Bloomberg campaign builds out digital arm Hawkfish ahead of 2020 election

By Elizabeth Culliford and Katie Paul

Feb 21 (Reuters) - U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg's campaign has pumped $25.7 million into the billionaire candidate's little-known digital arm Hawkfish since he entered the race last November, according to disclosures to the Federal Election Commission.

Hawkfish LLC, which was founded by the former New York mayor in 2019, has been rapidly hiring tech executives, data scientists, software engineers and machine learning experts to try and counter Republican President Donald 's digital advantage ahead of the November 2020 election.

The company, which is based out of the Bloomberg campaign's midtown Manhattan headquarters, now has at least 200 employees.

Bloomberg, who was attacked during his first debate Wednesday by the other Democratic rivals vying to unseat , is spending unparalleled amounts of money on his advertising campaign.

According to campaign disclosures filed this week, the Bloomberg campaign has spent $409 million on his run through January, with most of the money funding a TV advertising blitz. It has spent $87 million on Google and Facebook ads, according to Democratic digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. .

Hawkfish describes itself on its LinkedIn page as "a new startup to build state-of-the-art data and tech infrastructure for Democratic candidates, good causes and common sense solutions."

Ex-Facebook chief marketing officer Gary Briggs, former Foursquare CEO Jeff Glueck hold senior positions and on Thursday, CNBC reported that Hawkfish had hired ad executive Tim Castree, who was previously North America CEO of WPP Group subsidiary GroupM.

Other staff and advisors include alumni from Google, ad tech firm The Trade Desk and Goldman Sachs, according to their LinkedIn profiles.

Eric Kuhn, who has described himself as the first agent in to focus on social media during his time at United Talent Agency, has also joined Hawkfish as a senior advisor working on digital organizing and influencers, a signal that the campaign could build on its recent controversial strategy of paying popular Instagram meme accounts to post content.

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The campaign has said that Hawkfish will continue to be funded "in a big way" through November, regardless of whether Bloomberg wins the nomination.

"Bloomberg is not only the best funded, but candidly far and away the most sophisticated with data," said JT Kostman, a data scientist who worked on social media strategy for Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign.

By using social network analysis to identify the most influential people and targeting them to share messages, Hawkfish is able to create a sense that "everyone is saying this," he said.

Hawkfish says that it has previously done work for Democratic candidates in 2019 state elections in Virginia and Kentucky, but calls Bloomberg's campaign "our first major customer."

The campaign said Hawkfish sees itself as competing with the digital team run by 's now campaign manager Brad Parscale in 2016, running a data-driven operation to create content and push paid ads to target voters.

The name, according to the campaign, comes from Bloomberg's interest in marine life. When he was mayor of New York, he installed giant fish tanks at City Hall and the offices of his financial news and data firm Bloomberg LLC are known for housing aquariums. (Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford and Katie Paul in San Francisco; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Kim Coghill)

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