A Tour of the Self-Contained, Design-Happy City of Obamaland

Obama doesn't just denounce outsourcing on the stump. His campaign HQ is a living test of the theory that everything can be done best in-house.

Nancy Scola

CHICAGO -- Out on the campaign trail, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are at the moment engaged a spirited rhetorical debate over what it means to be an "outsourcing pioneer," a phrase borrowed from the Washington Post's coverage of Romney's Bain Capital past. For the most part, it's been discussion waged in generalities. But a tour of Obama's headquarters half-seriously suggests that the president might just want to point to his own campaign as a demonstration of doing things in-house. The scene on this floor of downtown's One Prudential Plaza is of waves of hundreds of staffers working amid a sea of college banners, rubber therapeutic balls, cardboard boxes turned into standing desks, and a visitor is struck by how much their five-year-old political operation has come to believe in rolling its own creative work.

It's as if, should the Obama campaign end tomorrow, you'd have the minds, skill sets, and tools ready to power a decent-sized tech company. Maybe even a small sovereign nation.

According to the story floating around, campaign manager Jim Messina took a year to tap the brains of tech world luminaries like Apple's Steve Jobs and Google's Eric Schmidt and came away with a few new ideas about how to run an organization. One was the belief in the "pod." Rather than distribute staffers in offices according to job function, this time around much of the Obama campaign is organized around five regional clusters. A few senior staffers have offices -- national field director Jeremy Bird and battleground states director Mitch Stewart pore over maps in one, Teddy Goff and Joe Rospars plot digital strategy in another -- but in a switch from 2008, staffers generally sit in an large open room, at long tables arranged in row after row. In one corner of the open space are a few of your more traditional political teams. The policy shop is smaller than last time, befitting a situation where much of that agenda is set by Washington. The surrogate team is bigger. It makes sense: the campaign principals, and the president and vice president in particular, have fairly demanding day jobs.

That's all well and good, but what particularly jumps out is the way in which the Obama campaign has focused on setting up the sort of creative operations that weren't in the past traditionally associated with a political campaign. It's a lesson, perhaps, that Messina took to heart from the experiences of Jobs and Apple: Keep the means of production close, and the ability to iterate at the ready.

What does that look like in practice? At Obama campaign headquarters, it means dozens and dozens of staffers with expertise in the digital space grouped into dedicated teams, with the ability and responsibility to tackle meaty challenges in their particular space. In one back corner is the Technology team, charged with building out a robust infrastructure for making the campaign run, like the Dashboard software that aims to bridge online and offline organizing. But the Tech team is not to be confused with the Digital Development team, which, as the campaign tells it, handles the dreaming up of new ways to use digital tools. Digital Advertising gets its own row close to the team that produces the campaign's wide-ranging online video work, from national ads to targeted training videos. (Almost all of the campaign's video is produced in-house, though Davis Guggenheim's 17-minute docu-advertisment was a high-profile exception.) Then there's the team known simply as Outbound. That group of staffers is responsible for writing the words that come out of the campaign in electronic form, from emails to texts to tweets to Facebook posts to Pinterest pins to Instagram captions. Outbound didn't exist in any cohesive way in 2008, says the campaign. There's simply a far larger universe of digital content to be filled this time around, and tasking a single team with managing the campaign's voice is a bid to create consistency across online platforms.

Down the hall and off the main room sits the Design team. Obama campaign HQ is demonstrably a place where the creatively inclined are allowed to let their design flag fly.

And tucked off a back hallway is the lab they need to do it. It might not be Jony Ive's cave of experimentation at Apple headquarters, but after too much time and money spent working with outside print shops last time around, the campaign decided to set up its own production facility on site. They call it the "Chop Shop;" its logo, as you can see below, is a pair of X-acto knives crossed over an Obama rising sun logo. The facility gives the campaign's creatives the ability to dream up and quickly produce the materials that provide the look and feel of the campaign.

What happens when you put creative talent within easy reach of the means of production? In this case, you get an environment that's a little signage-happy.

But there's more advantage to it than that. Certainly the Romney campaign has been staffing up in the last few months, but back in January the Republican candidate's digital director was testifying to the campaign's belief in staying small. Their tack: "We go out and find companies whose size we can leverage, experts we can work with, that let us be much larger than our size."

Arguably, the Obama campaign's in-house approach frees it to experiment. Without drawing up any big project spec sheet, staff time can go to producing products that might only reach a handful of people. Take, for example, this data-heavy YouTube video produced by the campaign in March. In three months, the campaign's two-minute update on how many field offices had been opened, phone calls made, and "team leaders" appointed has been watched fewer than 10,000 times. If it's a few thousand of the right people, though, you can begin to see why it might be worth the staff time.

Then there are posters whipped up on site that, often, don't seem to travel much beyond the campaign's doors. One hanging in headquarters (and seen below) riffs off the president's 2012 proclamation for Women's History Month -- "As we make headway on the crucial issues of our time, let the courageous vision championed by women of past generations inspire us to defend the dreams and opportunities of those to come." -- and is turned into a visualization with a mapping of famously accomplished women like soccer great Mia Hamm, the New York Times' Jill Abramson, and, yes, Michelle Obama. The poster to its left displays the Obamaesque slogan, "The definition of hope is you still believe even when it's hard." But a Google search reveals that, in a bit of Outbound/Design team synergy, perhaps, that saying is only known to the world through a Pinterest pin of a photograph of the poster itself.

But that's not to say that the campaign's free-flowing creative experimentation is for naught. Whether the Obama campaign's heavy focus on its home-grown creative operations is sound strategy is probably a judgment to ultimately be made on November 7. But from one angle, though, while the Obama operation won't talk specific numbers, all signs suggest that merchandising has been a fundraising boon for the campaign. The Obama online store sells nearly 300 items, from the pedestrian logo buttons and pints to rather more whimsical items. There's "I like Obamacare" t-shirts for thirty bucks a pop. For $22.50, you can get a mug bearing Vice President Biden's mug that reads "Cup of Joe." Have a kitten? Get yourself a "I Meow for Michelle" cat collar, just $12. The campaign rather famously turned around mugs featuring the president's long-form birth certificate, under the tag line, "Made in the U.S.A." The Romney campaign has an online store too, sure. But theirs is about a tenth the size. A T-shirt that says "Super Fan" on it as about as edgy as things get.

Merchandise gets whipped up and sold, one piece after another -- including in one particularly unique offline shop. The Obama campaign headquarters has a paraphernalia shop right on site. And it's not by the front door. Instead, it's deep in the bowels. According to the campaign, senior management decided that giving away bumper stickers to staff was so 2008. This time around, the merch shop is open a few times a week, solely for staff and the occasional visitor. (Staff do, I'm told, get a discount.) This is where Obama campaign aides can pick up their "I Bark for Barack" car magnets and Obama-Biden coaster sets. Sometimes they get things before anyone else does, as was the case with the custom-made Obama iPhone cases listed at $40 a piece.

Do Obama campaign staff really spend their hard-earned paychecks buying swag emblazoned with the campaign's logo or their boss's name, no matter how well-designed it might be? Deputy press secretary Katie Hogan assures me they do. The line, she says, has been known to be out the door. With the campaign office rather packed with bodies and equipment, the organization is pressed for meeting space. But with the staff swag store, says Hogan, "it's lucrative enough to not turn it into a conference room."

Now that's keeping things in-house.