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Interview: Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Blue State Digital Partner, on Being Acquired by Global Giant WPP

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, December 30 2010

Blue State Digital, the firm that gained notice for its role in in the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, announced today that it had been fully aquired by global communications giant WPP.

Effective today, Blue State Digital, the digital firm perhaps best know for its role in the winning 2008 Obama presidential campaign, has been wholly acquired by global communications giant WPP. WPP, traded on the London Stock Exchange and claiming nearly $14 billion in revenue last year, is an active acquirer of or investor in scores of companies. It counts among its holdings major brands like Young & Rubicam, Ogilvy Group, and Burson-Marsteller. Blue State Digital will join the parent company's WPP Digital Group, alongside a handful of other digital firms. After getting its start in the wake of the 2004 Dean presidential campaign in the U.S., BSD has tried expanding its efforts to other countries. The company recently had its fingers in Brazilian presidential candidate (and now president-elect) Dilma Rousseff, and, on behalf of the anti-fascist organization Searchlight, it ran a campaign called Hope Not Hate against the British National Party. And now, Blue State Digital and its 130 employees now find themselves part of a global company that has more than 140,000 employees in 2,400 offices in more than 100 countries around the planet.

What's behind the move? This morning, I spoke with Jascha Franklin-Hodge, a founding partner of Blue State Digital and the company's chief technology officer. What follows is an abbreviated and edited transcript of our conversation.

Jascha Franklin-Hodge, founding partner and chief technology officer at Blue State Digital; photo credit: Blue State Digital.

The first question, why sell?

The partners and managers of the business have been looking for a while for the best way to grow the business to and continue serving our clients well. We've had conversations going back a few years to see if we wanted to join another firm, bring in investment money, or to go some other route. In the course of, really, the last six months, in having a lot of conversations with a lot of people, it turned out that given our growth trajectory this relationships with WPP was the best route to continue that growth.

Will you keep on under the "Blue State Digital" banner?

Absolutely. We'll continue to stay Blue State Digital. [Franklin-Hodge later said that the company had tweaked its official company name to move from "Blue State Digital LLC" to "Blue State Digital Incorporated."]

What about the company's leadership? Are you all staying on, and in the same roles?

The three partners [Franklin-Hodge, managing partner Thomas Gensemer, and founding partner and creative director Joe Rospars] are continuing with Blue State Digital in the same roles, as leaders of the business. We'll be working very closely with other people inside WPP Digital, but our positions will remain as partners at Blue State Digital.

I have to ask, how much?

[Laughs.] The details of the transaction aren't being disclosed.

Blue State is known for its work in progressive politics. Will that change?

In the last three or four years the company's client base has expanded to where we now do work with non-profits, do corporate work [in addition to working in progressive politics]. We don't really expect that diverse client mixture to change.

So, you'll you have the freedom to approach your clients through that same filter as part of WPP?

Absolutely. We have that freedom. We'll continute to select clients to take on that are good matches for both our skill set and our values. We're committed to our politics, and we're committed to our clients and our staff, and we want to make sure all those thing continue to work well. That said, we do work now for clients that are utterly apolitical. And we expect to continue to do so. [Recent BSD clients outside the political realm include Carnegie Hall, National Geographic, HBO, and the bid to host the World Cup in the U.S. in 2018 or 2022.]

What we do say is that any political work that we do will be in line with our political values.

It's only been a handful of years since Blue State Digital launched, coming out of the Dean campaign [in 2004]. Does a stand-alone political digital company not make sense?

[Laughs.] That's a big question, and I'm not sure I have one answer to it. But for us, we've grown to a place were we have a modest international footprint but a lot of international capabilities and ambitions. Over the last three or four years, we've grown to think more broadly about communications, about video, about strategy that might have an online focus but has broader implications. We've done enough work [in countries other than the United States] to realize the value of our model and the value of our approach outside the U.S. But we weren't going to open offices in every country where we want to do business. This is a great vehicle for us to achieve that growth -- and one that frankly makes more sense than growing our footprint in those countries.

We think we're better when we go and do a political engagement because we work with arts groups and non-profits. We think we're better when we do a corporate engagement because our staff is steeped in the world of politics and non-profits. It's not, 'you start in politics and grow big and grow out of it,' but it's exactly that exposure to different ways of executing that make use good at what we do. For us, we see advantages in scale. We do more, offer our clients more. When we work with a client that has an interesting story to tell, we now have people to work with on a press strategy. We can not only produce emails and web content, for example, but video, too.

With WPP, we hope to be able to augment the services they're offering with what we can do, and we hope to connect with some of their clients and resources around the world.

Do you expect to be able to keep innovating on the technology front? [The joint press release included a mention of Blue States' proprietary BSD Tools suite.]

We're joining a group within WPP that has really interesting and relevant companies within its portfolio, but it's not like we're joining with direct competitors. We're expecting to continue developing the tech platform we have, and even more rapidly than we have been doing.

So you'll keep your offices in Boston, New York, and Washington, but have the benefit of WPP's global network of offices, too?

For us, the goal is less about physical space, but relationships, talents, and the abilty to delivery services on the ground in other parts of the world. Having people in the same time zone and -- in the non-Engligh speaking-world -- speaking the same language is a huge asset in serving those clients well.

It seems like you're describing a sort of hybrid model, where Blue State Digital will still, in many ways, be a stand-alone company under the WPP umbrella, but will not be a completely autonomous unit. Is that right?

We've been acquired, and the company is now wholly owned by WPP. But from a practical standpoint, we'll continue to operate as a stand-alone business with the same staff and same offices. We don't anticipate a business merger with another unit in terms of the day-to-day face of Blue State Digital. But we do think there's a tremendous value of being part of a parent company, but ultimately we look at it as growing Blue State Digital, not folding our operations into a bigger company with their own operations.