How Obama’s Geek Leakers May Have Cost Themselves Billions
In the late 1960s, I went to work for the godfather of American political fundraising. Walter Weintz (pronounced "wents") was the circulation director of Readers Digest before he went on to start his own direct mail agency.
Not only a devoted husband and father, Walt was a hell-for-leather copywriter, amateur astronomer, yacht owner, fisherman and party animal. He never left the cap too long on a gin bottle lest the contents spoil. His clients loved him. So did I.
In 1952, Walt was ordered to take paid leave from the Digest to help get Eisenhower-Nixon elected. Using primitive data and old-fashioned direct mail testing, he revolutionized the business and philosophy of political campaigns. He not only generated votes, but—wonder of wonders—raised cash to pay for the mailings. For the first time this was cash from Joe and Jane Lunchbucket, not from rich high rollers.
When Walt left the Digest to start his own agency, his biggest account was the Republican National Committee. For years the RNC and various Republican campaign committees left their Democratic opponents in the dust because of Walt's pioneering work in the business of vote getting and fundraising. He shared his proprietary knowledge freely with clients and staff, but never went public with it.
After 35 years, Walter Weintz Finally Revealed His Secrets
In 1987, 10 years before his death, Walt published his memoir, The Solid Gold Mailbox: How to Create Winning Mail-Order Campaigns...By the Man Who's Done All.
In the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama's shocking win in the 2008 election, I contacted Walt's son, Todd. He gave me permission to excerpt Walt's account of his breakthrough work with Citizens for Eisenhower-Nixon. The result was my December 2008 column titled "Obama's $750 Million Juggernaut."
If you want quick backgrounder in the genesis of direct marketing in politics, spend a few minutes with Walt. I guarantee you will find this fascinating stuff and very relevant today.
Fast Forward to 2012 and the Great Republican Stumble
From a number of accounts, Mitt Romney's advisors were so sure of victory on election night 2012 they told the candidate he did not need a concession speech. He would wake up the next morning as president-elect. It was slam-dunk.
What happened was lotsa egg on a lotsa faces. The yolk was on them and still is eight months later. Quite simply, the Republicans were skunked.
Sixty years after Eisenhower-Nixon, Barack Obama assembled a team of geniuses in a secret advanced database analytics center. Standing on Walt Weintz's shoulders these digital alchemists figured out how to use Big Data to drill down deep into the electorate and pry out every available vote.
3 Secret Research Facilities That Changed U.S. History
1. Skunk Works, Burbank and Palmdale California. Founded June 1943. This Lockheed Martin Advanced Development facility was responsible for a string of spectacular aircraft. The most famous were the U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird spy planes.
2. Xerox Parc [Palo Alto Research Center], Founded 1971. Quite simply what happened here changed computer history. Among the developments: laser printing, ARPANET (early version of the Internet), the computer mouse, and the first modern personal computer to feature GUI—Graphic User Interface—enabling Apple to dominate the digital world.
3. Barack Obama's "Cave" at campaign headquarters, Chicago. Opened 2011. A windowless room where data mining was perfected and direct marketing was transformed forever. A collection of programmers, quants, media analysts and assorted technology geeks worked 16 hours a day for 16 months. The goal was to combine a collection of databases and develop behavior information, so they could assemble a vast bloc of sympathetic voters and contributors. Most astounding was all these voters and donors were known to Team Obama individually by name. Below is an image of The Obama "Cave" (Photo credit: Daniel Shea, Time)
In addition, traditional advertising went out the window. Under the media microscope developed in Obama's cave, the analysts discovered who watched what on TV and the Internet. The result was tens of thousands of cheap sliced-'n'-diced mini-cable buys. These Democrats had to pony up a tiny fraction of the tens of millions blown on big media by the rogue Rove operation and other loud-mouthed Republican clowns.
The Secret Was Secrecy—An Echo of AOL
Like the Lockheed Skunk Works and Xerox Parc, no one in Obama's Dream Team talked to the media. They operated on deep background.
An equivalent campaign was honchoed by AOL's brilliant marketing vice president Jan Brandt. She blitzed the country with millions of horrifically pricey mailings containing CDs with the software to give computer users a free month of access to the Internet.
The entire marketing world thought Jan and her boss, Steve Case, were totally nuts. They just shut up and kept on truckin'. Jan brought in more than 20 million customers paying $9.95 a month. They ate Prodigy and CompuServe's lunch.
Alas, Case got greedy for recognition. He went public with how smart he was. Working with cipher-like Time Life CEO Gerald Levin, Steve Case engineered the most disastrous merger in American business history.
Solved: The Last Great Direct Marketing Unknown—"When"
As a 65-year veteran of direct marketing and one-time king of junk mail, I was fascinated by the Obama operation. When I first heard about it, I had a "holy shit!" epiphany. Imagine what it could mean for American (and world) business if these wizards were turned loose in the corporate arena!
Based on sophisticated research into demographics and behavior analysis, marketers have known for a long time who will buy and what they want. Using Team Obama's analytics, we can know when the prospect is ready to buy or donate.
