Online Exclusive: Profile: Thomas Gensemer, managing partner, Blue State Digital

After helping deliver the White House to Barack Obama, the digital guru is looking beyond politics. By Arun Sudhaman

Thomas Gensemer, Blue State Digital
Thomas Gensemer, Blue State Digital

It has been 11 months since Barack Obama carried the White House, thanks to a presidential campaign that counted a savvy digital strategy as a key factor in its resounding success.

Yet Thomas Gensemer, whose company Blue State Digital (BSD) masterminded Obama's online blitz, seems in no hurry to take a breather.

The grind of the presidential campaign, which for Gensemer began taking shape during his work for contender Howard Dean in 2004, ought to have come to a welcome halt on the evening Obama addressed thousands of cheering supporters at his victory rally in Chicago's Grant Park.

Instead, it appears life has only become busier for Gensemer. Firmly ensconced as the hottest digital agency on the planet, it is easy to believe BSD has been flooded with enquiries from clients who would like ‘an Obama' where their own digital work is concerned.

This is perhaps why Gensemer has been invited to deliver the keynote address at next week's Ad:Tech London digital marketing conference.

‘People do say, let's have the Obama people come in,' admits Gensemer. ‘It's flattering. But there's only so much time in the day.'

Not that Gensemer, one imagines, really needs a longer working day. Armed with a rapid-fire delivery that fluently straddles the worlds of politics, digital and marketing, the 31-year-old does not often pause for breath.

‘We were looking forward to the final day of the campaign, but we haven't had the opportunity to breathe yet,' he says. ‘I continue to live a busier life than I would have imagined. But no complaints from me - we were given a gift.'

Division of Labour

That ‘gift' is now being put to work building a business that is expanding fast. BSD launched its London operation at the start of the year with its sights set on reviving Labour's digital operation. It is an alliance that has not materialised, and Gensemer is only too happy to blame this on a lack of digital support from the party's upper echelons.

‘So many people who have watched Labour struggle could have helped,' he says. ‘They certainly would have been in a better position now.'

This charge is refuted by Labour's new media strategist Mark Hanson. ‘It's not right to say there's no senior buy-in, as both politicians at cabinet level and top-level staffers are directly engaged in using new media and using it properly,' he says.

Others believe Labour's relative financial penury has ruled BSD out of the running, even as Gensemer notes that ‘you can do a lot with a little bit of money'.

Email is key

Neither, though, is Gensemer particularly impressed with the Tories' high-profile digital efforts. ‘They've done a lot of things to get press and demonstrate David Cameron's transformation of the party,' he claims.

‘I don't think they've done as much on email or on relationship building. We'll see during the campaign how much it brings in terms of money and support in the polls.'

Either way, BSD is not short of business. It is working for Ireland's Fianna Fail party, the Communication Workers Union, the Campaign for Electoral Reform, and Hope not Hate.

All of these are campaigns that play to BSD's close ties to progressive politics. Still, there is a sense that what motivates Gensemer more than the politics is the prospect of driving agency growth.

With that in mind, it is corporate work that Gensemer seems particularly keen to pursue. ‘We used our opportunities to build up the team during the 22 months of the campaign and worked hard to diversify the agency,' he says. ‘This year, the political stuff will be less than a quarter of the work.'

Progressive approach

Not every client is likely to be totally enamoured of BSD's progressive leanings. ‘I'm sure it keeps some people from calling us,' admits Gensemer. ‘We don't do anything that's in conflict with one of our more progressive-leaning causes. But there are a lot of corporate clients that don't run afoul.'

BSD's London presence has been housed within its PR agency Freud Communications' office since it launched. Gensemer says there has been a ‘degree of co-sales with the agency upstairs', but declines to provide any further details.

‘Some things work and some things don't,' he says when asked if the Freud relationship has borne fruit, also pointing out that the growth in BSD's headcount means it is looking for offices of its own.

With or without Freud, BSD appears to be in an enviable position. So what exactly does Gensemer tell the corporate types who come in search of the flashy digital bells and whistles that will lead them to the promised land?

‘There's too much of the shiny optic syndrome, and not a whole lot being accomplished with it,' says Gensemer. ‘If you go to the average corporate digital agency, it's all about what you can do on Twitter.'

‘We used so much social media during the presidential campaign, but the initial relationship that allowed it to work was email,' he explains. ‘It was the text-heavy, narrative-based emails that kept people engaged. Our mantra has been, invest in your relationships online via email.'


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