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With New Innovation Unit, Republicans Hope to Close Tech Gap With Democrats

Goal Is To Improve Ecosystem of Voter Data Available To All GOP Candidates

By Published on . 3

Huge brands like Target and General Motors have already opened tech offices in the Bay Area, and now the Republican party is following suit.

The Republican National Committee announced yesterday that it's formally launching an innovation unit called Para Bellum Labs. Effectively, its mission is to do what Team Obama did in 2008 and 2012, but for GOP candidates across the board: use insights from data to enable more targeted marketing to potential voters.

The RNC's chief digital officer Chuck DeFeo also said he wants it to function like a corporate "center of excellence" for Republican campaigns to emulate.

RNC Chief Digital Officer Chuck DeFeo
RNC Chief Digital Officer Chuck DeFeo

The group is actively hiring with 20 job openings split between the RNC's headquarters in Washington, D.C., and an office San Mateo, Calif., where it hopes to attract top Silicon Valley talent.

The name of the group has a militaristic bent that invokes its serious purpose. It comes from a Latin adage that's translated as, "If you want peace, prepare for war." Gawker points out it is also similar to a the name of a Nazi pistol.

"We picked a Latin phrase that represents our mission," a spokeswoman said. "We have big challenges ahead of us with data and digital and it's important to our success as a party. Beyond that there are many things that come up when you look at Para Bellum Labs."

Mr. DeFeo said it was literally picked out of a hat that staffers had put suggestions into.

Here's our conversation with him, condensed and lightly edited.

Ad Age: What's your ambition for Para Bellum Labs?

Chuck DeFeo: We've created this startup within the party that is a team of engineers, data analysts, digital marketers -- and that means creatives [as well as] people who understand deeply within platforms. [It's] to make sure all that we're doing at a data, technology and communications level is working in sync to improve and make more efficient and effective the way that we contact voters.

Ad Age: Are you hopeful that you'll be able to close the technology gap with Democrats?

Mr. DeFeo: I think this is a strategic moment. I worked at the Republican National Committee in 2002 and then managed the digital effort for President Bush's reelection in 2004, and then I got out of politics. I think there is a cycle that's happened on their side where they've just gotten their guy reelected. And they've had a brain drain on their side. A lot of the skills and capabilities that they had built up for one candidate have moved out of the party. You can look at where a lot of them have gone. They've gone to their own startups; they're going into the private sector. So we've got a strategic moment here where we can build up our own capabilities and leverage the technologies of 2014 to not only move into parity but also potentially surpass them in the election cycles to come.

Ad Age: What types of products will you build?

Mr. DeFeo: It's always going to be about the data and our ability to build an analytics layer on top of it. [And] not only are we using platforms like Facebook, but how are we building our own platforms. Does it take on the form of a walk-list tool? Or a call-from-home tool? How are we building technologies to use the data, use the analytics, to then actually contact voters more effectively. A lot of what we're doing right now is building on the team we have in place and recruiting new people, new skills, new talents, that haven't existed in the Republican party before.

Ad Age: What sorts of people are those?

Mr. DeFeo: We're looking for people who are data analysts, who can actually ask some complex questions and surface the answer to those out of the data. We're looking for people who are engineers who have built applications on top of large data sets. We're looking at people on the digital marketing side who are true SEO experts.

Ad Age: Those sorts of people are much in demand in Silicon Valley. How can you compete with Google and Facebook for them?

Mr. DeFeo: If you're a young 20-something who is extremely talented and looking for that next challenge, yeah, you can go work at Facebook and Google and at Facebook become employee 6,001. But some of them are actually attracted to a startup culture and an environment where it's a smaller team, where the work that you have has greater impact. I think that's one area where we can compete pretty well.

[And] a lot of startups don't succeed. The vast majority don't succeed primarily because of a lack of funding or they're not able to find a market or user base for the products they create. We already have the funding that we need. At the same time, we already have a built-in marketplace.

Ad Age: Would the pitch to them be: come work with us and help elect the next president?

Mr. DeFeo: That is part of it. If you saw the video, that is part of the pitch. I think the key pitch here is that you're going to have impact, both at a technology level and at a level of the direction where our country's going to go.

Ad Age: Who are you actually building the data products for? Congressional candidates?

Mr. DeFeo: Every Republican candidate in America.

Ad Age: Would be it mayors and very local offices as well? How does someone get access?

Mr. DeFeo: What we're really trying to do is not only just have that voter history but build out the transactional data [e.g., records of phone calls made by campaign volunteers] that actually moves us into a big-data environment. So within the RNC we're building out the capabilities to actually record that transaction-level data to better understand what's important to you so we can better communicate to you.

What we're trying to do is improve the Republican ecosystem of data and to make it more accessible to anybody who's actually the nominee with an R after their name.

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