A podcast for innovators, creatives and the madly curious—featuring Teddy Goff.
Teddy Goff was Digital Director for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and currently a partner at Precision Strategies. A pivotal guy in the reshaping of online political campaigning and a true change-maker within a very traditional field:
Show notes / timestamps :
00:00 Intro and context to the differing conditions for the two Obama campaigns
01:57 Structures to support innovation
05:30 Creating the right team
06:40 Models for idea generation
12:04 Market forces shaping the iterative process
16:11 Present operations
18:32 Leadership attributes
21:04 Current and future developments
00:50 Teddy: You know I often say and think about how much the technology landscape out there in the world changed between the two campaigns. People talk about the first campaign as being this very social media savvy campaign and I worked on that campaign too. We were savvy I suppose given the times. But Twitter was non-entity at the time. Even Facebook was relatively new and a fraction of where it is today. So much changed in the intervening two and a half years or so between when the first campaign ended and when the second campaign began. And that had a lot of down stream effects in terms of how we thought about data, how we thought about communications, how we thought about organizing and certainly the personnel was largely new, especially down the ranks a bit from the senior staff which was largely held over. So we had a strong foundation that we were building from but to a pretty high degree we were also building something from scratch.
01:57 DK: What structure does that need in terms of building from scratch to support the innovation that you guys had to do, or not had to but did do, sorry, especially between the ’08 and the ’12 campaign you talked about some of the platforms weren’t even existing then. But how do you create the conditions for that or to support innovation? What was the vision, the action plans and even the personnel, how does that manifest?
02:25 Teddy: It’s funny that you ask that because you know I think about this a lot. I think that we especially in the states tend to have this, well I shouldn’t say that, maybe all over the world too, tend to have this — we love this idea of the heroic figure or the big brain and so we love the idea of a Steve Jobs type who just knows what the future is going to look like and will stop at nothing to make sure that it happens and it happens according to his or her specifications. And I think in reality most change and most innovation gets done by organizations and it gets done by teams. And I think unless you’re going to have a once in a generation type as I’m sure Steve Jobs, who I never met or anything, was with potentially rare exceptions. The job of a leader of any kind of creative organization or organizations trying to build something or innovate is to create a condition in an environment for innovation and really not to be the personal source of ideas all that much which was a relief to me because if I had been expected to be the personal source of ideas all the time I’m not sure how I would have done. But I wound up being able to hire about 250 or so people. Even if I were just an idea factory, realistically I’m not going to be responsible for more than probably five percent of the good ideas. So the whole game as far as I was concerned was trying to hire the right people, set them up in the right way, and do everything I could to facilitate a culture and set of processes in which we were able to be innovative and do so as a group. When I think back on some of the really creative things we did from a sort of media and contact perspective or some of the innovative things we did from a platform and technology perspective in a lot of cases you can’t point to an individual owner or even necessarily individual driver of that idea. These are things that emerged from a lot of discussion and a lot of incremental change that sort of at some point reach a bit of tipping point or anyway a bit of a catharity (phonetic) point where everyone realizes there’s a bigger idea here than we thought or just sort of popped out of somebody’s brain in the course of a brainstorm and that somebody may not have been senior or may not have been someone who you necessarily thought of as creative but a well structured brainstorm is going to get people to speak ideas that they don’t necessarily know that they have. And there’s lots of different ways in which these things happen but virtually all of them came by way of process. Almost none of them came by way of a bunch dudes, and I say dudes because dudes seem to flatter themselves into thinking that they’re the drivers of technology innovation. What happened was very much not that a bunch of dudes sat in a room and thought how can we be smart and just came up with stuff.
05:30 DK: And how much was that a conscious decision, not to employ the idea guys but more just the skills, the personalities that would create the ideas, was that very conscious?
