Three women with ties to some of the highest-profile names in Democratic politics on Thursday launched MZL Media, which will provide campaign strategy and messaging advice in an industry that has long been dominated by men.
Mindy Myers worked on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s first Senate campaign, then served as her chief of staff before being the first woman to lead the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Commission (DSCC) as its chief executive. Sarah Callahan Zusi made ads for multiple presidential candidates, including President Joe Biden. Tracey Lewis was Biden’s state director in Georgia, before advising two Senate candidates — Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff — via the state party in runoff elections that allowed Democrats to regain control of the chamber.
The three women sat down with The 19th on Thursday to discuss the launch of their new firm, how ads can shape a larger campaign, and why it’s important to have diverse voices weighing in on campaign strategy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Amanda Becker: Why start MZL now? How did it come together?
Mindy Myers: Sarah and I actually worked together … on Sheldon Whitehouse’s  Senate race, where I was the campaign manager and Sarah was working with Mike Donilon [Biden’s chief campaign strategist] to make the ads. Tracy and I met in 2008, working for President Obama’s campaign during the general election in New Hampshire. And we’ve worked together every chance we’ve had since then. I think for us, as we talked it through, there’s so much at stake for the country and 2022 is going to be incredibly challenging, just historically based on trends for the midterms, but also the moment in time that our country is going through. We thought bringing our skills together to form this new firm to really dig in and help candidates was the right thing for us to do.
Tracey Lewis: I have so much respect for both Mindy and Sarah. Mindy and I have worked together on so many campaigns and I particularly was really proud to work with Mindy in her roles as campaign manager, I was the deputy campaign manager for [now] Sen. Elizabeth Warren in 2012. I’ve also managed three coordinated campaigns, I was the first Black woman to run a coordinated campaign in Massachusetts. I just think in particular if we look at the 2020 cycle … it’s incredibly important to have diverse voices, I think, leading on campaign strategy.
Sarah Callahan Zusi: Now is the time. I love working with Mindy, Tracey’s work is unbelievable and I just think that we got lucky. It kind of came together organically, quite frankly.
Why form a media firm specifically? You’re former chiefs of staff, campaign strategists, why not a broader strategy firm?
MM: I think it’s just so important that candidates get to be able to tell their own unique story, their authentic story, to voters. Sarah is a master storyteller and an expert on giving people voice and giving causes voice. Certainly all aspects of campaigns are important, but the story that’s communicated on television is among the most important things that campaigns do.
SCZ: I love what I do, and I love making ads and telling stories, and I think that’s a big part of how campaigns communicate and get their message out. I think being a media firm gives us an ability to really have a large voice in shaping a campaign and seeing a message through. Sometimes campaigns are siloed and the media consultant just goes out and makes an ad. Being able to come to the campaign with such strategic and field understanding is going to make the ads that much better.
TL: For me, I would also say the importance of just showing that there are more diverse voices in this side of our industry, and representation, again, with the experience we bring. I’ve worked in 17 states and had an opportunity to work with hundreds of staff across the country and think about the next generation of folks who, whether they want to be campaign managers or start their own firm, there should be more women doing this work and more people of color, and I’m really proud to work with Mindy and Sarah to be one of the new firms doing this, that’s women-led.
There aren’t many political ad firms headed and run by women. Were you thinking intentionally about that or did it just come together organically and you realized it afterwards? Why is this important?
SCZ: People should hire us because they should hire us — we have incredible experience and it shouldn’t be just because we’re women. I hate the idea that ‘Oh, we need a woman in the room and so we’re bringing the women in.’ We have incredible experience and incredible track records. I think being women brings an additional perspective and an additional understanding, especially to women candidates or women’s causes.
MM: We’d be willing to put our experience up against any other firm in the business. But, I do think there’s starting to be a recognition that campaigns are better when women are in leadership positions. We see that with the great success Jen O’Malley Dillon had running the Biden campaign. We’ve seen that time and time again in every study done about boardrooms, political campaigns. I think that that recognition is starting to seep more into thinking about political consultants as well and who has a seat at the table. Our hope is that soon, it’s not really newsworthy if a women-led firm is announced because there will be so many of us.
TL: I would just add that it was an easy decision for me because I wanted to work for, and with, just an incredible company with a lot of experience, with women I respected.
What is some favorite media — or other political strategy — work that you did last cycle or in a recent cycle that you thought was really effective?
SCZ: Launching Joe Biden’s presidential campaign was really an unbelievable moment in history for me. Mike Donilon called, and when was he gonna announce, and how was he gonna announce — everybody was waiting and waiting and waiting. He asked me to produce the ad and the announcement video and the “Soul of the Nation” video. The ad that came out of that day — it’s not the most slick or silly ad — but it’s a meaningful, emotional story for a candidate to tell his story and kick off the campaign. To launch the ad and be part of the campaign … that was an honor for me, to get to produce that.
MM: Rather than one moment, I think of moments when I was managing campaigns, or I ran the DSCC’s independent expenditures in the 2016 cycle, and then at the DSCC as the executive director in 2018. There are just moments when you’re able to give the candidate that perfect debate moment or help with setting the strategy of an ad, and, in some cases, that can really make a difference in a race. In some cases, it can really make a difference for the country. Look at Tracey’s incredible work in Georgia that got us the Democratic majority in the Senate.
TL: I would say the moment would be in 2011, working with at the time Boston City Councilor At-Large Ayanna Pressley, who is now Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. We’ve known each other for a very long time. She actually helped me get my first paid job in politics, and this was for her first reelection for city council, and I got to be a part of the process. Being a part of that process was a very special moment for me and an opportunity to work on an ad to help a candidate tell their story.
We’re ‘off cycle’ right now for a little bit — though political campaigns are pretty permanent at this point — do you have any clients or issue campaigns you’re working on already? Would you get involved in an effort like Fair Fight [in Georgia] or redistricting efforts over the next year until campaigns pick back up in earnest?
MM: We’re literally just launching today. The groups that you mentioned, any progressive cause advocacy work and of course campaigns and candidates, we’re anxious to work for. Right now we’re just really in the launch phase.
SCZ: As you said, campaigns are not just every two years anymore, and there are the issues, the advocacy — you mentioned redistricting — guns and women’s issues. We’re hopeful to be able to be a part of the debate, but today’s the launch, we’re just getting started.
TL: We’re just getting started but excited to see quickly the potential candidates and candidates of color who will be running in these midterm elections, you know, having a black woman in the United States Senate, having more people of color elected into office and hope to support as many of those candidates as we can.