Exclusive: WPP tapped Cambridge Analytica to go after Army's ad business

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Credit: Illustration by Ad Age

The data firm of the hour, Cambridge Analytica, also had interactions with at least one advertising agency, Ad Age has learned.

WPP teamed up with the controversial company in a bid to win the U.S. Army's ad business, according to people familiar with the situation.

The Army is undergoing an agency review for its account, with agency holding-company giants WPP, Omnicom and Interpublic Group in contention. Interpublic's McCann has been handling the account for years, but its contract is up in September.

WPP teamed up with Cambridge Analytica to woo the Army with the data firm's supposed expertise in social media. It made just one pitch with Cambridge Analytica, according to one person familiar with the situation. The relationship has ended, the person says.

WPP and the Army declined to comment. Cambridge Analytica did not return a request for comment.

(UPDATE: "Cambridge Analytica were involved in a pitch process with WPP as a potential sub-contractor, but are no longer part of our engagement with the client," WPP said in a statement.)

Cambridge Analytica was caught in a firestorm this week after The New York Times and others reported it had used improperly acquired data on 50 million Facebook users in its work to promote the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Its executives were also caught in U.K. media stings that appeared to show them discussing shady tactics.

"After the election, Cambridge Analytica did a victory lap and went to all the agencies and a lot of brands saying they got the president elected and here's how they did it," says one top ad executive, speaking on condition of anonymity. "A lot of people on our side thought they were scumbags, sketchy, but apparently they snapped up WPP."

The Times also noted that Cambridge Analytica had tried to parlay its election triumph into new business from brands including Mercedes Benz, AB In Bev and Met Life.

Cambridge Analytica has close ties to powerful far-right Republican businessman and fundraiser Robert Mercer, as well as to Steve Bannon, and the firm rose to prominence after helping facilitate Trump's victory in the 2016 election. Some credited the firm with almost mythic powers in its supposed ability to hypertarget messages on social media.

Part of its pitch to candidates and brands has been that it has expertise in "psychographic" profiling, meaning it can build models of consumers based not only on demographics and location, but can map people's habits, hobbies and values.

The Times reported that the company got data for that profiling from a researcher who built a Facebook app to gather intelligence on 50 million users. Facebook says the researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, claimed the app had academic purposes.

In November, TechCrunch interviewed Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix, who had challenged traditional creative-led agencies, saying they "got it coming." Nix spoke well of one advertising dignitary, however: WPP CEO Martin Sorrell. "Within WPP, obviously Martin has made a huge effort to pivot his business," Nix told TechCrunch. "He's making a huge effort every day."

Cambridge Analytica suspended Nix on Tuesday following a report that seemed to show him suggesting that his company had used bribery and seduction to achieve results for clients.

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