Election Embeds: Facebook, Google Got Cozy With Campaigns

In Political First, Employees Rolled Up Their Sleeves Alongside Volunteers in the Romney, Obama Offices

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Big brands and agencies are used to lots of attention from Facebook and Google, so it's no surprise the presidential campaigns, with their vast ad budgets, got some, too. But as the election fades, Ad Age has learned more about just how closely the two largest sellers of digital advertising worked with the campaigns, even sending employees to work onsite at campaign offices and their respective digital consultancies.

"Google staffers were hand-selected by Google to sit in our office and help us," confirmed Zac Moffatt, digital director for Mitt Romney's campaign. Multiple people who worked closely with the Barack Obama campaign did not respond to requests for interviews.

"Facebook serviced both the Obama and Romney campaigns as closely as we would any big client," said a Facebook spokesman, though he declined to name or number the employees who worked for President Obama and Mr. Romney.

Digital and social-media platforms, particularly Google and Facebook receive large portions of online political ad budgets. But they also require a new level of specialized expertise. The speed of political campaigning demands constant attention as messaging and targeting are adjusted on the fly. In addition, Google and Facebook frequently change aspects of their ad platforms, creating a desire for someone intricately familiar with them.

Tradition of embedding
The internet giants have a tradition of sending employees to work closely with advertisers and agencies, sometimes taking desks within the building. Google, for example, sent several employees to Procter & Gamble's Tide division as part of a talent exchange in 2008. "We've worked onsite with a number of clients and agencies to help them develop and implement their digital campaigns," said a Google spokeswoman. She declined to comment on similar relationships with political clients.

But while the practice may be business-as-usual for consumer-packaged goods, this is a first for politics. It raises the question of just how much campaign data were Facebook and Google privy to. "How close are you going to let your vendors in?" said Eric Frenchman, who handled digital ad buys in 2008 for Sen. John McCain's digital consulting firm Connell Donatelli. He said Google did not work closely with the McCain campaign. "I guess I grew up in the old school, where your own data is your own data."

Added another consultant who's worked with Democratic and progressive groups: "I think it would raise eyebrows -- you're actually embedding people with a presidential campaign?" The Center for Responsive Politics declined to comment.

It raises another question: Where does selling products and services end and strategic consulting begin? "It creates a very awkward situation," said an exec at an online ad network specializing in political ad buys. "Google has all this control over the pipeline of inventory and now they're getting potentially into the strategy and the spending decisions. I find that troubling."

Big spenders
Exactly how much money the Romney and Obama camps spent with Google and Facebook is not known. Both campaigns used outside firms to handle their online ad buys; Targeted Victory, a firm co-founded by Mr. Moffatt, did digital ad buys and other digital work for the Romney camp; Bully Pulpit Interactive did the same for the Obama camp. It's not clear that the 2012 presidential campaigns spent as much as the typical large commercial brand on Google or Facebook.

By using these outside firms, campaigns avoid having to report the amount of money they paid to specific media outlets for ads or related services, making it easier to report their disbursements to the Federal Election Commission and providing less information for the prying eyes of media, campaign observers and opponents. They were required merely to report what they paid to the digital-media consultancies, despite the fact that Google and Facebook staffers were sometimes embedded in campaign offices rather than with the consulting firms.

Google and Facebook executives told Ad Age the attention they gave the campaigns was normal for any big client in need of extra support. Still, Google worked with its lawyers to ensure work being done by embedded employees was done at the direction of Google.

In 2012, Google and Facebook had separate salespeople dedicated either to Republicans, Democrats or Independent expenditure and advocacy groups -- aka Super PACs -- to ensure knowledge about media buys and spending plans didn't leak to opponents or, in the case of Super PACs, to like-minded groups that were legally prohibited from coordinating with the official candidate campaigns.

Moreover, on the issue of partisanship, having Facebook and Google execs helping direct buys could potentially be concerning to the GOP, considering that top execs of both companies publicly support President Obama. Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg held a fundraiser for his re-election campaign at her home. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt was a special guest at a fundraiser for him.

Jan Witold Baran, a partner at Wiley Rein, a law firm that specializes in election law, says the embeds are perfectly legal and chalks them up to old-fashioned hustling by new ad-sellers looking to grab campaign dollars. "I don't think that traditional media outlets are as proactive as some of these internet sites that sell advertising," he said.

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