"KEEP 'EM COMIN'."
April 2018 - Rovinj, Croatia
One of the gross benefits/detriments to staying at a hotel where all the rooms have beautiful connected balconies is that you can hear everything that's going on in nearby rooms, like it or not.
In a gorgeous, relatively sleepy seaside town overlooking the Adriatic, Brad was the headline speaker at a cool, media/arts/culture conference called Days of Communication in Rovinj, Croatia. One of those with a nouveau-Euro feel that's hard to bottle and replicate in the UK or the states.
Hosted by some colleagues and friends based out of Zagreb and indeed across the Balkan bloc, I was invited to speak on the impacts of GDPR, data privacy regulations on martech, and wider trust issues in media and customer data. The plan was to share the weekend along with some other fascinating voices like Jayanta Jenkins (Creative Director), Morag Myerscough (Artist), and Mr. Bingo (Illustrator).
I knew Brad was coming. Knew who he was, and in context of the Trump campaign from around 2017 until today - and I'd struggled with the decision to 'share a stage' with him. The man had single-mindedly engineered the precise technological showdown between rival forces in the 2016 American election, for which he was famously and responsible for the 2000+ ad variations and targeting groups, compared to Hillary's 60 or so. I've been convinced that he won the election for Trump.
I was both enamored of the scale of which he'd been able to orchestrate a political takeover with the machinery of modern society, martech, and marketing, whilst also personally disgusted at the results.
I was deeply torn.
THE WILD WEST OF INFORMATION BROKERING
Back in the days of 2015/2016 - back when working in your physical office wasn't a political statement - I was busy at The Economist working to build a next generation marketing team, tasked with creating a tech and data led growth function by Mark Cripps (CMO), eventually responsible for 400% subscription growth (by revenue).
There was a ton of activity on Facebook, working off a similar playbook of hyper-personalisation of cohort messaging and targeting - honestly some of the most exciting and challenging work I'd ever done until that point.
Driven by technology first, it was a veritable free-for-all in customer data. GDPR wasn't even a thorny groan in the collective consciousness, consent platforms barely a quiet chuckle, and no one really knew the difference between an opt-in and an opt-out anyway. Nor really cared.
That's all changed dramatically, of course.
This Wild West of consumer data - info was traded and sold on the frontier like new flavors of ice cream, each one more elaborate and tantalizing than the last. A staple of modern marketing - if you understood it, you could leverage it like no one else as most traditional marketing folks fought against understanding things like a handful of 1x1 tracking pixels (half still don't get it).
The more spice you got your hands on, the better the dish served to the customer. Or so it went.
ACTION FIRST, ETHICS LAST
A Cambridge Analytica scandal and a few hacked apps later, we, as consumers, start to peer into the miasma of unregulated platform growth. A Silicon Valley culture of looking behind only whilst looking ahead; we'd get used to companies doing the wrong things first, apologize and fix them, and move on - quick like the blood red rage fading after 'sleeping on it'. Violations and injustices washed over with the turning of the news cycle. New week, new day, new problems, new solutions.
100% this won the election for Trump.
The whipping up of fervor in small groups of a hundred, a thousand people x 2000 unique incendiary messages drove people who supported him - or at least, opposed Hillary - to discuss, to amplify, and ultimately to vote.
Being assailed by hyper-targeted ads all day, passed off as 'news' stories and posts gave the campaign a legitimacy it needed across highly disparate voting blocs. People started *really* feeling *really* impacted because Facebook told them so.
The message was that there was no single message. That's modern, social-channel-driven populism for you - the message is "all" and "every".
I walked late into the hotel restaurant, where all the speakers were gathered for an extended lunch and made a point to sit across from Brad. Flanked by his drag-perfect wife (her face was snatched to the gods), Brad was a moonshine-faced mountain of a man, tall even when sitting down for a lunch with mere mortals.
Sliding into the conversation, I pepper him with scattered questions on digital marketing and martech - all for which he has very clear, practiced answers.
Brad tells me he was in Texas building The Alamo - a worryingly-named process and data center, with platforms and people who would go on to take advantage of new micro-targeting technologies afforded by the massive user base at Facebook. Each user a hungry media consumer, tapping the tap for another drip feed of life. With its deep cataloging of individual user behavior, It sold, by the billions, likes on pics to frowns on guns.
It was an unregulated free for all, as Facebook sought a doctrine to protect and collect on 'free speech' above all else.
I was doing much the same, but on a relatively smaller scale.
"I do believe in the message as a Libertarian", Brad says, when I ask about his politics. "I meet with the [presidential] family every other day - great people - so I'm in the inner circle."
A couple weeks later, I learn that he's the new campaign manager for Trump 2020.
I make it a point to attend his speaking session; even if I grossly opposed his politics, I was still curious about how a simple 'web guy', a digital marketing dude, goes from rags to riches and from indifference to global prominence (even if most folks still had no idea who he was) seemingly overnight. How did this guy demand a full security detail? How did the campaign even let him do these highly commercial gigs?
Does he even know where Croatia is?
ALL YOUR [FAKE] NEWS ARE BELONG TO US
His session is uneventful and rehearsed; media trained and smooth. He's always aware of where the camera is, even if he could seemingly care less about the audience. He speaks in parables; has nice, slick, silvery slides, which he flicks through speedily. "Fake news" is mentioned often, always in the context of the "mainstream media", and never, ever, in a way that would implicate or acknowledge responsibility.
He's just the delivery man after all. Don't kill the messenger, he intones behind his eyes.
And that's the funny thing - what he doesn't mention is that his entire claim to fame is the system he'd designed.
The process and the plan by which to deliver that fake commentary in the form of digital media - videos, ads, sites thrown up overnight and styled to look legit - from his candidate to hyper-targeted audiences on Facebook, amongst other susceptible advertising platforms in media. The "free speech" that Zuckerberg is so intent on "protecting" has nothing to do with protecting people, or the world, from harm. I suppose abstaining is the new black?
Republicans have always been the best at marketing - after all they're the ones who have convinced poor and working class white folks that they are just dispossessed millionnaires, waiting for that big break when they too, can be infuriated by inheritance taxes. I mean, Brad's one himself. That's his story.
I present later, kicking off darkly with a clip on fake news caught in action as Sinclair Communications, a Conservative-run media company which owns more than 200 local news stations, forced all their local news affiliates to read off the same impassioned script.
Around what? Yup - the danger of fake news.