05:40 Teddy: Yeah I suppose. I guess for me, just speaking for myself personally I guess for me it was just natural because I never — I had been groomed and trained in systems like that and not personally a subscriber in this idea that some really smart guy that some really smart guy is just going to come up with all the ideas that are going to change the world or change the way the campaign is run. And certainly for myself being the person entering the role as the head of that team knew perfectly well that I personally couldn’t be counted on to produce that kind of idea. It was always — the way you asked the question, it’s not as if we thought well are we going to have a very systematic team or approach or are we just going to fly by the seat of our pants. But we just always thought about things in the former way and built ourselves toward that goal.
06:40 DK: And what models did you use when you were sitting down with the team? Did you use a design thinking methodology? Did you use just pen and paper brainstorm it out guys or did you use the technology to drive the innovation?
06:55 Teddy: A huge priority with us was email and I always talk about email because you would be hard pressed to think of a topic in technology that is considered less sexy or less cool or of less interest to people. People don’t like email and it doesn’t even feel like technology. It’s been around forever. In a context of an American political campaign or any kind of fundraising endeavor, which was a big part of what we were doing, it happens to be extremely important because it happens to be the very best way to get people to give money online. And so we were called upon to be innovative within the email space, again it sounds kind of oxymoronic. So within that space there were thousands of little innovations about how you do certain things that the world may not recognize or particularly appreciate as innovations but they absolutely were from what we were doing at the time. On the flip side — or you could say the same about video. You could say the same about social. I focus on email because I think it’s a great, surprising example. But then you look at something like — and when it came to videos or when it came to just sort of programmatic responses to this or that kind of prompt, what do we do when Romney says this? What do we do about this or that policy? We tried to basically study from brainstorming best practices so I don’t know that we were particularly innovative in our process of innovation. We basically copied the way that a lot of the agencies that we’ve worked with, tried to brainstorm and also tried to be respectful to the way that people like to work. I’m thinking of one particular person on my team who would probably would not have spoken up at a brainstorm if you’d given her 100 chances but she happens to be the opposite of most people where if you put her in a room all by herself with a laptop or a pad of paper, you’ll get ten good ideas. So for her that was what we wanted in terms of brainstorming and it was no need to waste her time forcing her into a big public discussion that wasn’t her jam. And for other people that piece of paper would be blank after an hour and they really need the iterative discussion process. So we tried to do the brainstorm tricks and get better at it as we go. But then I think about something else like the technology innovations and those — when I think about the really big stuff that we built or at least within the context I don’t know that we even really had, I’m thinking about it now. I don’t want to misspeak but I don’t even know that we had brainstorms per say. A lot of those just came around through a process of lots of smart people working towards the same goal and either a light bulb goes off or you sort of have this collective realization that you’re talking about something bigger than you thought. So for example a tool that I think of as being probably the most innovative thing that we build from a technology perspective was this social matching tool where we took the voter file which is just basically a big consumer database of everybody in the United States who’s registered to vote and we overlay that on social graph data so that if you’re a supporter and you’re watching a video about the president’s economic record we can say to you, “Don’t just go share this on Facebook where a fraction of your friends are going to see it and you have no control or visibility as to who those are. We’ve matched your Facebook friends against the voter file so instead here are your ten friends who we think are persuadable voters and very likely to be persuaded by this particular message. Go share this with them first.” And we had a lot of success with that and it’s to my knowledge the first time anything of that nature was built even in the corporate sector let alone politics. And so I think about something like that and it’s not like we sat down and thought what can we build? Let’s just come up with every last thing we can build. And it’s not like we sat down and thought is there some clever way to integrate social data and voter file data? But over the course of time you’ve got lots of smart people working really hard for a long time and you realize you have lots of data and you start talking about is there some way to cross pollinate them or consolidate them? And all of a sudden you realize well wait a second what we’re really building here is kind of a social match to the voter file and wouldn’t that be cool? And if you did that, well wait a second you could probably drop the faces of people’s friends into emails or you could do this way or that way. So we just wound up with something that I think was fairly, I don’t know that you’d say ground breaking but it was new for campaigns and I think new to some degree for social marketing in general but not through a brainstorm process, just through this kind of ongoing iteration.
