I have been silent over the whole of this last US election, and for good reason. I have reason to believe that last time I may have been in some way responsible for George W. Bush being re-elected to the highest office in the world. This time, I said to myself no way am I going to jinx this one.
October 2004 saw the inception of the Guardian's ill-fated 'Operation Clark County'. And for a very short while me and my team at a little agency in London were the puppetmasters behind a worldwide media circus that had us featured on just about every network TV station, newspaper and radio show in the USA. This is the story of how it went down...
My old agency Tribal DDB worked for the Guardian, and I was the client services guy on the business. It would be wonderful to try to claim some of the glory for the idea. To be honest, it was the brainchild of two guys at the Guardian, Paul McInnes and Ian Katz. I don't remember who it was, but one afternoon I got a call from someone who said we've only got a couple of days, but I wonder if you guys can turn around a website for us.
Perhaps some of my loyal readers will be familiar with online production, but two days is not generally enough time to build a website, but there you go. He went on that they had some weeks before downloaded around 40,000 voter names and addresses from the voter database in Clark County, Ohio. This was, and is, the closest county in the closest fought state in the whole of the US election electoral college system. The idea was that since this was such an important election for the world, the world should have a say. Very good in theory.
The idea outlined to me, by mysterious caller that time forgot was that they intended to distribute these names one by one to right thinking Guardian readers via the internet who would then go on to send a right thinking letter to that person via the postal system.
I was working with a guy called Robin Grant at the time, who was the Producer and who has subsquently gone on to do very many wonderful things, including now setting up social media company called we are social. He really took a hold of this idea and basically made the whole thing happen through charm, guile and probably some small measure of bullying within the agency. Robin's almost reptilian enthusiasm for this devilish scheme though was not to go unnoticed by the world's media.
A website was thrown up in double-quick time, as they can be when the only important thing is the deadline. It is still live here:
You will note that we didn't have time to get a website address set up, so it just sat on one of our assets servers. For those in the know the DNS would have taken too long to propagate, and no-one seemed to bothered, so up it went. Actually, afterwards I did think that it probably helped lend it some credibility as it was clearly not set up like a super slick marketing site.
Now not much happened for the first 24 hours, but then the Guardian started very heavily promoting it, and then after that the whole list was downloaded in less than a day I think. At at least one point it was attacked by scripts trying to download the whole database in one go, and someone had to do the painstaking process of re-instating all the records not properly downloaded.
So 40,000 eager scriveners started sharpening their pencils.
Then all hell broke loose.
Bloggers up and down the States got their knickers in a twist about it almost straight away, which then spread to the mainstream media in the US: ABC, CNN, Fox (had a field day) and then the UK. The level of vitriol directed from almost every section of the US blogosphere and media was quite something to behold.
The other UK newspapers were really loving the fact that this enormous backlash had happened in the states, and was having the exact opposite effect from the one intended. In all over 5,000 letters of complaint were received by the Guardian, and they were forced to 'suspend the campaign'. Although quite what they were suspending was not clear as all the addresses had been downloaded some days before.
By some measures the campaign was a massive success, it improved the profile of the Guardian enormously in the USA, which was a major objective at the time, and it did spark a debate about the importance of the election to the world at large.
However, by other measures, including those most often used by normal people it was not. Ohio eventually went Republican, which swung the election for Dubya. To what extent that was mine and Robin's fault I don't know, but it was an interesting time.
Stephen Fry quite aptly summarised it the following year at the D&AD ceremony where he said it was the only marketing campaign to be awarded that night that achieved the exact opposite of what was intended.
Still, I am quite happy about last night, and I am sure most people around the world would thank everyone involved for keeping quiet this time.