Edward Saatchi: "It’s a statement of the obvious, whoever is prepared to look at the latest technologies will win"

An interview with the Obama campaigner behind the social network that's changing politics and big businesses.

New Statesman
Edward Saatchi outside the White House.

It’s true, Edward Saatchi is the son of advertising mogul Maurice Saatchi and a member of the famous Saatchi clan. But during our hour long conversation, that hardly seemed to matter. Edward is an entrepreneur in his own right, co-founder of the hotly tipped social network NationalField and an Obama enthusiast who once – so desperate to be involved in the president’s 2008 campaign – hopped uninvited on a plane to Iowa and began picketing, emailing and door knocking in earnest.

Whilst on the election trail Saatchi met two Americans, Aharon Wasserman and Justin Lewis, and the three founded NationalField in an effort to increase efficiency across a team that numbered in the thousands. Within weeks their program had been adopted by the Obama organisation across the country, and has since boomed in the corporate sector. Billed as the “Facebook for firms” (Ed’s even been dubbed the UK’s Mark Zuckerberg), it’s a familiar yet innovative program that seeks to democratise the workplace and sings the benefits of ‘real time’ analytics.

Saatchi talks equally fluently about the power of digital, data-driven political campaigns (he eschews the “billboard” strategy of previous political generations, the kind that, ironically, his father played a pivotal role in) and the business benefits of embracing new, more “open” practises in the workplace:

How did NationalField get set up?

So, I came over to the US in 2007 to join the campaign. I was doing a couple of masters’ degrees in Paris, actually. I would sneak out of the Bibliotheque le Sorbonne every afternoon and call the public number for Chicago and say, how can I help? And they were like, it’s great that you want to help, but you’re English, so that’s not gonna work, because we can’t have you talking to voters. I kept calling different people to try and get a different response. But I didn’t. So I got on a plane to Des Moine, Iowa and I went to the field office there. So they said, ‘here’s this yard sign, you can stand of a street corner and wave that’.

I stayed with the campaign and fell in with the people running it, including my two cofounders. The first one was Aaron, we got along immediately and we started trying to figure out technologies that could save us time. And then once we met Justin, our third cofounder, we built the first version of NationalField in about a week. It spread throughout the whole state we were in, then it spread to Ohio, then Florida, then it took over as the management platform for the whole campaign. But it was really something we just built for ourselves in the beginning.

Can you give me a sense, visually of that this actually looks like and how it works?

It looks just like Facebook.

Which was intentional, right?

Yes. Chris Hughes, one of the founders of Facebook, is even on our board now. We wanted something that could be used by people who were much older, and would be fun for people who were much younger. So it looks just like Facebook, the only difference is that it’s internal to your organisation. It has a lot to do with data, metrics and analytics. For example, when I go to your profile in the New Statesman network, I would see your online articles, how long people have spent on this article, what’s had the most hits, the most comments, whatever it is. You can see all the “data” for that person.

So that’s the basic idea. You log in, and like Facebook you see a newsfeed, you see a leader board of the metrics that you are working on, you’d see a set of goals, you would see data graphs over time. It is a mix of the social and what’s called “big data” –have you hear that phrase before?

No, but enlighten me

Well it’s a new approach which says that you, big company - whether you’re Wal Mart or anyone else -you need to capture all the data that you have in little pockets and local areas, capture it all, break it down and analyse it. And that will teach you what to do.

So in politics, your “big data” is all your collected consumer information about voters - does George Clooney work better in some parts of the state? What about Sarah Jessica Parker? It’s basically about collecting all the data you have to refine the work that you’re doing, to be more efficient.

So would any user within a company have access to all of their company’s data?

Well, there’s a terrible word that we use, which is hierarchy. Everybody hates that word.

But it’s an undeniably reality in any organisation.

Yes, but an organisation is different to a group of friends. An organisation is a group of people with a mission, or a good one is, at least. And that require authority, and authority to be delegated so that decisions can be made. So we... well let’s say if you’re an intern logging in under Wal Mart, it understands who you are.

So you’ve built in an understanding of hierarchy.

Yes.  

But you’re also interested in new approach to transparency and communication within the workplace?

What we find is that NationalField makes things more transparent, yes. I was talking to somebody from the Guardian and she said ‘we don’t even get access to the metrics on our own articles. It’s password protected’. And I thought, that is ridiculous.