12:04 DK: And how much of those ideas were iterative processes, in other words were exposed to the market or the uses before they were finished, just to see if they were working? How much did you test in the field?
12:19 Teddy: Well we tested in the field a lot. It would depend on the product so I don’t want to give a too boringly detailed answer. Something like the thing I just described, we basically finished and then deployed and then tried to improve upon once it was deployed but there was a lot of database matching and related works to do and that just simply had to happen before it could go anywhere. Something like dashboard which was our organizing platform so that was the tool that allowed live BM (phonetic) and download a call list and call voters or talk to your volunteer leader and your fellow volunteers and that kind of thing. Something like that we absolutely put out a minimal viable product but formally and informally collected user feedback and continued to build it over the course of the ensuing year. So it varied a lot.
13:15 DK: Okay, now I want to ask you a question before we move on because I want to talk to you about what you’re doing now rather than what you did, but one question around failure, did you have a lot of them and did you celebrate them or was it something you caught early? Was it a process around failure there?
13:33 Teddy: Yeah, I’ve thought about that a lot in retrospect. I can’t say we were celebrating failure at the time. One fact of campaign was that obviously any kind of business environment or non profit environment or anything else is not going to have a lot of money or time to waste but I don’t think we’d be flattering ourselves to say in the campaign world you have even less of that than anybody else. So you do try not to fail but at the same time we also try, and again I think this is stuff I’ve really figured out in retrospect more than necessarily did deliberately at the time, but I think we absolutely try to create an environment in which failure was okay and I guess the way I would put it is we were so much a culture of testing and experimentation and it is intrinsic to that very concept that some experiments are going to fail. Almost nothing went out without several versions of that, if we’re talking about creative products, emails, social advertisements, whatever virtually nothing saw the light of day without several versions of that thing being created. And so obviously you do that with the expectation and understanding that some are going to be clunkers and will never see the light of day. But even when it came to stuff that couldn’t be tested because it wasn’t worth the expense of having it tested or we just had to get it out and there was not time, I think the environment was so informed by an embracive testing and a desire to just throw a lot of stuff out there and see what works and see what doesn’t and learn from that that it lowered the stakes for people when they did want to put something out that couldn’t be tested. So you want to put out some interactive tool and again it’s just not the kind of thing that can or should be tested because we’re so used to this experience of creating ten things specifically so that nine of them will never see the light of day so that in the case where you’re really just creating one thing and you put it out and you put a lot of time to it and guess what it doesn’t have any impact and people don’t really like it? Well that’s okay. That’s no different from the nine things that I deliberately created for that reason. And then we certainly had a culture, a very sort of non punitive culture and there was no, unless you really acted in bad faith or did something dumb there would be particular consequence to a good faith experiment gone awry.
16:11 DK: So taking what you know then and now what you’re doing for clients both corporate and I would imagine NGOs and other government departments maybe, that precision strategies now are you doing pretty much what you were doing back then?
16:26 Teddy: Well now we’re working with a largely corporate clientele and some campaigns and some non profits so it’s fairly mixed. And what I would say is we are trying to apply the thought process though not necessarily the process, process to the businesses that we’re now working with. Now there are cases where a business is just simply behind the times and you can get a lot of business done, you can do good work for them and be helpful to them simply by telling them what it was we did on the campaign a year and a half ago and then they’ll catch up and maybe in a year and a half they’ll have to move on from there. But obviously that’s not exactly what anybody wants to be doing is just regurgitating the same learning’s from a year and a half ago and by the way soon there won’t be a market for that. So I think what we’re more concerned with is there was to some degree a strategic underpinning or maybe it was a methodological underpinning or some kind of underpinning to the way we did our work. We were very much not on the campaign just trying to be the smartest group of people we could be. I think you get a lot of smart people together who often get nowhere or produce the exact wrong thing because they’re thinking about things exclusively from a vantage of how can we be really smart and not from an vantage of how can we be really strategic and get a whatever the job done. And so in that sense I think there are applicable sort of micro level goals about how everybody ought to not necessarily go out and get voters because not everybody needs to do that but think about the changing landscape of technology, think about the ways in which social media is changing people intrinsically and how that in turn is going to change their relationship and expectations in respect to big organizations and that kind of thing. And so that sometimes means simply telling people the way we did it on the campaign and hopefully most of the time means trying to solve new problems in a new way.
