In October 2014, a small Austin design firm called thirteen23 was approached to do work on a major political campaign. At the time, the candidate had not yet announced her bid to become president. That wouldn’t happen until April 12, 2015, when Hillary Clinton officially announced her run for president. At this early stage, in fact, her handlers were still referring to her only as “The Candidate” in communications with the firm.
The job was to create digital campaign tools and strategy for the Clinton campaign. Although thirteen23 is not specifically a political design firm — its clients include Honeywell, Netflix, Bose and Microsoft — the Hillary for America team had reason to trust its work. For President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, thirteen23 built the official mobile app, which was part of a highly successful campaign.
With no contract until the candidacy was official and not much more than a handshake agreement to go on at first, thirteen23 got to work. By January of 2015, a six-person team had built out mobile apps, easy-to-use mobile-donation tools, a strategy for handling campaign-trail content generated by Clinton’s team, tools to help volunteers do canvassing and even an app for the new Apple Watch. The project was called “Helicopter,” as in the secrecy of black government helicopters.
“From a contract perspective,” said Doug Cook, executive director of thirteen23, “this looked a bit more like a blood oath than anything — we were often reminded that we could all lose our jobs if any information were to get out.”
But when the Clinton team officially launched its campaign in April of 2015, it didn’t deploy the work that thirteen23 created, opting instead for a more modest digital strategy that continued to evolve as the campaign went on. It put a heavier emphasis on social media and developing tools for internal communication.
Although Cook stayed in touch with the Clinton for America team as the campaign wore on in the likelihood the studio might do more design work if she were to be elected, the job was over.
“My last emails kind of trail off from April to June of 2015,” said program director Lani DeGuire, who worked on the Helicopter project. “Our engagement with them had a start and a finish. Their focus was just elsewhere. They certainly de-prioritized the mobile effort.”
According to campaign finance records, the Hillary for America campaign paid $300,000 to thirteen23 for "Digital Design and Development” that voters never got to see.
A campaign pivots
Cook has some theories on what happened to thirteen23’s work, which the team was obligated not to discuss with media until after the election. The digital infrastructure his team built was -- from the studio’s point of view -- a way for Clinton to hit the ground running as she launched her campaign.
But within the campaign, Cook says, there may have been a faction that believed so much so soon could hurt their overall efforts.
“One of her greatest challenges was this idea of her inevitability,” Cook says. “They didn’t want to come off seeming as if it was a done deal or she was entitled to this position. I think the strategy tended more toward grassroots appeal, which wouldn’t have been totally at odds with some of the strategy and concept work we had done.”
Teddy Goff, who headed up digital strategy for the Clinton campaign, declined to be interviewed for this story. Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, did not respond to interview requests via email and Twitter. Both worked with thirteen23 on the projects it handled prior to the campaign launch.
Working on political campaigns, Cook says, can be “a little bit of a dangerous game,” especially when the legal entities don’t actually exist yet and are in pre-campaign mode. “These aren’t the types of situations you go into thinking this is going to be a great business decision,” says Cook, laughing. “You go into it because it’s a high-profile opportunity and a chance to apply design and have an impact socially.”
One of thirteen23’s ideas was to put supporters closer to the campaign as it hit the road, granting them a digital frontseat on the campaign trail and giving supporters and volunteers ways to connect with each other. Technologies that were not yet as popular during the 2012 election -- such as live video streaming, push notifications and better GPS-based tools for canvassing neighborhoods -- were part of the plan.
Although the Clinton campaign earned some kudos during the campaign — one Mashable headline from last summer read, “How the Clinton campaign is slaying social media” — some post-election criticism has focused on how the campaign spent money on wooing millennials via digital avenues such as Facebook and chat apps, dollars that may have more effectively spent on traditional media buys.
Jess Morales Rocketto, who was a digital organizing director for Clinton’s campaign, said at a Knight Foundation event in New York on Wednesday that the campaign had lots of exciting ideas that didn’t get used. She said the team’s biggest achievements included answering questions directly from voters via the Hillary For America Twitter account and developing tools for internal organizing that may help other campaigns in the future.
