Last week, just before the book closed on 2010, Blue State Digital announced it had been snapped up by giant ad agency WPP. That’s a big step for a consultancy that was born from the wreckage of the 2004 Howard Dean campaign and applied “rocket science” to “Rock the Vote,” as we wrote when we named Blue State one of our Fast 50 four years ago.
In the years since, the agency has grown 30 percent a year and expanded beyond politics to non-profits, trade associations, cultural institutions—and for-profits like Vogue and HBO. “Blue State Digital will bring distinctive skills to WPP Digital,” WPP Digital CEO Mark Read said in a press release. Blue State's game-changing mindset involves leveraging passionate fans, be they political supporters or customers. The company also brings with it a comprehensive set of digital tools that clients can use on their own.
The parties did not divulge the terms of the acquisition, but Blue State co-founder and creative director Joe Rospars was happy to talk to Fast Company about how it will fuel their growth, whether they’ll now have to work for campaigns on “the other side,” and how working on projects with the likes of Vogue will make them stronger when it comes to helping progressive candidates and causes.
Why did Blue State Digital decide to grow through acquisition, rather than doing it on your own?
What we really liked about WPP was that they have a broad network of companies in spaces that are complementary to where we work—whether it’s in advertising, research, or general consulting. We’re working alongside different companies like that all the time, so having closer relationships with them makes our work better and makes the overall experience for the client better.
The other thing about WPP is its international footprint. They’re in over 100 countries. Having a set of ready-made potential partners in different countries will offer us the opportunity to take both our agency services as well as our technology to market in a much more organized fashion.
Blue State made its mark serving progressive candidates and causes. Now that you’re part of WPP, will you be required to take on conservative clients?
No. We’re still going to be Blue State Digital, and any political clients are still going to reflect our values.
What is your role going to be within WPP Digital? Is the company going to stay independent? Or will it get folded into the larger organization?
More the former. We’ll continue to be an independent brand, and the leadership of the company is going to stay the same. We’ll just have a different family of relationships to draw on. But it’s still the same kind of daunting entrepreneurial exercise that it’s been since the beginning.
So what does WPP get out of the acquisition, if Blue State Digital more or less remains as it was?
There’s some synergy in terms of the different clients that are already part of the WPP portfolio. There’s a general sense of integrating [our] general approach and technology backbone into a lot of the different projects that are already going on.
How are brands benefiting from what you’ve learned serving political campaigns?
The challenge is for organizations of all sizes and in all spaces is to not just treat everybody like “audience,” but [instead] to treat as many people as are willing as organizers—to open up the process of how you talk about your candidate, cause, product and give people some ownership over making the organization grow and accomplish the mission you’ve set out. That’s the nugget of our approach. That’s the mindset that’s baked into our technology. And it’s the approach that our agency takes on different projects.
Five years from now, where do you want Blue State Digital to be?
I’d like Blue State Digital to look a lot like it does today, but with a more nuanced set of case studies and projects under our belt within the different areas we work in. What I’m really excited about over the next five years is learning through that diverse set of organizations that we work with. Every project that comes down the pike, we get incrementally better and refine our approach more and build a different skillset.
As you’ve expanded from simply doing political and advocacy campaigns to work with brands, do you feel like you’ve strayed from your roots?
We have a certain theory about how organizations ought to work, how they ought to talk to the most important people related to them. We know that it works in politics, but we also have had an inkling since the beginning that it could work in other places too. That’s what drove us to expand. As we’ve been building our case studies, our inkling has only been confirmed that this approach—of organizations respecting and empowering people to help them accomplish [the organization’s] mission and spread the word about the things that they care about—turns out to be true.
How did that work with a client like Vogue?
The emblematic moment in that program was [when we sent out] an email from their creative director, Grace Coddington, telling the story of the first time she picked up the magazine when she was a young girl and what it meant to her. [We asked] the people who were signed up to get emails from Vogue what their story was. What came back was an incredible amount of passionate, inspired content from people about their experiences—[for example] of their grandmother giving them their first copy and subscription when they were 14 and how they’ve done that for their daughter or granddaughter. One woman wrote in saying that, after the revolution in Iran in the early ‘80s, her aunt would smuggle in copies of Vogue, and that was her window to the outside world.
What we try to do in all our different engagements is zero in on the passions of the people who are closest in to the organizations. If we can find projects in all those different [categories of client] where people can better connect with the organization, and the organization can better empower them to accomplish the mission—whether it’s a cause, or spreading the word about a product people like—we think that’s all reinforcing our general approach and philosophy about how organizations should relate to people. And we get a lot smarter about how to do that stuff when we apply it in different spaces.