Rick Wilson interview, part 2: The Lincoln Project co-founder on killing ads that don’t work—and why Steve Bannon ‘must be destroyed’
What Lincoln Project ad surprised you, in terms of performance?
The ad we ran about Joe Biden with the kid with a stutter.
You mean “Decency”?
Yeah. I have to tell you, I’ve never seen anything test like that ad. Modest little ad, nothing fancy. But it hammered with suburban women. You know, you rarely get a silver bullet in politics. Political ads, if you move three, four points, you’re like, “Damn, that’s a good spot.” But it was like a switch went off in people’s heads when they saw “Decency.” Yeah, like, "Fuck Donald Trump. Never again. I’m done.”
And the ad was “found art,” in a way. Basically, other than the Trump bits, it was raw footage of Joe Biden just spending time with a kid.
Yeah. It was crappy phone video. The last 15 seconds—even I get emotional about it. That kid, like, he needed that moment.
You showed the product—the candidate—in a way that political ads often don’t.
But in general, though, The Lincoln Project didn’t do a lot of testing before you released ads, right?
We didn’t do a lot of focus-grouping. We didn’t want to. It slows you down, it denatures your product. Which is not to say our ad process wasn’t entirely Darwinian. I mean, we were out there all the time, testing in the market. How do we test? We watch what people do on social—view counts, shares, everything else.
Our data science team and our analytics team includes guys from sabermetrics. You know, baseball season was slow. “Hey, can I come over to The Lincoln Project for six months?” “Well, sure.” Because we love smart people who do math. You know, me and Stuart and Steve and Reed [TLP Senior Adviser Stuart Stevens and Co-Founders Steve Schmidt and Reed Galen]—we’re humanities guys, you know? But we were always watching. And because our content flow was so big, if there was something that wasn’t working? It died. We killed it.
Give me an example.
We did an advertising effort, started up in Florida, and the spend from everyone else there was so enormous we could not cut through. Even with our very, very good-quality media, we weren’t making it into enough markets with enough money. We did two experiments, one ad for veterans in Duval County, Florida, and one for Puerto Ricans in Seminole County—we flipped both those counties, but we couldn’t scale enough to do Broward and Palm Beach and Dade County. We just didn’t have the money.
Even with $80 million?
Yeah, well, look, we had nine other states we were working in. But we pulled the plug on everything but those two experiments in Florida. And we moved that money to Georgia. And we did the same thing in North Carolina, and we moved it to Pennsylvania.
We were kind of proud of the fact that we weren’t ever going to chase a bad ball. Once something wasn’t working, you know, kill your darlings. Look, I’m a Florida guy. I would have loved to stay in Florida! But just, you know, mathematically and statistically and politically, we were better off by being in other places. So we went to other places.
Tell me about your D.C. strategy. I want to hear more about your psyops—your “psychological warfare effort against the president,” as you put it—which involved buying airtime in Washington, D.C.
One advantage we had is that Trump is—and I say this without exaggerating—Trump is insane. He is not capable of sustaining a campaign. Because he has a mental disease or disorder that prevents him from focusing on anything for longer than five seconds. And so we knew any time we got an ad that got in his head, we were buying Joe Biden something he couldn’t buy with all the money in the world. And that was time.
You were destabilizing Trump and therefore destabilizing his whole campaign operation.
Right. Because, you know, when we—[laughter]—when we ran the now-infamous Brad Parscale ad—
That worked very quickly, didn’t it? [See: “Trump just demoted his campaign manager. Watch the weird personal attack ad that helped do him in,” from Ad Age, July 16.]
Here’s the thing: Brad got fired formally a month later. But he was taken out of control of any money and power about 30 hours after that ad hit.
And then, of course, he did a nice job of self-destructing on top of all that, with his moment with the police. [See: “Brad Parscale cried during arrest, told officers his wife won’t have sex with him,” per the New York Post, Oct. 7.]
Well, I’m just gonna say this: If my career ends and I’m never naked or half-naked in the back of a police car screaming that my wife won’t have sex with me, I will have had a better life than Brad Parscale [laughter].
You should be okay. You know, just be very vigilant.
That’s never going away [laughter]!
Yeah. So good luck to you on staying on the straight and narrow!
[laughter] I have to say this also about our campaign, which I think is something that hasn’t had a lot of reporting on it yet, is that one of the reasons we were successful—
[The conversation is suddenly interrupted by loud howling.]
That’s not Bannon on your lawn, is it?
[laughter] Sorry, my dogs are going off at FedEx or something. [Addressing the dogs:] Enough! Hey, hey, hey! All of you! That will do nicely. Thank you. Thank you very much, mad men.
But be careful, though. Is Steve Bannon back in prison? It’s hard to know where he is at the moment. [See: “Steve Bannon pleads not guilty to fraud after arrest on luxury yacht,” from The Guardian, Aug. 20.]
Bannon and I have a lot of history. In 2015, when I came out against Trump, a person inside Breitbart News sent me an internal Slack from Bannon. [Editor’s note: Steve Bannon had been serving as executive chairman of Alt-Right site Breitbart News before Trump named him CEO of his campaign in August 2016.] And Bannon said, “I want you to go after Wilson. I want you to go after his kids, his family, his wife, his business, everything. I want to destroy him.” And someone said, “Yeah, he’s gonna punch you back, Steve,” and Steve wrote, “This will be fun.” So, since then, I have pursued Steve Bannon like a wild animal. And I will never—Steven Bannon will never be off the hook for me. Once he goes back to prison, once he gets into prison, I’m gonna ... I’m only just starting.
What, you’re gonna send him letters and postcards in prison? Is that your plan?
Yeah. I’m gonna send him stuff like—I’m gonna send him stuff that it’s gonna make sure that every time he gets a letter, it’s gonna cause him to have a disciplinary hearing [laughter]. He’s a truly repugnant individual who was, you know, kidding aside—
Well, as a marketer, he was deeply effective in his moment.
Yeah. He was a man who was willing to, yeah, to destroy this country in order to try to achieve this far-right, Alt-Right, whatever you want to call it, vision of America that is profoundly anathema to all of our values as a country. So that’s why he must be destroyed [laughter].
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Keep reading: Click here for Part 3 of Simon Dumenco’s interview with Rick Wilson.