One on One: The business of politics

Strategist Aron Shaviv frequently crosses country lines - though never ideological ones - to serve as a consultant.

aron shaviv 248 88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
aron shaviv 248 88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'I love the race," says Aron Shaviv, exuding passion for his profession. Shaviv, who established and runs Strategy & Campaigns Ltd. - an Israel-based consulting firm that handles clients in the (mainly foreign) political sphere, as well as in the corporate world, both at home and abroad - considers himself lucky to feel this way about his work. It's a career whose start he owes to his "mentor," cutting-edge Republican consultant Arthur Finkelstein and partner George Birnbaum, who "gave someone inexperienced like me a chance - before I'd even finished my BA [in political science]." Today, the 30-year-old former IDF captain - who lives with his wife and two daughters in Modi'in - uses the skills he honed during his years "learning from the top experts in the field" to help candidates win elections. This he does, he claims, by conducting detailed research on what voters want and why. No small feat for someone who rarely speaks the language of the countries in which he has operated, such as Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Ghana, Macedonia and Cyprus. Born in the UK to parents who had made aliya and then returned to their native Britain, Shaviv was a globe-trotter even as a child, spending a few years in Australia and Canada, before coming back to Israel when he was 17. Soon after, he joined the IDF, where he became a captain in Intelligence, remaining "in the system" for nine years. Summing up his current modus operandi, Shaviv tells a metaphorical story. "Picture the boardroom of a large company," he says. "Sitting at a table are the CEO, the COO and other bigwigs each putting in his two cents about the company and where it is headed. Suddenly, the guy who's off to the side fixing the air conditioner joins in, because he also wants to have a say. And this causes the others to tell him he has no idea what he's talking about. I always tell my people, 'Never be that AC technician.' "Every leader is surrounded by more than a dozen people giving him advice all day, every day. He certainly doesn't need another one - certainly not one who comes in from outside. Obviously, I know less about the politics of Serbia, Ghana or wherever than the rest of them. But I know the data, based on exhaustive public-opinion surveys. It is this that gives me the right to speak on behalf of the electorate. And that's what empowers me to give these leaders advice." Why has your type of consulting and strategy become such an integral part of politics and business? Because both politics and business have become more competitive. The outcomes of recent elections all over the world have been determined by a mere few hundred votes or less, which means that every single vote counts. In business, too - particularly in the current economic downswing - every customer counts. In such a situation, politicians - I'll talk about businessmen later - seek outside help. The experience that people like me bring to them in a single election can equal the cumulative experience of all the elections they will ever run in put together. Are you saying that, in the absence of people like you, the outcomes of the close elections you mention would have been different? Yes, I think so. If so, is the race actually between the political strategists, rather than the politicians they advise? No. There's no strategist or campaign manager who can create something that's not there. Today, the first word that comes out of the mouth of any new client I meet is "Obama." They all want to know what they can learn from his campaign, and ask me whether I can replicate it. I tell them that the most important factor in the Obama campaign was Obama himself. It was built around his personality. I tell them that they can't cut and paste that. What they can do, however, is learn about their electorates. The last time most politicians - especially seasoned ones - had any real contact with the electorate was when they were just starting out in politics, sometimes a couple of decades earlier. And, if you're a politician, particularly if you're the head of a state or a party, you're surrounded by people with an agenda; you're in your own little bubble. What I bring to this type of major player is an objective point of view. I come in and do a lot of research, and what I provide is not my own point of view, but rather that of the electorate. Every new client I meet with says, "Oh, I already do polling; I already have focus groups." "Yes," I answer. "You do that in order to eliminate some of the guess work from your campaign. You want to base your activities on some hard data. But, at the end of the day, you're still guessing, because even if your research tells you that voters don't agree with you on issue A, B or C, you still have to guess how to change that. What I try to do is take you to the next step - which is