Edward Saatchi has a lot to say. He responds to questions with considered, passionate answers and a delivery as smooth, flawless and decisive as his hero Barack Obama, which is fitting as the two men owe each other a great deal.
Were it not for Saatchi — son of advertising guru Lord Maurice and the late Josephine Hart — impulsively boarding a flight to Chicago in 2008 to help the Democratic presidential candidate’s march to the White House, he would never have co-founded his hugely successful NationalField private social network enterprise. And Obama’s two election campaigns would not have benefitted from Saatchi’s “social data” revolution.
“I only did it because I was crazy about this one person and his ability to change the world,” reflects the 27-year-old when we meet in London. Saatchi, whose remarkable ginger locks make him resemble a cross between Mick Hucknall and The Simpsons’ Sideshow Bob, virtually stumbled across his business eureka moment soon after he arrived in the States.
“The three of us [Saatchi and NationalField co-founders Aharon Wasserman and Justin Lewis] were field directors . We had these clunky systems with spreadsheets and databases so we threw this thing together ourselves for the regions we were handling,” he explains. “And it took off very quickly. There was a shoot-up in productivity for those regions and they [Obama’s campaign team] were like ‘what the hell’s going on here’? We showed them NationalField and they said ‘this is awesome, let’s get this to every single state in the campaign’.”
The following year, the three entrepreneurs launched NationalField as a start-up and with clients including the NHS, advertising and marketing giants WPP and US medical technology corporate Medtronic. It is quite clear NationalField is here to stay. So what exactly is it?
“Often when we say ‘it’s big data meets social’ people say ‘it’s confusing, what the hell does that mean’?” admits Saatchi before clarifying what the hell it does mean. “Employees are able to log on and take a look at a social network for their company. They’re able to communicate, connect and share and they’re really able to see what’s going on inside the company. It feels like Facebook, looks like Facebook and one of the founders of Facebook [Chris Hughes] is on our board.”
The network also encourages managers to share data with the entire company in order to promote transparency and motivate staff; the results tell their own story according to Saatchi: “There’s a revolution going on in the way managers see their staff. What we’ve found is the more transparent you are, and the more ownership employees feel about the data, the more competition you create within the organisation.”
With the business taking off, you might be forgiven for thinking that Obama’s recent re-election campaign would have passed Saatchi by, but he and his NationalField co-founders returned to the campaign team earlier this year. And Saatchi remains as big a fan of Obama as he was when he boarded that plane four years ago — especially now they’ve become acquaintances.
“I’ve met Obama several times,” he confides. “The biggest thing you get from him is a sort of ease and comfort with himself. He’s not someone who has an intense, aggressive charisma that you might get from a movie star. What you do get, which I’ve never really seen from politicians, is a lack of anxiety, a lack of need to be around others and take energy from others.
“I think it comes back to being a community organiser. Right after the first election, he was talking about the last episode of M*A*S*H* with all the staff. This time when he spoke to all the staff, it was much more emotional. He was talking about the first time he was a community organiser. I think working on the ground level has impacted on him a lot, he doesn’t feel his job is to be this kind of rabble-rousing celebrity.”
Saatchi’s role inside the Obama camp gave him a unique perspective and he’s adamant that the President’s re-election was never in doubt.
“I never thought it was too close to call. Right before the election, the Romney campaign very proudly put out the number of doors they’d knocked in Ohio during the ‘get out the vote’ weekend, at 75,000. We had done 75,000 doors 10 weeks before the election, and by this point we’d done about 490,000 doors. When the President was told this story, for the rest of the day he kept saying ‘Tell me about the 75,000 doors again!’”
Sharing jokes with the leader of the free world and being named in the Forbes “30 under 30” list, it is easy to level the charge that success has arrived via his family name, but Saatchi is proud that NationalField was created independently.
“I’ve had a lot of help all the way through,” he acknowledges, “but it feels good to have had some kind of impact and to be able to look at something that you’ve built and feel proud of it.”
His rapid rise even caused one national newspaper to dub him the ‘British Zuckerberg’ about which he modestly chuckles and says: “I think what he’s done is very, very good and exciting. The only thing we take from him is an obsession with the psychological side of things.”
He explains how vital it is that data is presented in a visually stimulating manner and how working with one of his heroes, Edward Tufte, a pioneer in the visualisation of quantitative information, has enhanced NationalField (other Saatchi inspirations include Norman Mailer, Orson Welles and the American Jewish political community organiser Saul Alinsky).
And with that, the interview is over. Saatchi has further business to attend to during this flying visit to Britain from San Francisco where, he says, “one feels part of one big company all trying to find new uses for the core product — the internet.” For him the only minimal distraction from work is “movies, movies, movies”.
He offers me an Obama-style fist-bump as I depart and explains: “One of the worst things is that we work with a lot of health organisations and they all think I have some kind of Howard Hughes-ish fear of germs and that’s why I fist-bump people, so I usually have to explain that it’s an Obama fist-bump.”
But I manage to shake his hand anyway and immediately regret it because that fist has bumped Obama’s. Two fists that are trying to change the world.