Obama Inc.: What businesses want to learn from the president’s campaign

March 17, 2013

The president raised a billion dollars for his reelection campaign, but the staffers who engineered his victory may be worth even more to corporations and other groups that are eager to unlock the trade secrets that made the Obama brand so successful.

(Andres Da Loba / Washington Post)
(Andres Da Loba / Washington Post)

“Everyone wants to know what the special sauce is,” says Holly Goulet, senior vice president of the American Program Bureau, a speakers bureau that has encountered rising interest from business groups in hearing from Obama alumni. “There’s been a blurring of the lines between politics and business now.”

While it’s virtually a rite of passage for political veterans to hit the speaking circuit or hang out a shingle as a “strategic consultant,” it isn’t the political horse race or the Washington game that intrigues many audiences and prospective employers so much as the analytics and tools used on the campaign trail that could have a commercial impact well beyond the Beltway.

“There’s less interest in the politics and more interest in the data and new media side,” says Jim Messina, President Obama’s 2012 campaign manager. “It’s smart of everyone to take a look and say, ‘What do they know that we don’t?’ ”

After Obama’s reelection, former adviser David Axelrod recalls that “one of the first calls I got was, ‘Who are the young geniuses? We want to find out if we can hire them.’ ” Axelrod, who is now a paid contributor to NBC News and MSNBC and runs the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago, recently convened a panel of the campaign’s top strategists, including former senior adviser David Plouffe, chief digital strategist Joe Rospars and chief technology officer Harper Reed. He recalls looking at the group and thinking to himself, “That’s probably a billion-dollar panel right there.”

Companies still pay handsomely to hear from a top political operative such as Axelrod or Plouffe. Both men recently joined the Washington Speakers Bureau; Messina has linked up with the rival Harry Walker Agency. (Generally, fees range from less than $15,000 to reportedly as high as $200,000 to $300,000 per speech for such top headliners as former presidents, with the bureaus traditionally getting a 20 percent cut.)

But it’s the tech and digital specialists who’ve become the unexpected darlings of data-driven corporate America. “We saw the success and the importance of social and digital and wondered if we could apply the same types of principles to people who wanted to advocate on behalf of Ford,” says Scott Monty, global head of social media for the automaker.

Since 2009, Ford has worked with Blue State Digital, a firm co-founded by Rospars, to develop its online outreach. Ford’s social media platform now boasts more than 100,000 users. “It really doesn’t matter whether you’re running a political campaign or a marketing campaign — a campaign’s a campaign,” Monty says.

While Rospars helped launch Blue State Digital in 2004 after working with Howard Dean’s presidential campaign, it wasn’t until he helped lead Obama to victory in 2008 that the firm began building a large client base well outside politics, attracting such customers as the Green Bay Packers, AT&T and HBO, as well as nonprofits and cultural institutions, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Dan Siroker, a co-founder of the web optimization company Optimizely, served as director of analytics for the 2008 Obama campaign and now counts Walt Disney and Starbucks among his clients. He believes that 2012’s veterans may similarly be able to commercialize new innovations from this election cycle, such as the campaign’s use of cloud computing to scale up its data infrastructure more rapidly and the real-time integration of its e-mail marketing, Web site analytics and ground-level information gathering. Others point to Obama 2012’s microtargeting campaigns on Facebook and its novel use of TV ad buys — which targeted viewers based on channel and time of day instead of specific programs — as breakthroughs that could have commercial applications.

Reed, the 2012 campaign’s chief technology officer, says he has received a steady stream of offers since the election. But he believes his deputies are attracting even more interest. “I probably get fewer job offers than some of the engineers that I hire,” says Reed, who came to the campaign after working on the e-commerce site Threadless.com.

“There was a specialization this time around and an expertise developed that could be applied to a variety of organizations and companies,” says Ben LaBolt, who served as press secretary for the 2012 campaign. “The expertise isn’t necessarily relationship-based — it’s skill-based.”

Aline Lerner, a San Francisco-based tech recruiter, says that having the campaign on one’s resume is “definitely attention-getting.

“How they had changed the status quo and built something using data in a compelling way — it’s extremely interesting, particularly in a field that’s not known for being very technology-forward,” Lerner says.

Going out on their own

For the moment, however, the principal engineers of Obama’s victory seem more inclined to set up their own shops — whether consultancies or start-ups — than join an existing company. Both Messina and Jeremy Bird, the 2012 campaign’s national field director, have launched their own consulting firms, aiming to acquire clients that run the gamut from politics and advocacy to corporate America. (Messina is also the national chairman for Organizing for Action, the spinoff of Obama’s campaign operation, which advocates for the president’s policy agenda.)

“The idea is a lot of folks in the corporate world are looking to engage with their users or their customers and create meaningful relationships with them,” says Bird of his recently launched firm, 270 Strategies, which will also work with nonprofits, advocacy and public-interest groups. “What we’ll be doing with 270 — it transcends just politics.”

Mari Huertas, a technology product manager for the campaign, has been courted by recruiters and private companies but has instead decided to launch a start-up focused on self-publishing. Carol Davidsen, Obama 2012’s director of integration and media targeting, is founding another start-up that aims to create a community-based marketplace for used goods.

For such campaign veterans, building a start-up may be the closest equivalent to the challenges they faced inside Obamaland. “Most workplaces don’t work as quickly as we did on the campaign, and they’re not always interested in examining things along the way,” says Huertas, describing the campaign’s rigorous commitment to testing new tech products at every turn.

The mind-set matters

But some campaign veterans also warn that private companies eager to appropriate the Obama reelection campaign’s magic might not grasp what made the original effort so revolutionary. “Corporations think it’s something you buy or something else you go out and purchase. ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll hire a smart guy — he’ll take care of it,’ ” says Arun Chaudhary, a 2008 campaign alum who has been a regular on the speaking circuit since leaving his post as the White House’s first official videographer.

Even leading technologists such as Reed stress that the campaign’s mind-set was more significant than any gadget. “The campaign taught me how important it is to focus on the people — how people interact with technology, with the user experience, and use their products,” Reed says.

Sam Graham-Felsen, the “chief blogger” of Obama’s 2008 campaign, found that private audiences were so willing to pay for his insights that he was able to leave his post-election job at Blue State Digital for the speaking circuit. But he wasn’t always sure that corporations were thrilled about following his advice. “I talked about the freedom I was given as a blogger to really speak with an authentic voice,” he says. “But the main hurdle is a lot of corporate audiences are terrified of giving up message control.”

Those who do hire Obama’s top campaign strategists will probably hear much of the same. “The biggest mistake that any of these campaigns or companies make is thinking, ‘If I just have the right tools and right tactics,’ ” says Bird. “The leadership on your team is going to have to take risks — you can’t just buy a box off the shelf.”

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