Has Uber cool become Uber cunning?

David Plouffe, President Obama's former campaign manager and White House adviser has been taken on by Uber, the ride-sharing app ...

David Plouffe, President Obama's former campaign manager and White House adviser has been taken on by Uber, the ride-sharing app platform, to mastermind its campaign to spread Uber's cool to every corner of the car-riding universe. Hear from Richard Hytner.


One asset that will no longer be riding up and down in the elevator of car app company Lyft next week will be its Chief Operating Officer. One can safely conclude that Travis VanderZanden’s departure was acrimonious, because it was accompanied by one of those euphemisms for total breakdown in managerial relations:

‘’We’ve talked about the future and all agree that Travis will move on as we move forward into the company’s next chapter of growth. We appreciate everything he’s done here, and wish him the best in his next adventure.”

In the same week Uber, the ride-sharing app platform and Lyft’s arch rival, seduced David Plouffe, President Obama's former campaign manager and White House adviser, to mastermind its campaign to spread Uber’s cool to every corner of the car-riding universe. Plouffe’s campaign will take on Lyft, regulated taxi industries, and all others choosing to stand between Uber and its expansive ambition.

The new senior vice president of policy and strategy will report to Uber’s Travis Kalanick, the app’s disruptive and iconoclastic chief executive.
The new partners are purring. Kalanick has bagged a savvy political operator to spearhead what his new boss calls ‘the Uber campaign’: "I like to think of David as a strategic thought partner and a brilliant general." Plouffe is equally effusive because in Uber he sees a pressing need for his talent and a cause worth fighting for. His campaign began in the press release that announced his appointment: “I look forward to doing what I can right now to ensure drivers and riders are not denied their opportunity for choice in transportation.”

Can Plouffe do for Uber on Wall Street what he did for Obama in the White House?

Jim Messina, White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager and the matchmaker who brought Plouffe and Kalanick together, clearly thinks so. It is the perfect marriage, he says, describing Plouffe as the smartest strategist he has ever met and Uber as one of the most innovative companies in America.

Messina is not alone in his admiration. Political commentators testify to Plouffe’s cunning as well as his ability to organise campaigns from the corridors of power to the screens in our hands. He received ample recognition for Obama’s 2008 Presidential nomination; for his work as an outside adviser to the President; and then for his work as one of the President’s Senior Advisers inside the White House.  He left the White House on a high.

The challenge for Plouffe will be in using a successful relationship with one ultimately accountable leader – the President - as a reliable blueprint for approaching the new relationship with his chief executive. Kalanick is no Obama and Uber, despite its dramatic progress as a consumer-driven movement and its democratic intentions, is not a political party.

As a fan of what Uber has done to breathe life into the laggard taxi industry, here are five ways the new campaign manager can help Kalanick to keep fighting complacency in the cab market:

  1. Define in detail the relationship with the new boss. Whilst Plouffe’s responsibilities have been clearly assigned, are the relationship boundaries as well defined? What can Plouffe do without Kalanick’s prior knowledge and approval? How will the two resolve their differences in opinion? What are Plouffe’s ambitions beyond running this successful campaign?
  2. Keep it candid with Kalanick. Uber’s chief has been likened to Steve Jobs, such is the dependency of the business on their leader. When others in his circle are tempted to flatter their leader, the talismanic Travis will need to hear the truth. The biggest danger confronting Uber right now is arguably not regulation nor Lyft but their leader’s hubris. An acquaintance of Kalanick's told Business Insider's Alyson Shontell earlier this year that there was ‘absolutely no way this business would have gotten where it is without Travis and his arrogance…not without him being like, 'I'm going to take over the world.' He has the Steve Jobs mentality that, 'It's my way or the highway.'" Hubris is the risk facing all successful leaders in the limelight. Plouffe must anchor his boss.
  3. Keep it clean – consumers love a fight, admiring those willing to take on the establishment. They also respect fair play. Plouffe does not have to make every player Uber’s opponent. To rise above Lyft, Uber needs to be competitive, not combative. To win over the regulators, Uber may need to collaborate. The political adviser must not default to dirty tactics. Plouffe is no stranger to the darker craft of the consigliere. He used research, for example, not simply to gather insight into Obama’s opponents’ policy, but to unearth snippets of intelligence that, if leaked, would be detrimental to those who stood in opposition. Plouffe later confessed that his team was the source of Politico’s Ben Smith’s story in 2007 about John Edwards' famous $400 haircut. It helped bring down Edwards as a "man of the people" candidate in his second democratic presidential bid. Dirty tricks are not appreciated by consumers. Ask British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.
  4. Keep your campaign culturally in tune –the Uber campaign needs to adapt not just to local regulations, but to local sensibilities. Plouffe should seek guidance from his mentor David Axelrod, the British Labour party’s prized advisor, imported from Washington to make Ed Milliband electable as a Prime Minister. Axelrod recently advised Milliband to fly across the pond for a brush-by with President Obama the same week he advised his man to tell the British public that policy matters much more than image. It was an own goal acknowledged even by those rooting for the Labour opposition leader. Applying practices that work in America to different cultural contexts is no guarantee of success. Will Plouffe’s methods proven effective in the USA play out in markets where Uber may be in for a bumpier ride?
  5. Lead from the shadows. When he clinched the Democratic Party nomination in 2008, the then Senator Obama thanked Plouffe for being the one "who never gets any credit, but has built the best political campaign, I think, in the history of the United States.". Six years later, Plouffe has a polished public profile. Heralded as Kalanick’s clever new strategist, Plouffe has already become part of the Uber story. Regulators, taxi industries around the world and competitors have all conveniently been served notice that Plouffe has arrived to campaign against them. Plouffe needs to find the shadows fast.

Can the political Svengali pull it off for Uber?

After Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward once alleged that he had been threatened by a White House aide, Plouffe’s tweeted retort was brutal: "Watching Woodward last 2 days is like imagining my idol Mike Schmidt facing live pitching again. Perfection gained once is rarely repeated," he tweeted.

For Uber lovers let us hope that Obama’s man can repeat perfection.

Richard Hytner's latest book, Consiglieri: Leading From The Shadows, was published on 4th June 2014 by Profile Books. 
Follow @RichardHytner

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