was completely flip-flopped. Probably 70 percent of all Obama ads came directly from the campaign, whereas only 30 percent came from the issue groups.

Tableau: What Tableau-specific benefits did you discover during the campaigns?
Sarah: Tableau really let us keep track of how many issue groups were spending on each side— it allowed us to team them up, which is something that I wouldn't have been able to do in a spreadsheet. And Tableau allowed us to look at the big picture and also break it down and see which issue groups were like contributing to the biggest piece of that pie.

Tableau has really given me the ability through simple things like grouping and filtering, the ability to make more complex dashboards and to really think about and offer some good insight to our clients about what's really happening with this data and maybe how they should change their media buy because of it.

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