The Man Behind Trump’s Bid to Finally Take Digital Seriously
Brad Parscale is a survivor—at least in Donald Trump’s universe. Today, Parscale, Trump’s digital director, is one of the last men standing as the Trump campaign’s revolving door keeps spinning. And with 80 days left in the campaign, he’s about to get a lot busier.
Trump has cycled through campaign personnel—first Corey Lewandowski, and then today Paul Manafort. Through it all, Parscale has kept his head down, working on the campaign since before Trump even announced his candidacy publicly. But from an office in San Antonio, far from the Washington—New York hub of campaign drama, his influence has only grown.
The bearded, 6-foot-7-inch Kansan was there in Cleveland during the Republican convention, hopping into a car with Trump’s social media manager and pushing his way through the chaos on the convention floor to shoot a Facebook Live video of Trump’s children the night their father received the official nomination. Through it all, he’s remained out of the spotlight, but that may soon change. Tomorrow, the Federal Election Commission releases the presidential campaigns’ July financial disclosures. Parscale says the Trump campaign’s ledger will show an $8.4 million payment to his digital marketing firm—a massive leap that shows Trump may finally be getting serious about a digital strategy that goes beyond tweets.
In June, the Trump campaign spent just $1.63 million on digital advertising, which itself was still dramatically more than the $21,000 Parscale’s firm, Giles-Parscale, made between October and the end of December 2015. During that same time period, the Clinton campaign paid nearly 100 times that to its digital consulting firm, Bully Pulpit Interactive. During primary season, when his poll numbers were strong, Trump utilized free media exposure to gain an edge on his competitors. Now that Clinton’s dominating the polls, it seems, Trump is not only raising money ($80 million in July), he’s spending it too. And Parscale is helping him do it online.
“Mr. Trump understands the value of digital operations,” he says, “and he’s been extremely supportive of this operation.”
— Brad Parscale (@parscale) June 8, 2016
Me and Mr. Trump
Parscale, who grew up in Kansas, says he sees a lot of himself in the man he calls “Mr. Trump.” For starters, like Trump, he’s a political novice who has built a professional reputation for himself in Texas but has never worked in Washington. “Brad is a non-traditional guy, and he’s good for a non-traditional campaign,” says Vincent Harris, a Republican digital strategist who briefly worked for Trump’s campaign.
But more than that, Parscale feels his story parallels Trump’s rise in business. Parscale started out with a small investment in 2004. (Parscale’s was his own $500. Trump’s was his father’s $1 million). He began by cold-calling local clients but soon graduated to major contracts with the likes of the Trump Organization, which led to gigs building websites for Trump Winery and the Eric Trump Foundation. Now he’s managing multi-million dollar advertising budgets for perhaps the most-watched man in the world.
In conversation, Parscale expresses fierce loyalty for his controversial boss. He says Trump gave “a farm boy from Kansas” a chance. “When I was successful, he continued to reward me over and over again, because I worked hard and produced success,” he says.
Still, while his boss called for boycotting Apple and prefers talking about the glory days of trade in Pennsylvania steel country, Parscale exhibits the the forward-looking attitude of the typical tech exec. Among other things, he recently helped found a group called Tech Bloc in San Antonio, which represents the tech industry’s interests there. Among its biggest accomplishments was pushing San Antonio’s city council to reverse its decision to ban Uber from the city. Parscale is proud to say he was “rider zero” for Uber when they launched.
“Tech can be something that can be great for us. We don’t need to fear it,” Parscale says.
And yet the Trump campaign has lagged in embracing tech, both as a campaign tool and a policy priority. Unlike Clinton, Trump has not released anything resembling a tech policy agenda. And while Trump initially rejected the need for data as a crucial tool for targeting voters, Clinton has built a huge tech team in Brooklyn, drawing talent from the likes of Google, Twitter, and Facebook. Even some of Trump’s primary season competitors outstripped his campaign in terms of tech. Now, Trump’s team is finally trying to catch up, and Parscale is at the center.
This Ain’t Hollywood
Just before Trump spoke at the Republican convention, Parscale made a six-figure ad buy on Twitter, purchasing the promoted hashtag, #TextTrump88022. Meanwhile, the campaign has released a truly odd series of ads that feature Trump and various shots of astronauts and other space imagery.
For Harris, who ran digital for Sen. Rand Paul’s 2016 presidential bid, it’s the weirdness of these ads that makes them work. “I think the Trump campaign has shown again to Beltway consultants that this isn’t about $50,000 Hollywood video shoots,” Harris says. “This is about effective digital operations. It’s gritty. It’s fast-paced, and it’s about what the base wants to hear.”
There is, of course, another reason why Trump’s campaign has to spend more on digital advertising, and that is because the campaign has not reserved much television time. According to a July report in AdAge, between July and November, Trump and his PACs had reserved $654,455 in TV and radio advertising compared to $111 million by Hillary Clinton and her PACs. Though he just recently spent $4 million on a new ad buy, that’s still a small amount compared to what Clinton has planned. That could make Trump’s attempt to make up the gap via digital ads a difficult battle for a candidate who’s already starting from behind and whose base is less likely to see those ads anyway.
“Republican voters in the general election are traditionally older,” says Harris. “Older people traditionally get their news and information from television.”
Still, Parscale is satisfied that the investment in digital produced a serious return for Trump in July. He declined to say what percentage of the $80 million raised was the result of the surge in digital ad spending. But it seems unlikely the campaign will let up on the digital front. Trump’s new campaign CEO, Steve Bannon, has spent the last few years sitting atop a far-right digital media empire. He seems to know how the web works. And finally Trump seems ready to spend the money to make the web work for him, if it’s not already too late.
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