If there were any regrets about the election, Rocketto seemed to indicate that campaign tools are typically built for those who are most likely to vote, sometimes excluding others.
“The tools are optimized for older white voters,” she said in a Knight Foundation panel. “My hope is that as we move forward, we’ll put a renewed focus on black, brown, queer and working-class voters.”
In contrast at the same presentation, Molly Schweickert from Cambridge Analytica, who worked for the Donald Trump campaign, touted its success on using data collection to target voters more effectively and increase participation.
“There was a fantastic use of technology this year,” Schweickert said. “We had over 100,000 users of the (”America First”) app. We used data points to understand human behavior and drive communication and were collecting large amounts of data from battleground states.”
She said using Snapchat, having a good mobile-optimized webpage and crowd-building were part of the Trump campaign’s success story.
How campaigns go
Tim Bertram, an Austin-based strategist who worked on Sen. Rand Paul’s presidential campaign, is not particularly surprised by what happened to thirteen23.
“I think it’s a constant problem that campaigns have with the digital elements of their campaign,” Bertram said. “Ideally, digital is always part of the conversation and it’s fully integrated into the campaign. But sometimes you see that it gets left behind; digital is an afterthought or it’s always a bit slower.”
Bertram said the Clinton campaign might have feared looking too much like a polished, well-oiled machine early in the campaign. But, he says, early is when digital efforts should be deployed.
“Sometimes they think digital is something they can pile on later, which really isn’t the case,” he said.
Bertram praised the Clinton campaign for its efforts in optimizing search results. Googling Clinton typically brought up messaging from her team, while searches for Trump were more likely to bring up negative news stories.
However, he said Trump’s campaign did a much better job cultivating small online donations and engaging in more direct messaging. “A lot of his content was just him speaking very directly to the camera,” Bertram said.
He said that for the 2016 election, Facebook was a very effective tool for candidates to micro-target voters and that this was the year that Snapchat emerged as a strategic battleground.
“One fun thing to do is have a Snapchat filter over an event that your opponent is going to and troll them with a geofilter,” he said.
Ultimately, Bertram said, he believes that Trump’s campaign likely had fewer layers in its internal approval process, which on the one hand allowed for some off-brand messaging (especially from Trump himself). But it might have been a problem for Clinton. “I have to imagine that the approval process was probably much more extensive than in the Trump campaign,” he said. “It makes it hard for the campaign to get information out quickly and the Trump campaign was more flexible in that sense.”
Although thirteen23 stopped working with the Clinton campaign by early 2015, its support of the woman formerly known as The Candidate did not end.
A Clinton victory would be good for the 16-person, 10-year-old studio. But there were also emotional ties to the result.
“We probably would have been just as invested as an office had we not worked on the project,” DeGuire said. “There was definitely investment in the business and and I think personally.”
After the Nov. 8 election results, “It was the quietest it’s ever been in this office,” said Scott Staab, creative director at thirteen23.
However, the studio’s leaders say they were thrilled to work on two high-profile presidential campaigns in a row. And even though thirteen23 doesn’t want to be typecast as a political-design firm, it has done work on another big politics-related digital project.
With Pew Charitable Trusts and Google, it worked on the Voter Information Project, creating open-source tools to help voters get polling locations via text messaging (useful for voters who don’t have smartphones) and a virtual assistant that can answer voter questions in 10 different languages.
Could thirteen23’s digital strategy have helped lead to a Clinton victory? The studio won’t speculate, but the team is still proud of the work it created, despite it all remaining unseen by millions of voters.
Says Cook: “On any project, you want to follow it through to its logical fruition.”
Cover photo: From left to right: Lani DeGuire, Marc Vandehey, Doug Cook, Sarah Johnson, Max Wade, and Morgan Wheaton of thirteen23 at their office in Downtown Austin on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017. The design studio worked on digital strategy for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign before she announced her candidacy, creating mobile apps, digital tools and a campaign tour site. But the campaign decided to go with a more modest approach, leaving much of that material unused and unseen until now. Ricardo B. Brazziell / AMERICAN-STATESMAN