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High Profiles: Jon Downs

A team of PLUS partners recently boiled down a potential client’s problem into a five-word sentence. The phrase nailed both the opportunities and the challenges ahead for an effort to strengthen the client’s brand reputation. It was also the kind of honest insight their team hadn’t heard before – and, they agreed, helpful analysis that could form the initial strategic framework for a successful public affairs campaign in Washington, D.C.

Tailored insights like this form the backbone of PLUS partner expertise and we plan to dive deeper into these skills with a new blog series called High Profiles. We’re exploring what PLUS partners have learned and how they see our industry evolving – after they’ve spent so many years building campaigns that win in the eyes of people who matter. 

Founding Partner Jon Downs And A New Approach To Campaigns

Jon Downs once helped spotlight the good work of a sprawling, $80 billion client with nearly 25 million customers by filming interviews with two field technicians, a sales support coordinator and a customer service representative.

One of those employees talked about how the company had given her a fresh start. “They gave me a chance that changed my life,” she said.

It was an unusually tender series of statements to appear in a corporate reputation video campaign — and it was exactly what Downs was hoping to capture.

“Our goal was to highlight the company’s competitive wages but some of the early ideas about what to shoot just fell flat,” Downs says. “Then we realized we were missing a human frame for the stories: Who was impacted by these wages and how?”

“The campaign ultimately worked because we heard stories from real people about the difference these wages were making in their lives,” he says.

“Raw and Real”

This approach to storytelling is part of the reason Jon Downs has risen so quickly through the ranks of Washington’s top storytellers.

“Raw and real” is how he describes one of his early campaigns. He was producing ads for Ron Paul’s 2012 presidential run.

“Ron Paul had been in politics since the 1970s, but no one really knew who he was,” Downs says. “He still didn’t have a defining story.”

So Downs helped fill in those blanks with a relatable approach that was unconventional at the time.

The candidate never appears in an early campaign ad titled “He Served.” Instead, two retired Army soldiers talk to the camera about their experiences in Vietnam. They describe brutal hand-to-hand combat and recall how so many of their fellow soldiers never made it home.

“We had never been thanked for our service,” one soldier explains. “Congressman Ron Paul got my medals for me and presented them to me.”

The ad ends as the retired soldier remembers how the candidate gave him a hug after presenting those medals. “That will always be there,” he says, in tears.

“It blew people away,” Downs says. “Because of his foreign policy views, many voters believed Ron Paul was hostile towards our military — but that ad helped folks see him in a totally new light.”

The ad campaign garnered a lot of attention and helped pave the way for signing and winning big races during the following cycle. In 2014, Downs and his colleagues produced ads for the winning campaigns of Senator Dan Sullivan in Alaska, Senator Pat Roberts in Kansas and Senator Steve Daines in Montana.

Success With Audiences

Jon Downs and his teams have won 87 Pollie Awards and 50 Reed Awards from industry peers for groundbreaking campaigns and advocacy. His work includes both public affairs campaigns for PLUS Communications clients and political campaigns for clients of PLUS’ sister firm, FP1 Strategies.

“This industry continues to produce things that are so formulaic,” he says, “which puts the focus on things that don’t really resonate with audiences.”

“I still think authentic storytelling is the most effective kind of advertising,” he says.

Downs says he might spend 45 minutes with an interview subject to get 30 seconds of material. It takes that kind of time to build rapport and land on a moment that can move a campaign.

“Today’s audiences don’t trust anything, that’s where they’re coming from,” he says. “It wasn’t that way 20 years ago.”

“This is such an emotional, personal medium,” he says. “Our productions continue to be successful because they convey campaign messages with real, authentic people — and it just looks and feels different.”

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