On the Hill: GeniusRocket's Mark Walsh

On the Hill: GeniusRocket's Mark Walsh
The former chief technology adviser at the DNC is now pushing the political world on the power of crowdsourcing.

Mark Walsh has never been wowed by the creative genius of his party’s top campaign professionals. His frustrations—sown during his time at the Democratic National Committee and on Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) 2004 presidential campaign—helped form the philosophy that drives his latest venture.

GeniusRocket, which Walsh founded in 2008, bills itself as the “first curated crowdsourcing company” and its clients run the gamut from the DCCC to the National Association of Federal Credit Unions to Amazon.com.     

For the uninitiated, crowdsourcing is a marketing approach that applies the creative talents of large groups to fill a client’s particular needs. The idea is that by opening up the process and inviting a number of marketing and other professionals to apply their brainpower, you’re bound to discover the needle in a haystack for a client.

For Walsh, an investor and venture capitalist, his time in campaign politics (a stint as chief technology adviser at the DNC and the director of Internet strategy for Kerry’s presidential campaign) brought into focus a big void in the political marketplace.

C&E sat down with Walsh to talk about how crowdsourcing works and whether campaign pros are truly ready to embrace it. 

C&E: Where’s the value in crowdsourcing ?

Walsh: When you think about marketing and advertising in general, you can see why the need for crowdsourcing is big and getting bigger. In today’s world, marketers know everything about you.We know who you are, we know where you are and we know how to reach you. But then we turn around and show you a message that implies we know nothing about you. It’s complete stupidity in the appeal. What’s starting to happen is that consumers, be they voters or Crest toothpaste buyers, are basically saying, “You’re insulting me by showing me something that demonstrates you’re not paying any attention.” Crowdsourcing offers a way to get lots of executional plays on a message and do it more affordably and better than Madison Avenue and the big ad agencies can. 

C&E: Explain curated crowdsourcing.

Walsh: Well, we actually started with the more natural model of crowdsourcing, which is that you ask a lot of people for help and see what you get. But that’s a lot like open mic night at a comedy club. You’re probably guaranteed to see 18 really shitty comics, most of who are very upset, emotionally drained people that are just kind of working out their issues on the stage. But if you go to a comedy club with a professional headliner, you’ll see vetted comics who are on their way up. Open mic was our original model. But now, we do curated crowdsourcing. So rather than asking 20,000 people, we ask a vetted subset—say 1,000 people—many of them are actually small agencies. We invite them into a competition. So when the DCCC comes to us with an idea for a video, we then invite 30 people to submit something. Of those, maybe 15 get chosen to go to the next stage by us and the client. Those 15 do a storyboard and then maybe five are chosen to go out and make the video. For the client, it’s fast, it’s custom and they can develop a stable of people who know their brand and who they can go back to repeatedly and just flick a switch and get good stuff.

C&E: Is it a struggle to convince the campaign world to try this?

Walsh: At times, yes. There’s a line I use a lot. I actually think I invented it—politics is a one day sale with 100 percent market share. What amazes me, and I say this lovingly, is that campaigns and parties will routinely blow an extraordinary amount of cash on stuff that’s actually not trackable. Or they blow even more money on consultants who purchase media for them and then skim—or, I’m sorry—receive a percent of the media buy. They then look at new platforms, which are totally trackable—every single click and every single dollar—and say, “$15,000? That’s ridiculous.” It blows my mind. Utilizing these newer platforms and fresh ideas is the way to develop a direct relationship with a customer. I do think the political world is starting to get smarter about it, though and I hope it continues.

C&E: Working in party politics, I’m guessing you had some ideas that campaigns were pretty skeptical of?

Walsh: Well, in 2002 Terry McAuliffe asked me to join the DNC, which was fascinating. I came in and said, “Technology is about scalability. Buy once, use many.” As far as I can tell in politics, it’s the reverse, you buy many and use once. Think of Windows—it’s an operating system. From that OS you then build something called Microsoft Office and then you have Outlook, Excel and PowerPoint. So you have all these applications hanging off the operating system. I suggested building a Democratic operating system and from that we’d have mayoral, congressional, senatorial and gubernatorial campaigns that will hang off like applications. There will be templetized web presences, data hygiene and a wide variety of tools and tactics, all of which we’ll build at the DNC level and then sell to each of these candidacies at a price they can never mimic if they went out and bought it themselves. The candidate saves money, the campaign saves money and most importantly, the knowledge loop from these campaigns comes back in and the system gets smarter. This is the business I was in at AOL and all of these other technology companies. But for the political world, this was relatively shocking to the system and as you might imagine, both internally and externally this was rejected.

Then I joined the Kerry campaign. There I saw a candidate who just wasn’t very web centric. I love the guy, but Sen. Kerry couldn’t tell you what http stood for on a bet. We were trying to get the guy to say, “Go to www.johnkerry.com.” He didn’t do it. It just wasn’t in his DNA. Now, Kerry had very good friends in the direct mail and telemarketing business and they told him I was wrong and told him to put more money into direct mail and phones. So it was an argument I lost because I was swimming upstream. Now, when do people like me stop swimming upstream and when does the theory and reality of crowdsourcing start to really kick in? I actually think we’re close.

C&E: What about message discipline? Why do Republicans tend to be so much better at that?

Walsh: I’ll probably regret this because you’ve got that recorder on. But I’m getting so tired of exactly that. When you boil down the majority of issues about the American experience, from education to the environment to regulation to national defense and you take the labels off, the majority of America actually agrees with traditional Democratic or progressive values. When I was at AOL in the mid-90s there was a great guy I used to work with and he would say, “You know, the problem with AOL is that we could fuck up a two-car funeral.” And he was sort of correct. Well, Democrats can fuck up a two-car funeral. 

And who I am to criticize, because I know it’s a fistfight every day. But what I find most distressing is the message discipline aspect. I do a lot of angel and venture investing and when I invest in a company the old test is this: You ask the CEO, “What business are you in?” Then you go ask the recently hired marketing manager two floors down the same question. Then you go ask the maintenance man the same question. If you get the same answer, write the check. If you get something totally different, you’ve got a problem.

There needs to be some consistency from the leadership down to the executional level about what you do every day. The Democratic Party is bad at that consistency. Now, let me defend my party for a moment. Rush Limbaugh calls his listeners dittoheads and they call themselves that. If you think about it, they are actually proudly saying that they have no original thought. I think that permeates deep into what many would argue is the Republican Party’s brilliance. There’s not a lot of creativity or fresh thinking so you have a party from the leadership on down who say, “Tell me what to think, because I’m ready.” That’s a natural environment for message discipline. Democrats are all about diversity of opinion. And when you have that, you don’t have as much message discipline. I know this sounds like I’m pimping crowdsourcing, but I would suggest that the Democratic Party is the most natural customer for crowdsourcing because they need a bunch of messages that address that diversity of opinion.

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