The Obama volunteer: Why Olympic marketer Greg Nugent swapped Stratford for the US

From shaking hands with Oscar Pistorius this summer, as the London 2012 marketing director, to volunteering for the Obama grass-roots campaign, Greg Nugent writes about his first-hand experiences and lessons learned during the US Presidential election

Greg Nugent: Obama campaign volunteer
Greg Nugent: Obama campaign volunteer

Let's face it, 2012 was never going to beat 2008, was it? If the latter was about campaign innovation, history in the making and the formation of a coalition of support, then this election would be about momentum and finishing the job; policy and practicalities, certainly not prose. I was curious, having been inspired by the great campaign in 2008, and decided just to turn up and do what I could to help; no role, no training - just a volunteer in the Obama campaign, curious as to what could be learned on the ground.

It didn't take long to understand the shift in mood. Listening to US voters on the phones, you quickly began to understand why: the pace of change was slow, and it was obvious that too lofty a dream, with too many elevated promises, would turn people away from voting Obama in 2012.

They adjusted their position

For me this was the first real lesson from the campaign. Stick to your core proposition, but make it resonate in different, and in this case, more difficult, conditions. The Obama team clearly understood this mood and constructed the campaign around it. They did not try to change or 'rebrand' the President; instead, they evolved the message. From 'Hope' to 'Forward' and 'Change' to 'Jobs', they held a core position but adjusted the script to make sense four years on.

In a world where we all too often change and rebrand, this was impressive and something all brands can learn from, especially in these unpredictable times.

They built a strategy to win

Everybody believed that they would win the election on the ground, in the wonderfully titled 'ground game'. This must have taken years of planning, and many millions would have been sunk into building the operations to deliver it.

The lesson I learned was that they invested in the right technical systems, which would go on to create billions of dollars' worth of earned media. They calculated that their people were their media. Every day, thousands of volunteers walked into phone banks, hopped on to a bus to a swing state or used the (deeply impressive) Dashboard app to knock on doors or make calls from home.

The strategy was obvious: every vote would count, reminding me of the brilliant British cycling coach Dave Brailsford and his pursuit of the 'aggregation of marginal returns'. Add the little gains together, however small they may appear, and you can swing a state; do that and you can win an election.

To deliver this, the campaign excelled at making the volunteer experience an easy one. Connect through Dashboard, find a place to go, turn up, get trained and off you go. Within 10 minutes, you are volunteering for the President. Within two days, you are being asked to start training first-timers. Simple and effective, millions caught the bug and turned out, returning every day just to put in an extra hour or two.

They used technology to differentiate

The engine of the campaign was an attitude to data and turning vast quantities of it into an integrated system that pushed those 'up for grabs' into either 'leaning' or 'strong Democrats'. The lesson from 2008, by all accounts, was that there was plenty of data, but too many incompatible databases.

This time they would create a single customer view that meant the data, and information that comes with it, would aggregate. More aggregation would give more intelligence, and narrower targets. They even hired a 'chief scientist' to pull off the wonky data bits - I think we should all get one.

The results speak for themselves. One minute I would be talking to an undecided voter in Ohio, the next, when confident enough, Nevada. The script and voter information would change but the argument stayed the same: forward, not backward, using state-by-state local arguments.

A 2012 to remember

It was an incredible personal experience and it capped off 2012 as a truly historic year that I will never forget. If London 2012 had been about years of planning, leadership and responsibility for delivery, this was about being told what to do, learning new systems quickly and realising that in the US you don't say 'queue', you say 'line'.

Rightfully, so much is now being written about the campaign and its success. Maybe it was demographics, or Sandy, or values or the job rate. It was all of the above.

As a volunteer, I was most impressed by the audacity of the integration. Building a clear and coherent objective and a set of strategies to deliver it; demonstrating a profound understanding of the contours of public opinion, values, attitudes and demographics; scripting a story that would work nationally, locally and socially.

That potent fusion of strategy, research, creativity and technology helped re-elect the 44th President. Maybe, when you execute with such clarity and purpose, the results are more powerful; and maybe that's a lesson for all who campaign.

It is for that reason that I believe there is more to learn from 2012 than the great campaign of 2008.

Greg Nugent is the former director of brand, marketing and culture for London 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @nugentgreg