Obama's data gurus find life outside the Beltway


A celebration was underway Thursday night on the seventh floor of a lofted office in Chicago's West Loop.

Civis Analytics, the firm founded by Dan Wagner, the former chief analytics officer of President Barack Obama's re-election campaign, was marking (and marketing) its first birthday with the theme of a data "science fair."

That meant, among other things: DJ's wearing lab coats, big Mac computers demoing the company's latest and greatest digital offerings; and very few attendees over the age of 35. That rare older set included Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who milled about for a half-hour and then offered some complimentary words to commemorate the occasion.

What there wasn't much of, however, were allusions to Emanuel's former boss, Obamaor the two past presidential campaigns that helped inspire this genre of data science. Emanuel, for his part, focused on Civis' recent partnership with another Chicago-based company, Boeing.

Dan Wagner, president and chief executive officer of Civis Analytics.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Strikingly, Wagner made only a small reference to the campaign during his remarks to the assembled crowd. Afterward, as he stood off in a corner, just beyond the cannonade of thumping bases, Wagner reflected on how much his company still identifies with—or is identified with—Obama.

"Less and less every day," he said without hesitation. While noting his firm's work triaging HealthCare.gov after its harrowing rollout, Wagner mentioned other work trying to help universities identify low-income students. "And now we're helping somebody build airplanes," he said.

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Thursday's soiree seemed to drive home the point: The chicks have ditched their shared eggs. The data and analytics firms that were spawned by the campaign are now, a year-plus into their operations, confronted with creating their own data-driven innovations and reputations.

Civis, which now has 63 full-time employees (a dozen more than worked for the Obama campaign analytics team), has largely maxed out of the campaign alumni network and is increasingly looking to other places to hire technologists and programmers. Its Obama contingency, once predominate, now makes up about only about a third of the firm.

Almost immediately after the 2012 race, a handful of data and analytics firms were founded and staffed by the very people who helped target and mobilize Obama's winning coalition of voters. Along with Civis, there was:

Analytics Media Group, or A.M.G., founded by a group of Obama media consultants, including Larry Grisolano, who served as the campaign's director of paid media and opinion research. The firm was profiled at length last June in a New York Times magazine story.

Precision Strategies, founded by Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager, and Teddy Goff, the campaign's digital director, which celebrated its one-year anniversary at the beginning of this month.

BlueLabs, co-founded by Elan Kriegel, who served as Wagner's second in command in the campaign's analytics shop. That firm currently has 30 employees with intentions to nearly double in the near future.

Grisolano notes that whereas a presidential campaign has tremendous funding and a definitive end point, the firms now have significantly less funding but far more time to dabble and brainstorm.

"A campaign has no interest in investing in projects that might take 24 months to develop," said Grisolano.

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Kriegel said his company has been putting its innovative powers into trying to scale the presidential technologies to smaller political operations.

"How do you take something that made sense for a campaign that had a billion dollars and make it acceptable to a campaign that has half a million?" he said. "We have invested a lot of resources in figuring out how to do that."

Grisolano's A.M.G. has focused on using its media optimization tools to help corporations better advertise to consumers and television networks attract more viewers.

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At the party Thursday night, Civis was touting its analytics software suite, which helps clients organize and utilize its own data for the purpose of targeting.

"I think there is a lot of room for everybody involved to take everything they learned and to build in a new environment," Grisolano said. "There is also a market for people to come back and replicate some of the things that were done on the campaign—and frankly, that is what a lot of political clients want. But over the long haul, the longevity of these insights are going to be borne out by the next generation."

—By Daniel Libit, Special to CNBC.