Ogilvy CEO: New media key to Obama campaign

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Embracing innovative new communication tools on the Internet and mobile phones to engage citizens has been central to the success of Barack Obama’s US presidential campaign, says Brian Fetherstonhaugh, chairman and CEO of OgilvyOne Worldwide, in an interview with EURACTIV.

Brian Fetherstonhaugh is chairman and CEO of global marketing and customer relations firm OgilvyOne Worldwide. He is a Canadian citizen. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

What were the main distinctive features of the McCain and Obama campaigns from a marketing point of view? 

What I think is impressive about Barack Obama is that firstly, he had an idea, an actual message strategy, that is both quite resonant and different from a traditional one. Secondly, his choice of media, especially his use of new media like the Internet and mobile marketing, was very good. 

Less than a year ago, he was behind Hilary Clinton by 18 points. So, since his campaign actually kicked in, he’s been, by any significant measure, very, very successful. He is on his way to raising 1700 million dollars, which is an all-time record. 

From the messaging standpoint, Barack Obama’s campaign has been inherently invitational. It is not prescriptive. If you actually compare Hilary’s campaign to the Barack Obama campaign, Hilary said, in a very traditional method: “I am more experienced, so you should vote for me and give me your money”. In fact, that is what her website said at the time. 

And if you look at Barack Obama, you find messages such as “Join me”, “You are going to make the difference,” “It is more important that you have confidence in your abilities than even in my abilities to lead this new thing”. 

You may have also noticed the subtle change in his overall message, which is always based on change. It started as “Change we can believe in” and then moved on to “Change we need”, which had an added dimension of urgency to it. When you look at the US environment, there is a very popular form of negative advertising. If you look at the mix of his messages, about two-thirds of his messages have been positive and a third more attack-minded. 

But that has been more towards the end? 

Well, you know, it has been varying. With regard to what was working, which marketplaces he went into and what the mood was, his motto has very much been ‘sense and respond’. In this sense, I think that he has been very dynamic. 

Was that down to Obama’s communication skills or was it down to the fact that he was able to raise so much money and get the right people to advise him? 

I think that it is mainly based on his ability to assemble skills around him. The Internet part, which is in some ways the most impressive, was done by a volunteer. His name is Chris Hughes. He is a former founder of Facebook, who took time off from his job for no money and volunteered to participate in the Obama campaign. He was a critical adviser and architect, especially of this feature called mybarackobama.com

The website was extremely successful in creating engagement, permission and advocates and in getting people to use social networking. People brought their friends on board and so on. Now, the campaign has three million donors and one million volunteers. That is extremely impressive by business standards, let alone political standards. 

How does that compare with the strategy for the McCain campaign? 

I have actually had more of a look at the early days of Hilary and Barack, and then Barack Obama more recently. But I think there are messaging differences, where I think that McCain has not found a big resonant and inviting message in terms of the actual message that he is describing. 

By his own admission, he is very inexperienced and he was a late, late adopter of the Internet. And in terms of actual spending, maybe as a result of some of those things, he does not have the same amount of money. 

So at this moment, Barack Obama used the Internet right from the beginning to create the engagement and now he has the funds. He is actually outspending him. In fact, it is on television where the most dramatic outspending is happening. 

Are you saying that the Internet actually helped Barack Obama raise extra money? 

Absolutely. Barack Obama has raised two hundred million dollars online, and the estimated average size of the donation is 84 dollars. 

How does that compare with the McCain campaign? 

I would have to check around but [Obama’s figure] is definitely an all-time record for online fundraising. 

Would you say that this is the major striking innovation of this presidential campaign? 

I think that this innovation is based on three things. Firstly, he delivered a resonant message in a very invitational style. Secondly, he was very effective in using the Internet to engage advocates and to engage donors. Thirdly, he continued to use traditional media such as television, which is tremendously powerful, but he used it in a very innovative way. 

Have you visited mybarackobama.com? You should. It’s truly a fascinating story. I only look at it from the standpoint of a marketing and communications observer. I’m actually a Canadian citizen, so I can’t vote in the US election and I’m not looking at it from a political standpoint, but it’s truly a fascinating story of ideas and marketing channels. 

He also bought all the advertising for half-hour shows. He has done two-minute commercials with MTV and others. 

So, I think that on a level of consumer understanding and sophistication, the success of his campaign is not solely based on the Internet. He needed the message, the Internet and the intelligent use of traditional media. It is the combination of these that is most effective. 

Are you saying that McCain has not used traditional media smartly enough? 

He did not use it as innovatively and he did not use it as much, because he did not have the money. So when it came to the big moment for big traditional media, which continues to be a wonderful way to win voters in the last eight weeks, he did not have as much money, he did not have a message that was as resonant and he did not use it as innovatively as Obama. 

The campaign is coming to a close. We do not yet know who has won, but we have an idea of who was the more successful communicator: that is widely accepted. Do you think that there are any lessons to be learned? 

I don’t think that there are just political, but also marketing and communications lessons that can be learned. I think early engagement and gaining support and permission of enthusiasts at the beginning of the effort has allowed those enthusiastic supporters to be used to pass on their enthusiasm to other people, via social networking on mybarackobama.com. 

I think that is a lesson for both the private and public sectors. For example, if your mission has to do with childhood obesity, there are lessons to be learnt from the campaign that can be applied to that, like finding voices and people who are passionate about the topic, especially through the Internet and through social networking, who will pass that enthusiasm on to other people. I think that that is a marketing and communications lesson that is far beyond the US and far beyond politics. 

