By Michele Hush and Susan Soriano
Gillea Allison was a panelist at our recent event Technology's Influence on Politics on Oct. 20, 2015. We spoke to her about how her agency has dealt with the intersection of media and politics.
Tell us about your role at Blue State Digital and what they focus on as a digital agency?
Blue State Digital (BSD) is a digital agency and tech shop that builds and mobilizes communities online for some of the world’s largest nonprofits, brands, and advocacy organizations from Google, to NAACP, to Heifer International to the Rockefeller Foundation. We’re best known for our work leading the digital teams in President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns (of which I was a part), and our mantra is to help organizations build better relationships with their people. We also have a technology arm, BSD Tools, that powers hundreds of brand, nonprofit, political, and advocacy digital programs, which I’m now the Director of Community for.
Given your background, both working on the Obama for America campaign and at D Magazines, how has your view of the media and marketing landscape evolved?
My dad started D Magazine in 1974 and my parents both run it today, so I’ve watched first hand how the media landscape has evolved.
What I love is that the fundamental reasons I got into politics, media, and marketing haven’t shifted. In both fields, you need to communicate a message (ideally something you believe in), find and cultivate the people who will be most receptive to that message, and then make them feel empowered to become advocates for your brand or cause.
You’ve had a wonderful varied career, how have you managed to stay on top of the latest trends and utilized your skill set?
Thank you! I don’t think there’s a single outlet that has become my mainstay, for me it’s more about how the platforms are evolving and incorporating the latest technology vs. the latest trend. At BSD, we’re not necessarily looking for the sexiest thing we’re looking for programs and products that will impact others to have a better experience.
You worked for Obama twice in your career — as a campaign that gained notoriety for using social media and digital platforms what were some of the notable differences from 2008 and 2012?
In 2008, digital was off in its corner, doing incredible work but not necessarily appreciated to the extent that it should have been. In 2012, digital had a seat at the table, a 200+ person team, and was able to make autonomous and in-the-moment decisions that created some of the most memorable moments of the campaign (This Seat’s Taken, Four More Years).
Regardless, there’s been a deep desire to connect online and offline. My team in 2012 was responsible for coordinating with the offline field, and I only expect this to grow.
Were there any cutting edge marketing or pushing of traditional boundaries in digital marketing that you were a part of either at that time or in your current role at BSD?
I’m pretty proud of AddUp.Org — a custom online organizing platform we built with the Sierra Club. AddUp is a reflection of uniting silos across teams of an organization, unifying disparate technology, and providing users with extremely powerful tools to run and manage campaigns. It’s also a reflection of nonprofits thinking more like tech platforms, and hope to see more of this trend.
Are there any digital platforms that in your opinion are currently underutilized and think we’ll see more of in the political arena?
I think most digital platforms are actually over utilized with mediocre content, but I hope to see more authentic insights this cycle that Snapchat, Periscope, and quick Instagram or Facebook videos can provide. That said, if your campaign does not have an authentic message, positivity, or excitement, there’s no way that a digital platform can fill that gap, so it’s not about the hottest thing, but more about what and how you’re saying it.
In social as well as paid media, it's important to remember that a campaign is only of short term interest. They go out of business whether they win or lose in November. There are no points awarded for making a smart five-year bet on the "next big thing."
In your work at BSD, do you see commonalities between your political and advocacy clients and any others?
All of them! Many have the same issues: breaking through a cluttered space, keeping momentum going, providing the best experience for people. It requires a lot of work on the internal side; unifying databases; creating more nimble approval processes; and having access to more compelling stories to keep people engaged. If you don’t have an authentic message, all of it is null.
Do you ever have to check your personal political ideas at the door at work?
Thankfully no! After the campaign, it was clear that I needed my next job to be somewhere that shared the same values, that was open and upfront about its politics, and that had the leveI of smart, committed colleagues. It’s why I work at Blue State Digital, where our walls are lined with political memorabilia, we drank champagne and cried on the day that SCOTUS made same sex marriage the law of the land, and that I’m still surrounded by some of the smartest people I know. I understand that we’re unique, but think I’d have a difficult time working for a place that didn’t encourage open political conversations and people expressing their views and passion. I feel very lucky.
Register for the Oct. 20 panel.