The Clintons Have an Old Friend in Data Giant Acxiom

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Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is greeted by Bill Clinton at the end of the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on September 26.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is greeted by Bill Clinton at the end of the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on September 26. Credit: JOE RAEDLE/AFP/Getty Images
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Acxiom, one of the world's most pervasive collectors and connectors of consumer data, has deep roots in Little Rock, Ark., so it's no coincidence that the company has some ties to the presidential power couple who got their start in that river city.

Acxiom's donations to the Clintons, a speech by Bill Clinton at the firm's annual client gathering, an appearance of a top Acxiom exec in a 2007 Hillary for President campaign video, and lobbyist connections suggest that the bonds between the Clintons and the company could be as strong as their Little Rock foundation.

Ms. Clinton is now favored to win the presidency at a time when federal rules over data marketing by companies including Acxiom are growing more limiting.

Enduring relationship
"I first met Hillary in August of 1974," says Jerry Jones, Acxiom's chief ethics and legal officer, exec VP and assistant secretary, in the 2007 Hillary for President video. He goes on to recall early days as a friend of the up-and-coming political duo while working with Ms. Clinton at Rose Law Firm in Little Rock. "I would see her and Bill from time to time," he says. "I remember helping them paint their kitchen on California Street in Fayetteville, Arkansas -- this real ugly orange."

On a drizzly morning in March 2013, executives from the world's largest brands sat in an intimate amphitheater in New York's Guggenheim Museum, peering up at the small stage mere feet away, as President Bill Clinton spoke in a tone that was slightly more raspy than usual. The former ruler of the free world was not feeling well, but he couldn't disappoint Mr. Jones or the company that had been a bedrock of Arkansas business for so long.

Mr. Clinton was the keynote speaker at Acxiom's annual client event, an exclusive affair featuring presentations, nighttime schmoozing and a smattering of product pitches from Acxiom's top dogs.

"He didn't bring his A-game," said Acxiom CEO Scott Howe of Mr. Clinton in an interview with Ad Age later that month, before rating the President's C-game probably better than most other speakers' best efforts. Mr. Howe, a former Microsoft executive hired by Acxiom in 2011 in part to steer the company into the digital world, met Mr. Clinton for the first time that day. He's said he can see the Clinton Library from his condo in Little Rock, where Acxiom is headquartered.

Mr. Clinton did eventually talk data during the speech, remarking on the power of data for good. Acxiom might make the bevy of information it collects from countless public and private sources available to help people, he suggested.

The company has put its money toward helping others. Clinton Foundation public records show that Acxiom has donated a total of $1 million to $5 million to the organization, which funds health, climate and economic development initiatives across the globe. According to an Acxiom spokeswoman, the company promised $750,000 to the foundation towards the capital campaign for the Clinton Presidential Center and Library, structuring the donation to be paid in annual installments of $60,000 a year. Acxiom made an additional donation of $250,000 to the foundation in place of Mr. Clinton's speaker's fee.

Earlier this year Acxiom's PAC gave $10,000 to the Hillary Victory Fund, the Clinton camp's joint fundraising committee with the Democratic National Committee. Acxiom also gave $5,000 to her winning 2000 campaign for New York's Senate seat. Federal Election Commission reports show that the company's top execs including Mr. Howe, Mr. Jones and Chief Privacy Officer Jennifer Glasow have regular deductions from their salaries distributed to the Acxiom Corporation Associates PAC.

The PAC regularly gives to both Democratic and Republican candidates, though it did not donate to Donald Trump's presidential campaign.

There's no indication that giving money to the Clinton Foundation or Ms. Clinton's political campaigns has or will give Acxiom or any of the foundation's other donors any preferential treatment by government entities.

Clinton orbit
The donations aren't exactly surprising.

"Like many other Little Rock-based companies, Acxiom donated money to the capital campaign for the creation of the Clinton Presidential Center during its creation several years ago," the Acxiom spokeswoman told Ad Age. "Our support was consistent with the support of other civically minded companies in communities privileged to be home to a presidential center and does not represent an endorsement of any candidate in past or current elections."

As one of the largest employers in Arkansas, Acxiom has circled the Clinton orbit for years. Mr. Jones, the Acxiom exec who spoke in the Clinton camp video (which appears to have been removed from YouTube since it was viewed by Ad Age in 2013), supplies much of the gravitational pull. Before joining Acxiom in 1999, he worked as an attorney at the Rose Law Firm for 19 years, many of them alongside Ms. Clinton.

The legal firm gained national prominence in the mid-90s during investigations into the Clintons' failed Whitewater real estate deal in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. Mr. Jones met with a Whitewater grand jury as part of the investigation in 1997, according to an Associated Press article.

Acxiom lobbyists have had ties to Bill Clinton's presidential administration. Squire Patton Boggs partner Rodney Slater, who served as Transportation Secretary under President Clinton from 1997 through the end of the Clinton presidency, was registered as a lobbyist for Acxiom in 2003, 2004 and 2008.

