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The Future of Political Work

The invention of digital campaign tools and the corporate consolidation of the consulting industry help us to understand the present and possible future of political work in the United States. As in the past, competition, uncertainty, and the ability to emulate the successes of the last campaign will produce innovations that diffuse quickly through the political system. Speculative experimentation is a constant feature of political work. While this speculation continues in the business of digital politics, enterprising staffers now look to develop a proprietary technology that can serve as the basis for a successful start-up or be sold to an existing firm. Following the 2012 election, for example, three members of Obama’s digital team created NationalField, described as “an online organizing network and dashboard tool for campaigns to integrate and aid their field operations.”54 In 2013, the founders of NationalField sold the business to NGP VAN, adding new features and functionality to what is already the largest provider of campaign software to Democratic clients.55

Although it is possible that firms specializing in digital campaign tools could one day displace the traditional media consultants who currently command a dominant position in the industry, this seems unlikely. Instead, media consultants will try to integrate digital tools into their existing products and services, for example, by finding ways to target political ads through media streaming services and smartphone applications. Even so, the partisan character of political work means that consulting services, digital or otherwise, will remain segmented into distinct markets for Democratic and Republican clients. Digital politics can create significant riches for its practitioners without altering the basic structure of the industry.

Another notable trend is that the contemporary business of politics is highly concentrated in a few firms on each side of the partisan divide. Although anyone with a bit of campaign experience can set up a website and call themselves a consultant, most of the money spent on media, fundraising, and other products and services passes through the hands of a select group of firms. Consider the figures from the 2012 election. Just three firms accounted for two-thirds of all spending by the Obama campaign: GMMB (media), Bully Pulpit Interactive (digital), and AB Data (direct mail). Similarly, for the Romney campaign, three firms handled around 64 percent of spending: American Rambler Productions (media), Targeted Victory (digital), and SCM Associates (direct mail).56 Overall, the top five Democratic media firms handled almost three-quarters of spending, while the top five media firms on the Republican side took in more than half of GOP spending in 2012. This includes congressional races, the presidential campaign, party spending, and independent expenditures. Digital services are even more concentrated. The top five Democratic and Republican firms accounted for 93 percent and 84 percent of digital services, respectively.57 The two top firms on each side of the partisan divide, Bully Pulpit Interactive and Targeted Victory, accounted for a combined 70 percent of all digital spending in 2012.58

This concentration makes it unlikely that new technologies will produce a radical opening of the political process in which candidates have the capacity to connect directly with a circle of supporters without the services of a professional consultant. Although recent elections illustrate the enduring importance of grassroots activism and energy, the ability to locate, engage, and deploy volunteers still relies on technologies supplied by the same industry that provides the traditional tools of media and direct mail. With the rise of digital campaigns, consultants have developed another service to sell.

This points to the third and perhaps the most profound development in the evolving business of politics: the consolidation and integration of political work into large, multinational conglomerates that measure and manage the public on behalf of powerful clients. Together, WPP, Omnicom, Publicis, and InterPublic control a majority share of the global advertising and public relations market. In recent years, these large holding companies have added political consulting firms to their assets, not because of the revenues generated from campaigns but rather because of the value of campaign techniques to their corporate clients. As the leading Democratic digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive advertises on its website,

Every organization seeks a bully pulpit. We are just the modern version. We use the tools of modern media and the tactics of the greatest recent political victories to help you communicate. Whether you run for office, steer a company, or chair a foundation, the public now has an undeniable seat at the table. Many leaders are afraid of this. Don’t be. Make people part of your team. Make them your advocates. Make them your champions. Let us show you how. We sit at the intersection of political and corporate. While our political mentality keeps us fast and lean, our corporate experience keeps us on the cutting edge and allows us to constantly innovate, not just once every four years. We sit at the nexus of persuasion and direct response. From top to bottom, we are analysts—constantly testing and optimizing. But tactics without a message are never enough. We pride ourselves at also being master storytellers and we use data to help us shape the most compelling and credible narratives.59

This testimonial captures the continuity of political work, from its Progressive Era origins to the present. By invoking the idea of the “bully pulpit,” this cutting-edge, twenty-first-century firm echoes Theodore Roosevelt and others who used publicity to forge a more direct connection with the public. In the words of its founders, the company is “just the modern version.” Like an earlier generation of practitioners, Bully Pulpit Interactive celebrates technology as a way to acquire deeper, more reliable information about the public, using “data to help us shape the most compelling and credible narratives.” Finally, the company promotes its ability to “sit at the intersection of political and corporate,” staying “fast and lean” as well as “cutting edge.” This, too, continues a long line of publicity experts, pollsters, and consultants who served both candidates and corporations.

Echoes from the past notwithstanding, the business of digital politics and the corporate consolidation of the industry also represent a departure. Initially, business methods drawn from advertising and public relations influenced the conduct of campaigns; today it is those who practice at the cutting edge of political work who influence the decisions made in corporate boardrooms. For example, the cofounder of Bully Pulpit Interactive (BPI), Andrew Bleeker, now works for WPP subsidiary Hill+Knowlton Strategies as its director of global digital practice (Bleeker continues to serve as BPI presi- dent).60 For a global advertising power like WPP, acquiring expertise in the digital realm is an important part of its strategy to provide a single source for corporate communications, from advertising and market research to crisis management and public affairs. The possibility that digital tools can identify and energize discrete pockets of voters or target ads more efficiently is potentially of great value to WPP and its clients.

This coevolution of business and politics in the United States points to a broader significance in the rise of a modern consulting industry. Over the past century, the blending of advertising, public relations, political consulting, and public affairs has blurred the lines between commerce and politics. Our behavior as consumers and voters is an expression of individual choice that has been constantly measured and continually managed through campaigns of persuasion. And yet, despite the many billions of dollars spent, the ability to convince us to buy a product or vote for a candidate is limited. The available methods and techniques have vastly improved, yet consultants and their clients remain engaged in the continued search for an elusive public whose intentions in the marketplace and the voting booth cannot be fully known.

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