The political blogosphere is buzzing about Obama campaign manager David Plouffe’s interview. Soren Dayton argues the lessons of the Obama campaign were “budgeting, technology, field, and media,” while Patrick Ruffini finds that the important lesson is that “Obama ran a better kind of offline campaign.” Although it is quite true that these are some critical lessons, as a business nerd and student at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, I think there’s a massive lesson that pundits are missing: Obama for President wasn’t run like a traditional campaign, but instead like a huge corporation. I don’t believe that any campaign on this level was ever able to accomplish this with nearly the same success as Plouffe and company.
Plouffe makes this unmistakenably clear throughout his interview:
There are business analogies. One is, we’re a startup, we had to go from zero to 60 in a matter of weeks. Our company, if we were successful, would only last two years at the most. … We had over 5,000 employees… And we were an organization about accountability. Down to the entry-level staffer, we measured their job performance based on metrics.
What specific trends that the most successful modern corporations employ were echoed by the Obama campaign?
- “Know your customer.” I’ve probably heard this from my entrepreneurship advisor a thousand times now, but only because it is perhaps the single most important phrase in business. Obama’s campaign really knew its customers – just look at the way it outreached to young voters.
- A consistent message and high-impact branding. These two go hand in hand. Take Apple, a highly successful company even despite the recession, for example: they have a simple but highly memorable logo, effective messaging (i.e. “Get a Mac” ads), and a well-designed and innovative website. Barack Obama’s branding and messaging was as good as any corporation.
- Job performance measurement and personal accountability. Think quarterly or annual reviews at your place of work. As quoted earlier, Plouffe confirms the importance of this in the Obama campaign: “Down to the entry-level staffer, we measured their job performance based on metrics.”
- Fiscal accountability. Successful corporations have very specific budgets, and virtually all spending is highly scrutinized. Plouffe notes that, “People on the campaign could not make more than a certain amount—$12,000 a month… If you were a deputy you got paid X, if you were an assistant, you got paid Y… From a fiscal management standpoint, Obama was very clear that he did not want to end up with a debt in the primary or the general, so we just planned accordingly. We didn’t spend beyond our means.” (emphasis added)
- A willingness to take significant financial risks and depart with the norm to be on the cutting-edge. This sentiment was echoed by the Obama campaign at many levels. Team Obama got the idea of peer production, which is quickly becoming the premiere business model of leading corporations like IBM, Boeing, BMW, and Goldcorp. In addition, as Patrick and Soren point out, Obama invested the campaign’s resources in a very unique way – remember the advertisements the campaign ran on an Xbox 360 racing game?
- A corporate infrastructure. Since when does a political campaign have both a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and a new media director – let alone a Chief [Anything] Officer?
In business, constant innovation is crucial. Fall behind and your competitors will likely crush you. Find a decisive edge and you stand to profit immensely. Plouffe’s comments and the results of the election demonstrate that business and politics are actually two very similar animals.