Former Clinton-era NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and 2004 presidential hopeful Wesley Clark joined Acxiom's board in 2001 and registered to lobby on its behalf in 2002. His apparent mission: to convince lawmakers to update the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, better known as CAPPS II.

Acxiom stood to profit as a contractor supplying data services as part of the post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security initiative. The Transportation Services Administration would provide data on passengers and verify their identification by matching it against consumer information stored by Acxiom. The program was fraught with concerns about consumer privacy from the start.

JetBlue and Acxiom came under fire in a class action lawsuit for allegedly committing deceptive trade practices. Put simply, JetBlue handed over millions of customer records to test a method of screening airline passengers for terrorist threats. The records were matched to Acxiom consumer data featuring social security numbers, income, occupations, home and car ownership and more.

The class action suit was dismissed by a New York judge in 2005 who concluded that, while the passenger data sharing violated their agreement with JetBlue, passengers could not prove they were harmed by the practice. The program was nixed in 2004.

Regulatory pressure
Acxiom, a nearly 50-year-old company, reported $850 million in total revenue for its fiscal year ending in March. Its highest-growth business, LiveRamp, helps hundreds of clients including political advertisers spin their offline customer data into information that can be used to target consumers across the web. The process is known as onboarding.

Though in recent years Acxiom has emphasized its emerging data services, including data onboarding, the company remains one of the oldest data brokers, and as such has been subject to scrutiny from legislators and regulators. Jay Rockefeller, former United States senator from West Virginia, was a supporter of privacy legislation and a persistent critic of Acxiom while in office. He sent letters to Acxiom and other data brokers including Epsilon, Experian and Transunion in 2013 in the hopes of learning details about the firms' data collection and use practices.

Mr. Rockefeller co-sponsored The Data Broker Accountability and Transparency Act of 2014, intended to give consumers access to data held by brokers serving the marketing industry, allowing them to correct information or opt out from use of that data for marketing purposes. Nothing came of the bill.

That same year the Federal Trade Commission expressed concerns regarding the use of offline transaction data for online marketing purposes -- a.k.a. onboarding -- and called on Congress to establish rules requiring data firms to be more transparent about their practices and to give consumers more control.

Acxiom had already seen the regulatory writing on the wall. In 2013 the company introduced a consumer-facing system intended to give people more data transparency and control. Its AboutTheData.com site provides information about the company's practices, how it categorizes people into consumer segments, and allows them to correct information and opt out of some data use.

Other players
The company is not the only Clinton Foundation donor trying to make the most of consumer data. AT&T, Verizon and Yahoo have all given to the foundation: AT&T has donated between $25,000 and $50,000 to the foundation, Verizon has donated between $100,000 and $250,000 and Verizon Wireless has given between $10,000 and $25,000. Yahoo has given the Clinton Foundation between $1 million and $5 million.

AT&T's plan to buy Time Warner and Verizon's deals for AOL and Yahoo all include plans to combine consumer data to use it more powerfully in advertising. The telcos may be hampered, however, by new Federal Communications Commission privacy rules making it more difficult for internet service providers to use and share certain types of consumer information.

Both companies had cautious praise for aspects of the new FCC rules, which were made official in late October. But Verizon said it would need to take a closer look at them before reaching a final conclusion, and AT&T complained that the agency's definition of web browsing data as "sensitive" data subject to "opt-in" consent from consumers before ISPs can use or share it will only confuse consumers.

Verizon declined to comment for this article. AT&T did not respond to requests for comment.

"The rules will be challenged by industry," said Michelle De Mooy, acting director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's privacy and data project, regarding the new FCC privacy rules. "That is something I think the next administration will contend with."

It's unclear whether a new administration will bring changes to leadership at the FCC or the FTC, or exactly how the election will alter the makeup of Congress, but any such changes could affect the practices of companies like Acxiom, Verizon and AT&T.

The Data and Marketing Association (until recently known as the Direct Marketing Association) is an outspoken critic of the new FCC rules. The trade group, which counts Acxiom Chief Privacy Officer Jennifer Barrett Glasgow as its vice chairman, donated between $10,000 and $25,000 to the Clinton Foundation "in lieu of a speaking fee" for a 2014 speaking engagement at a DMA event featuring Chelsea Clinton.

When asked about its donations to the Clinton Foundation in light of the potential regulatory environment under a new president, Acxiom referred Ad Age to a statement from DMA Senior VP of Communications Lindsay Hutter. She told Ad Age that a question regarding the DMA's donation to the Clinton Foundation in relation to its opposition to the new FCC privacy rules and potential regulations under a Hillary Clinton administration was "a non-starter question."

"The two matters are completely unrelated and it would be a misrepresentation of the facts to suggest otherwise," Ms. Hutter added.

"Given that DMA's contribution was to a charitable, nonprofit organization, it did not represent an endorsement of any political candidate then or now," she said. "DMA has not contributed to or endorsed any presidential candidates throughout its history, nor has DMA had any business dealings with the Clinton Foundation since Chelsea Clinton's speech over two years ago."