March 3 2008: 4:00 AM EST
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Obama's Web marketing triumph

Online strategy has determined much of the outcome of the Democratic presidential race, argues a prominent advertising executive.

By Devin Leonard, senior writer

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Obama's surprise performance is partly attributable to a superior Web strategy, argues one advertising executive.

(Fortune) -- Why does Barack Obama appear to be outmaneuvering Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary? Part of the reason is his campaign's mastery of the Internet, says Rishad Tobaccowala, chief innovation officer of the media buying division of Publicis, the French advertising giant. (Tobaccowala also runs his own start-up company inside Publicis called Denuo, Latin for "anew.")

It's his job to ponder the changing media industry and help his clients stay one step ahead. He uses Obama's come-from-behind primary and caucus victories against a brand name like Clinton as a cautionary case study for his market-leading clients.

Fortune: Who is using media more effectively in the Democratic primary - Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama?

Tobaccowala: Definitely, Obama. He is a digital candidate while she is the analog candidate. Don't misunderstand me. They both primarily use traditional media. In fact, he's outspent her in traditional media. But his Web site is amazing. It's completely and continually updated. It feels alive and energetic.

His campaign also actively uses e-mail to keep you totally informed. Like if Obama is debating live, they say go watch him. They also created these challenges - when Clinton donated $5 million to her campaign, the Obama campaign sent out a note saying we have to match this quickly. In 24 hours, people donated $8 million to Obama.

They use the Web to support their grassroots community approach by getting people to make supportive phone calls, arrange for rides and places to stay in states where primaries are being held and more.

Why else is it better to be the digital candidate in '08?

Well, think about it for a minute. Unlike Obama, she's used traditional media almost entirely, like her town meeting on the Hallmark Channel. She got maybe 250,000 viewers. But the Black Eyed Peas made this great music video about Obama. It gets almost a million views a day online. The Obama campaign quickly realized how powerful it was and ran it on their home page.

So part of their ability is to figure out from the blogosphere or via crowdsourcing, whatever you want to call it, what works and begin using it. A lot of the Obama campaign messages are not their own but they point to and highlight stuff created by others. It's created by the crowds.

In fact with over a million donors contributing, they position the entire campaign as one owned by the people. That's what makes it so authentic. While both teams spin stuff, Clinton's team tends to be rather unsubtle in their use of spin and attack and this really does not work as well these days.

Why not?

It's so much harder to control the message with the Internet so widely used now. The spin comes back to bite you. I think the Clinton staff haven't really understood. Every time they try to spin stuff, they look like jokers.

For instance, after every state they lose they say it does not matter. Online there are jokes and parodies about this including calling it "Mark Penn's Insult 40 states strategy." Think of it this way. Traditional media is based on command and control. But the digital world is all about grassroots. Traditional media is about authority. Digital is about authenticity. You can see it in the language they use. Obama uses the language of "we and you," which is inclusive and nods to the wisdom of the crowds. She uses "I and me." His stuff is about "yes, you can." Which is about the buyer. She talks about "experience from day one." That's about the seller. That doesn't resonate anymore.

One key thing you recognize from everything from MySpace to the blogosphere is that people want to have a voice. We keep talking in my business about how the buyer is in control. Her campaign believes the seller is in control. That's why it's better to be digital. That doesn't mean you knock out analog. Obama still relies very heavily on traditional media, too.

So has the Clinton campaign learned anything from what Obama is doing with media?

They are doing more of their fundraising online. And they continually edit down things like her closing statement from the Texas debate and began to distribute it on the Internet. The question is, are they too late?

Their problem is they had an inflexible strategy which was about was inevitability. And they had a tough time realizing that at the very first caucus in Iowa, their entire strategy was shot to pieces. They basically keep saying the same old things. In the digital world you want to get signals from all over. But in what appears to be in her campaign a command and control word, Hillary just has loyalists. It's like an echo chamber of nonsense. On the blogosphere everyone is laughing at her staff. They had a tin ear about what's going on in the real world.

Meanwhile, Obama has used the Web to learn things and continually refine his message. His campaign knows exactly what works and what doesn't, what pictures are right, what messages, and when to send it all out. He's continually adapting. The only thing he never fiddles with is "Change you can believe in." That's been his slogan from day one.

How is John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, using media in his campaign?

I don't think he's had to use media all that much in part because he was short of money a lot of the time. Much of his campaign revolved around the success of the surge in Iraq. That's helped him a lot. So has the fact that the absolutely nonsensical candidates (one who does not believe in evolution! one who traffics in fear!) he was running against in the primary enabled him to win so many states. He has done some interesting things on social networks like posting who he thought would win the final four, etc.

Getting back to Hillary, do you ever run into any advertising clients with troubles?

Sure. I actually use the campaign as a case study. I work with a lot of market leaders. I tell them think about Clinton as a market leader with a brand name and to think about Obama as an upstart without a brand name. I spell out all the things we've just talked about - command and control vs. grassroots and authenticity and the two candidates' different approaches to the media. Then I say which one of those do you think is your company. The first guy I did with say, "You're right. We're Hillary!"

Who are you voting for?

This is the first time I voted because I only became a U.S. citizen three years ago. India doesn't allow dual citizenship. So I held onto to my Indian citizenship for a long time. But anyway, I finally got to vote and I voted in the Democratic primary for Obama. So did my daughter who also voted for the first time. She's 20. She believed there was no other acceptable choice. My decision was based on having had the opportunity to be in a room for an hour at a fundraiser with Obama and being terribly impressed at the quality of his mind.

I also come from a country where dynasty politics has done much damage (the Nehru/Gandhi family) and in the 27 years I have been in the United States there has been a Bush or a Clinton in the White House either as President or Vice President. Not good for the system.  To top of page

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