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Was Hillary ‘Trumped’ by weak strategy or strong data?


As we all know, Advertising Week Europe has been upon us all. With more than 175 seminars and workshops over four days, with talks from our very own Michael Roth, England’s victorious rugby coach Eddie Jones and even erstwhile American Vice President Al Gore to come, the event is an impressive undertaking to say the least.

With discussion dominated by the placing of advertising alongside unsolicited content, the time was right to take a step back and revisit another controversy: the 2016 US Election. With the arrival of “fake news” and a “post-truth” US presidency, we live in a brave new world in which policy is being determined via Twitter – so how exactly did Trump beat Hillary?

With 130 million voters nationally, a winning majority of 74 seats, and despite Trump’s inability to secure the popular vote. Clinton losing out on becoming the 45th POTUS was a massive shock. News reports the night before the result were still giving her a 95% chance of success.

Having recently joined Initiative, it has become increasingly clear that data plays an increasingly important role in media, politics and the wider business world. Both the 2016 US election and brands facing the market in 2017 are offered huge opportunities by the effective utilisation of data to enable research, model different strategies and, most importantly, to react and change in real time.

As the panels agreed, data is data and it is only utilised when it is leveraged correctly. Trump’s digital operation was run out of San Antonio and was close to non-existent when he won the Republican nomination. Hillary’s on the other hand, was a well-oiled machine. However, much of her strategy and operational support was based upon Obama’s revolutionary 2008 campaign, nearly 10 years prior…

The takeaway from the seminar was clear. Data science is a technology of trade-offs. It can see things as never before, but it also can be a blunt instrument, missing context and human nuance. As demonstrated by “The Donald”, his apparent authenticity, relevance to the electorate and ability to continually chime what true voter interests ultimately paid dividends.

Beyond the 2016 US election, there are broader lessons to be learned. Corporate digital powerhouses harvest vast amounts of information, but the level of trust that is placed in them needs continued checks and balances. Clinton spent $30 million on Facebook alone in the last days of her campaign. It is clear that her message did not connect to her intended audience. However, Trump’s victory was won in the social media echo chambers of the provincial heartlands of America, where TV, Radio and Print have traditionally dominated. It demonstrates quite how much the political and media landscapes have transformed while nobody was looking. Brands and the businesses supporting them, should take note.