I think, again, that when you look around the world, the nature of the consumer is becoming less like dogs and more like cats in the sense that they are much more independent, they are seizing control of the information and communications agenda. And you can not just tell them what to do. They do it of their own free will. And so you see that in this approach to marketing. 

The Obama mobile component is one important example. The mobile phone is a powerful and dangerous communication weapon, partly because it is so personal that if you do not get permission, it can literally be invasive in your trouser pocket. So, what this particular effort did was that it got permission. It asked you right at the beginning: “Is it okay if I alert you to upcoming events?,” “Is it okay if I give you about updates on the campaign?,” “Is it okay if I tell you about changes in our policy?”. And people, once they were in control and knew that they could retain their independence, willingly signed up for the mobile permission. 

Isn’t there a cultural gap between both sides of the Atlantic on consumer and voter behaviour regarding that sort of attitude? Or is there a perception that Americans are at the cutting edge, more enthusiastic and tend to take more initiative? 

I think that for mobile marketing in general, for example, Europe is much more advanced than the United States. I think that what the Obama campaign did well was that it started by asking for a small ‘yes’ and then earned the right to get further permission from the consumer. 

Just walking through the door and asking someone “Give me the phone numbers of all your friends” is not going to work in the United States or in Europe. On the other hand: “Is it okay if I give you an update about a political event?” “Yes, that is okay. Check. Here is my phone number for SMS.” 

Then, delivering and only delivering what you have given permission for, I think that this kind of behaviour is highly respectful and sensitive to the consumer. We see those kinds of things working around the world. So, I do not think there is such a huge difference in culture because that sense of respect carries well. 

Data privacy laws are tougher in Europe. But even with Barack Obama, he did not do mass crazy things. He was asking permission, he was getting engaged by it. So I think that many of those approaches would still work in a European context. 

You said you see them happening in different contexts already. Not just political, but commercial contexts too. 

If you take politics and you put in sports, yes. And you put in European fans, then a European football fan will do the same thing. “Will you please give me your name for me to give you updates in changes in policy which are equivalent to changes in my roster? I am bringing some new players in. Would you like to have information about upcoming events? Would you like to see highlights of recent things? Would you like to get scoring updates?” 

That is already happening. 

Absolutely. It is permission-based. It is respectful. Many of the top European sports teams have taken the same approach. Permission base, use of the Internet, use of the mobile phone in particular for real time updates. But it is only on topics that you are interested in. 

So I think that is the critical point that Obama got right. A variety of marketers around the world – I would include football teams – have got that issue correct too. 

Both the Obama and McCain campaigns have received big financing in comparison to political campaigns in Europe. The scale of things is smaller and fragmented. Can parties afford such tools at the moment? 

We must remember that Barack Obama got the enthusiast, Chris Hughes from Facebook, to design his website as a volunteer. So once again, it is not because he spent a lot of money, it is because he found a friend with a common interest and was able to unlock that enthusiasm. That is the original beginning of the story. So it is not inherently expensive. 

At the end of the day, big time television campaigns are expensive. But in the initial setup, I think that you need to set it up in a very intelligent way at the beginning, including these issues of permission and privacy. No question. 

Secondly, you need to be willing to constantly refresh it. And one of the ways in which the content of the Obama site is constantly refreshed is by users. So they do blog postings, they comment on the videos, they pass along the videos, they participate in the policies. They say, “I do not like your policy on free trade” or “I do like your policy on health care”. 

So once again, it is unlocking often for no money or no cost of human capital to forward your mission. Once again, it is a style difference. It is not inherently expensive, you need to plan ahead and you need to be very patient because it grows over time. 

Once again, as a marketing observer, I think it is very interesting. I think that there are a couple of things to look at in the European context. I am not an expert on the European political environment. But for example, the Spanish election, by reputation, was strongly influenced by a viral text-messaging campaign just before the last general election. 

These very innovative ways of communicating do strike me first of all as being another one of those trends that always come from the US. You rarely see Europe leading such trends in a big way. Or maybe I am biased and positively in favour of the US. But when you say that the mobile marketing has become more developed in Europe, is that because the mobile networks developed more quickly? 

Well, there are a couple of factors. One was early adoption of 3G. One had a cross SMS platform where only until very recently, I could not even send you an SMS unless we were on the same carrier. It did not have a cross-carrier, so SMS developed relatively late and there were also some economic factors where in the United States, landlines and long distance calls were relatively cheap. 

There was no economic boost towards moving to mobile. But in general – and again I would look at T-Mobile Sports, I would look at some of the UK football clubs – I think that they have done the same kind of thing. It is based on the same principle. 

It is unlocking enthusiasm and getting their permission and encouraging them to share their love with other people. The fact that it happens to happen in a donation revote, that is an artefact of political life. But that model, I think, is reasonably well established here, especially in the sporting arena. 

It is a different thing to get it working in the political arena. It seems to me that this particular election in the United States is raising interest because the stakes are higher than before, after eight years of an unpopular Bush administration. It makes it easy to campaign along those lines. You do not get such highly polarised debates in Europe. 

If you look at Barack Obama’s website, you see the message “I am asking you to believe not just in my ability, but in your ability too.” This message is so explicitly invitational. And this is a community-based strategy. So, you can go in here and learn about the issue. It has got media, TV downloads. It has got passion. You can give a donation. For instance, it says: “Donate and get a gift.” 

You can start to use this site to start to amplify. The technology does make it easier for you to pass on your love, support and so forth. 

Also, you have blogs, comments on the website. You can report on the comments and object to what has been said. Once again, you need a self-governing mechanism and if you start with people who care about you, this will be highly effective. You cannot pull this kind of thing off without this self-governing aspect. 

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