Some companies might argue a lack of transparency is important, that with hierarchy comes a kind of privilege to knowledge.

What we say to every company we talk to is: ‘you’re buying something that’s run with the same philosophy and methodology of the Obama campaign’. And that means that you need to treat the people at the bottom of your organisation with the same respect as the people at the top. And for a very good reason, because the people at the bottom are often closest to your readers, your voters, your customers, and that means they know what the hell is going on. If you’re up at the top, you’re weakened if you have no idea of the reality of what’s happening on the ground. Maybe the people we work with are a little taken aback at first. But it’s in their interest if not just three people sit around with all the data.

It reminds me of what happened with the breakdown of communication at BBC and Newsnight.

Well we created something which I just love, which is called ‘ups and challenges’. At the end of every day you report in something that went well, and something that didn’t go so well. It seems very basic. But it’s hidden from people at the same level as you, it’s hidden from people lower down then you, so it would go to the people that you directly report to. And in the morning your boss would get a list of all the ups and downs within his organisation. We work with organisations that have twenty, thirty thousand people, so we order it for the CEO by what’s been most commented on, what’s been most liked, what has been most interacted with.

The power you get, as a manger, from knowing what’s going on is immense. That Newsnight story would have immediately gone up the chain. It’s very frustrating, seeing leaders who have no clue what’s going on within their organisation. But it can change with technology.

Back to campaigning – compared with Obama, do you think British politicians are flailing when it comes to technology?

We wanted the Obama campaign to be the most data driven campaign in history, and we were. We had real time feeds of data from every part of the country. There are two big things that British politicians are behind on. They’re behind on the tech game. They’ve not made – from my understanding – any investments in technology. They’ll make investments nine months before the election when they’re like, ‘oh my God, there’s an election, shit we’d better do something’. They’re just not serious or as thoughtful about it. I mean, they’re still on billboards. I remember the 2010 campaign and there was this sort of excitement about it ‘what’s your next billboard going to be?’, and then all these controversies about airbrushing David Cameron   – it’s just so lame. It’s not about billboards anymore. That is not a 21th century campaign.

Everybody goes back to what was successful for them in the past. What was successful for the Conservatives – not that they actually won the election – but what was reasonably successful were these billboards and huge ad campaigns. They haven’t really said, ‘what is successful outside of these old style methods?’

Whereas Labour have a huge chance with “sporadic” voters, they haven’t invested in community organising. I would tell them to get community organisers all across the country for two years before the election  - that’s what happened during the Obama campaign, and that’s how we outflanked the Republicans.

There’s one thing that never changes, which is that elections are about building a list, and then going to talk to those people and getting them to vote for you. I think it’s a statement of the obvious that every four years the person who has young people working for them, who is prepared to look at the latest technologies, will win.

Do you think ‘real time’ is entirely beneficial for a company, or do you think it encourages a more reactionary attitude? I’m thinking of something like Twitter…

Yeah, it’s a really good question. There’s a difference between the really tactical day-to-day decisions of running a business, and the more strategic, long-term decision. If you’re going to make a decision that is long term, very often people will make that on gut rather than real hard data. So by making real time metrics available to people, you can see over time what’s going on. You don’t want decisions made on personal issues, you want it made on something objective, so that you can understand and defend why it’s been made.

Real time gives you a very day to day understanding of what’s happening in your organization. If you only take the temperature three times, you’re really flying blind.

Would you say there is a big difference between the climate of entrepreneurship in the US and Britain?

Yeah, we’re much further behind here.

Why do you think that is?

Everything. There’s less money, less boldness. There are fewer paths into it. There’s no community. It’s not that we’re raised to dislike entrepreneurship, but it’s still not exciting as it is in America.

I think there’s lots of things holding us back in the UK and I don’t know really how to solve it - but it’s going to take a long time to catch up. I find a lot of really cool companies here want to move to the [Silicon] valley once they get underway. And it’s wonderful being there, because it feels like your part of one company, just one small department in this giant company of three or four thousand people, all based in one place. You’re sitting in a canteen, full of people from all these different companies, and you’re like ‘oh what are you up to Jim?’ You’re all part of one movement. Here I don’t think there’s that same feeling that you’re all part of one team and one company. Which is what I find very inspiring.