The perennial build-versus-buy debate is in focus again this presidential cycle, raising new questions about whether digital practitioners from outside the industry can provide campaigns an edge.
At the top of the ballot, the focus is on Biden for President, and whether a firm like the Michael Bloomberg-founded Hawkfish LLC can help propel its digital operation further than building an in-house team of digital practitioners could.
Digital-native strategists have taken considerable issue with the recent chatter about the prospect of the Biden camp outsourcing some of its digital operations to Hawkfish, the New York-based online media firm that employed influencer marketing as part of Bloomberg’s failed primary bid.
Hawkfish is backed by the deep-pocketed former New York City mayor and its head of digital is Jeff Glueck, the former CEO of check-in app Foursquare. Other leaders include Gary Briggs, Facebook’s former marketing chief.
Critics of the firm’s Biden push point out the firm has very little real-world experience in the campaign space and argue that hiring it, rather than focusing on the growing pool of Democratic digital talent to build out a fully in-house operation, would be unwise.
Shelby Cole is one of the digital-native practitioners on the left who believes the Biden camp is better off hiring internally from the current pool of experienced digital pros, many of whom have recently come off other Democratic presidential campaigns.
“[M]y take is simple: build an in-house team,” Cole, who worked for Kamala Harris and Beto O’Rourke this cycle, tweeted following a series of Hawkfish stories in late April. “[H]ire people with campaign experience. give them resources. and above all else, listen to your team over the noise of angry donors with big checks and tech bros with blue checks who think they have a silver bullet.”
This certainly isn’t a new debate at the presidential level. In fact, Democratic and Republican camps have mulled whether to build technology in-house or through a designated outside entity or shop to gain an edge.
What’s different this time, at least on the left, is there’s a larger pool of talent and a bigger roster of platform-specific companies.
Emily Gittleman, another digital practitioner who worked for Cory Booker this cycle, also warned against the Biden campaign just outsourcing much of its digital program to Hawkfish: “You can’t run a campaign on 50 data points and ego,” she told C&E.
She noted that presidentials are typically sources of innovation and human capital development for the campaign industry.
“The biggest campaign can employ all of these people and empower and train and teach the next generation,” she said. “That’s why it’s important to do all of this in-house, as much as possible.”
Building internally, she said, “it’s technically reinventing the wheel, but it’s also investing in the long-term prospects for people and talent and products.”
Adriel Hampton, who worked at NationBuilder before launching his own shop and The Really Online Lefty League PAC, is a critic of Biden’s digital program. But he notes there are some clear benefits to onboarding tools from established sources rather than trying to re-create something that already exists.
“I would fall firmly in the buy category. We need to stop trying to reinvent the wheel every time,” he said. “The best political technology is going to survive multiple cycles, multiple campaigns. The users will find all kinds of bugs.”
Betsy Hoover helped build technology internally on President Obama’s reelect in 2012. Now, she’s scouting companies for a COVID round of investment from Higher Ground Labs (HGL), the political technology incubator she co-founded. She sees both sides of the build-versus-buy debate.
The tech needs of a presidential “are so customized and so specific,” Hoover said. The Biden camp “shouldn’t build everything. They don’t have the time nor the resources to build everything from scratch — no one does,” Hoover said. “But there’s a balance of what you’re going to grab off the shelf, and what you’re going to build internally.”