understanding why people are thinking what they're thinking or, more importantly, why they're feeling what they're feeling. It is only this way that we can know how to fix it." But how can you "fix it"? If people are unhappy with a candidate's position on the economy, for example, and you reach the conclusion - based on your research - that the reason for this is that they have no money, do you advise the candidate to change his position in order to curry favor with them? I never want to tell candidates what to do. I never want to change their policies. I tell them they have to run based on who they are and on what their convictions are. It's in the way they present this to the electorate and the media where I can help. It's here that a difference can be made. Isn't that like hiding something from the voters? Isn't that why we all say that campaigns never resemble their aftermaths? I'll answer that by way of example. Many Romanians used to go to neighboring countries and buy old Mercedes and BMWs and bring them back home. In 2008, the Romanian government decided to slap a tax on these imported cars - which was presented as a "green" tax, using pollution from the cars as the justification. So terribly was this tax received on the part of the public that it would not have passed in parliament. After some public-opinion research was done, a new phrase was coined to promote the tax: "Romania shouldn't turn into the junkyard for Europe's old cars." Suddenly, the electorate saw it as a source of national pride. Suddenly, the reasons for tax - which no one believed was about the environment in the first place - was to restore pride to Romanians. And it worked. Turning to Israel, during the recent general elections, were you keeping watch to see when politicians did things in their campaigns you felt were stupid or harmful? I'm always very aware of such things. But I've more or less committed to never working in Israel. Why? I found that whenever I did work for politicians in Israel, there was always a bit of tension between what was best for the client and my own personal opinion as a citizen. When I go abroad, the only thing I really care about is what's best for the client. In Israel, I can't be completely objective or neutral, which isn't fair to the client. Speaking of which, on the eve of the elections here, I was flown to Madrid to give a synopsis to FAES [Fundacion para el Análisis y los Estudios Sociales, translated as the Foundation for Analysis and Social Studies, headed by former prime minister José María Aznar] - a conservative think tank. What I said was that during the period preceding Operation Cast Lead, all the campaigning was personality-based. Ads were all along the lines of: "Bibi, I don't believe him"; "Lieberman, I do believe him"; "Tzipi isn't up to the job"; "Barak is a leader." I said that this was amazing, considering Israel is a country that faces many existential and other extremely important challenges - Iran, the Palestinians, the economy, corruption - none of which was even mentioned. My theory was as follows: Most elections in Israel are about the Palestinian conflict. But we've tried the left-wing way, since 1993 and throughout the Oslo process; then we tried the right-wing way, starting in 1996 with [Binyamin] Netanyahu; and then we even tried the centrist way, with Ariel Sharon and disengagement. Still, nothing has worked so far. And politicians have come to the realization that we don't have a solution. What they were saying by these personality campaigns is: "I don't have a solution, but I'm the best guy to manage the situation." That was the first half of the campaign. In the second half, after the war in Gaza, one candidate - I'm a little impartial here - broke away from that mould: Israel Beiteinu head Avigdor Lieberman. Though he certainly kept the personality thing going, he added an issue: the loyalty of Israeli Arabs to the state. There was also a structural component - the Russian vote. That's why he did so well. Look, casting a ballot is an emotional act. And elections increasingly have become more about personality and emotions, and less about policy. Even the elections that are about issues involve emotions, because the issues are often emotional ones, such as pro-choice vs pro-life. But there's another way in which voting is an emotional act, and this has to do with voting habits. Take the Israeli election in 2006, for instance. Previously, no one had ever voted Kadima [because it was a new party formed by Likud leader prime minister Ariel Sharon]. Doing so, then, meant changing one's voting pattern. And, emotionally, when it comes to the crunch, it's hard to change the party one traditionally votes for. This is one of the reasons that Kadima didn't do as well as expected. So, you don't agree that the reason Kadima fared worse than expected in 2006 was because Sharon was by then in a coma, and Ehud Olmert, who had inherited the seat from him, was not as popular? That might be a part of it, but no, when it comes down to it, it is very hard emotionally for people to change their voting patterns. Speaking of emotional