18:32 DK: And what are the attributes with the leaders that you’re currently working with because I can imagine your sit down sessions, your workshops, etc are probably with an executive board or something like that. So they’re leaders within the respectable organizations. What are the attributes you’re trying to cultivate in them to drive that evolution, that methodological approach that you’ve kind of cited there?
18:58 Teddy: Well it depends. I think the reality is the people who are occupying sort of C Suite for a lack of a better term in big organizations by and large didn’t come up through digital in terms of their own profession or specialty or even at a time when digital was a big concern. And so even if they’re highly innovative people, highly smart, they read all the right trade publications and that kind of thing, it just hasn’t been their concern and hasn’t been their life in the way that a 21 year old today was twelve or maybe eleven when Facebook was created. So these people don’t need to be told that people don’t really want to sit through a boring content and they don’t really want to — they’re engaging with brands in a different way and they’re a bit a more skeptical of stuff that’s forced upon them rather than what they’ve gone out and discovered or had recommended to them by friends or validators (phonetic) that they trust, stuff that I think is very, very obviously virtually anyone below a certain age or who’s really steeped in digital culture. It does not necessarily come obviously to a lot of business owners or executives. So a lot of what we’re trying to do especially when it comes to talking to them is less of here the way in which you ought to be targeting and here is the way in which you ought to be thinking about social but just trying to help them understand the world is change and your response to that change has to be something other than go allocate some money towards banner ads that used to be spent on TV ads. It’s probably got to be a little more fundamental than that. And the way in which everybody relates to you is changing and if you’re not feeling it yet, believe me you’re going to feel that when your 21 year old who was twelve when Facebook was created, is 35. And so a lot of time we’re trying to create shifts in perception about the whole world and the way it works even as we’re also trying to also move the needle on this or that business practice or how folks target or how folks sell or how folks market, that kind of thing.
21:04 DK: So who out there is doing creative stuff that is pushing the boundaries that is impressing you today?
21:11 Teddy: It’s obviously an interesting time. I think innovation for the last five years or so has been on the software side and apps and so forth and so you’ve seen both start ups and huge companies reallocate all their attentions toward those things and I think we’re reaching a point where I think it’s quite clear that the phone is a pretty cool device until there’s some major breakthrough, it does what we can reasonably expect it to do. And the app market is pretty crowded so what I think we’re going to see is a lot more reinvestment in hardware, in some of the non sexy elements of hardware like battery life which is sort of crazy that we haven’t really made improvements in that space, in infrastructure, now the US in particular has a huge problem, almost ecological objection it would seem to investing in infrastructure but it doesn’t surprise me that the biggest merger news of the year has been a thermostat company rather than an app because again I just thing we’re probably approaching a bit of a turn in the cycle of innovation. So that’s a long winded way of not actually name checking anyone but that’s what I think is going on out there.
22:36 DK: That was the first defining innovation podcast. Thanks to Teddy Goff, you can follow him on Twitter at @teddygoff, G-O-double-F. There is more information about him and his work all over the web, check him out, his new company that’s precision strategies, that is on the .com and if you’re interested in subscribing to this podcast please check us out on iTunes. You can just type in defining innovation in the iTunes store on the podcast directly. Please leave a review if you’re into that. That would be wicked. You can also subscribe to my emails on just justadandak.com or even the podcast RSS feed there, that’s J-U-S-T-A-D-A-N-D-A-K.com, justadandak.com. My name’s DK. You’ve been awesome. I’ll catch up with you soon.
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