As a pack-rat archivist, I downloaded the very few stories that came out about Obama's secret campaign operation. Damn slim pickings. In the back of my mind were the words of Walt Weintz:
Once the basic principles and techniques of mail-order promotion are understood, they can be applied in the most unlikely places, and for unexpected products. Although my own initial mail-order experience happened to do with magazines and books, the same rules would have applied had I been working on a correspondence course in accounting, the mail-order sale of Christmas hams or Chesapeake crabmeat, securing leads for Ford cars, or, indeed, getting political candidates elected or fund raising for a political organization like the Republican National Committee.
"Silence Is Golden." —Thomas Carlyle, 1831
One thing was sure: If Obama's whiz kids kept their mouths shut, they stood to make billions—literally—taking what they learned into the corporate world. It was not to be.
Time broke the story right after the election in its "Commemorative Election Special" of Nov. 7, 2012 with an article titled "Inside the Secret World of the Data Crunchers Who Helped Obama Win":
Exactly what that team of dozens of data crunchers was doing, however, was a closely held secret. "They are our nuclear codes," campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt would say when asked about the efforts. Around the office, data-mining experiments were given mysterious code names such as Narwhal and Dreamcatcher. The team even worked at a remove from the rest of the campaign staff, setting up shop in a windowless room at the north end of the vast headquarters office. The "scientists" created regular briefings on their work for the President and top aides in the White House's Roosevelt Room, but public details were in short supply as the campaign guarded what it believed to be its biggest institutional advantage over Mitt Romney's campaign: its data.
Oh-So-Young Obama Operatives: Horny for Recognition
From the Time story:
On Nov. 4, a group of senior campaign advisers agreed to describe their cutting-edge efforts with TIME on the condition that they not be named and that the information not be published until after the winner was declared. What they revealed as they pulled back the curtain was a massive data effort that helped Obama raise $1 billion, remade the process of targeting TV ads and created detailed models of swing-state voters that could be used to increase the effectiveness of everything from phone calls and door knocks to direct mailings and social media.
I read this with disbelief. Any more tell-all stories like this and Team Obama would blow it. They would destroy their opportunity to monetize this truly spectacular direct marketing breakthrough by giving away their secrets.
Who were these whiz kids?
From youngest to oldest:
- Gaurav Shirloe, 23. Campaign data analyst.
- Will St. Clair, 25. Helped write code for Facebook program.
- Chris Frommann, 26. Media tracking software engineer.
- David Wagner, 30. Chief of data collection.
- Chauncey McLean, 31. Translator for strategists and quants.
- Amy Gershkoff, 32. Director of media planning.
- Carol Davidsen, 37. Oversaw creation of "the optimizer."
- Erik Smith, 43. Media strategist, ties to Democrat donors.
- Jeff Link, 46. Outside consultant.
- Terry Walsh, 46. Chicago Obama strategist.
- Pete Giangreco, 48. Direct mail strategist.
- Larry Grisolano, 49. Ad strategist.
They Blew It!
On Sunday June 23, 2013, The New York Times Magazine ran a 7,100-word cover story by Jim Rutenberg: "Data You Can Believe In: The Obama Campaign's Digital Masterminds Cash In."
From Rutenberg's lede paragraph:
But the operatives were not [at Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas] in March for any political reason. They were there to make money—specifically to land what they hoped would be the first corporate client for their new advertising business, Analytics Media Group (A.M.G.). Its bland name obscures its relatively grand promise: to deliver to commercial advertisers some of the Obama campaign's secret, technologically advanced formulas for reaching voters.
The managers, the kids and the quants spilled the beans, enabling Jim Rutenberg to write a tell-all story. Revealed are the strategy, tactics and arcane minutiae—every facet of the campaign in simple, well-crafted English.
Any techie worth his or her salt can grasp these dazzling concepts, write the code and make a slew of corporate nabobs rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Sure, Obama's team members will all make a living on what they accomplished. But with the publication of Rutenberg's exposé, the genie is out of the bottle. The marketing world was presented with a wiring diagram.
Should you hire the Analytics Media Group? I can only think of the old adage—the retort by a guy at the suggestion he marry his mistress: "Why buy the cow when the milk is free?"
Takeaways to Consider
- What Team Obama did would be akin to the engineers at the Skunk Works telling the Russians exactly how they got the U-2 to fly above 65,000 feet. Or what enabled the SR-71 Blackbird to hit Mach 3.
- Had the Xerox Parc crew blabbed to Forbes or Fortune, IBM—with its unlimited capital—would have turned the Jobs-Woz enterprise into baked Apple.
- Who needs to hire Analytics Media Group when for $6 you can buy the Sunday The New York Times on a newsstand and get the wiring diagram?
- I believe Team Obama should have remained mum and become a corporate research and marketing giant with a Bernie Madoff-like mystique of exclusivity and a culture of deep secrecy. The key players would have retired as billionaires rather than just millionaires.
- If you want personal publicity, leak like Julian Assange, Ed Snowden, Pvt. Bradley Manning, Daniel Ellsberg, Mark "Deep Throat" Felt or Linda Tripp.
- If you have dreams of manipulating the media, first hire the likes of Bob Dilenschneider, Michael Levine, Edelman or Ruder Finn. Otherwise the media will manipulate you.