attachments, you say that this is one reason why you only work with leaders abroad. But how can you work in countries whose language you do not speak and whose culture is one with which you are not personally familiar? Today, technology allows us to bridge those kinds of gaps very easily. We work with at least a dozen translators, for example. But to answer the deeper aspect of that question - of what enables me to move from country to country and culture to culture, and to continue to be successful at tapping into local thinking: It's the basic idea that people behave the same worldwide. What motivates an Israeli voter to get out of bed on a cold, rainy morning and go to the voting booth are the same factors that motivate any citizen of any country to do so. What are those factors? There are three pillars. One is the personality of the candidate. This means looking at a candidate and seeing how much of yourself you see in him or her - how much you identify with a person or a party. Another is structure. In Eastern Europe, you often hear, "I've voted Socialist all my life; my father voted Socialist; my grandfather was a bigwig in the Communist Party. Of course I'm going to vote Socialist." In Israel, Shas voters, for example, are structural voters. It's irrelevant who the candidate is; it's irrelevant what the issues are; they vote Shas because they're Shas voters. Issues are another pillar, but these tend to have less weight than is commonly thought, and involve much of the emotion connected to the other two pillars. Do you really believe, when faced with a world now divided between the West and radical Islam, that all people are motivated by the same factors when they vote? Yes. In very broad terms, the three pillars stand, no matter where you are. The bigger picture is that people vote for a better life - for themselves, for their children and grandchildren. Do you think that the Palestinians who elected Hamas did so because they believed it would give them a better life? In very broad terms. I'm no expert on the Palestinian electoral process or with that specific election. But in any country, the basic motivation to vote is to create a better life for yourself, for your family, for your people and for your country. Obviously, in each country, the specifics are different. Apropos specifics, do you draw any lines in terms of your willingness to take on a client whose ideology you oppose or consider problematic? Of course. And my natural tendency is to work with center-right parties - conservative in terms of values and liberal in terms of economic policy. How do you generate business in foreign countries? That's one of the greatest challenges, and I work very hard to recruit my clients. Usually, after presenting my initial round of public-opinion research, the results of which are almost never what the clients expect, there's a real crisis of trust. Here I am, coming into their country from outside and telling them something that runs completely counter to what they believe. The reason I've always gotten past that stage - the thing that empowers me to give advice - is because they eventually understand that I'm coming with a clean slate, and that my data speak on behalf of the electorate. How can you base your advice on public-opinion polls? Haven't we all seen how often they are totally inaccurate? My polling is very different from what you tend to see. Just to give you an idea: In public-opinion polls, there are usually three or four simple questions and answers to those questions. When I conduct a poll, it typically has 100 questions. The results I get back fill 1,000 to 1,300 pages. In election campaigns, things move quickly, and candidates are in a hurry. For you to have to sift through hundreds of pages of translated data must take a lot of time. How does that work? Yes, it is time-consuming, but that is the heart and soul of the business. I would never rush that stage. The presentation can always be made shorter or longer, but the very diligent reading of the data is what makes me good. What about conducting a "diligent reading" of your client? Don't you have to know whether the person you are going to be working for has a big ego or a short attention span - or whether he has blemishes in his record? There is a part of the campaign called "opposition research," when we look at the opposition and examine the chinks in its armor, so to speak. And we always do opposition research on our own candidates, as well. I tell my people that if there's anything negative out there about the client, I want to know about it. During the recent American election campaign, a question arose as to whether Obama had indeed been born in the United States. There are still rumors circulating to that effect, which Obama has not addressed. If you were advising him, would tell him to speak up, or to continue to shut up? I'm no expert in the Obama case, but when there's negative stuff out there, my advice always is to get it out as quickly as possible. This is one of the things I also apply to my corporate work. Especially today, with the economic downturn, many companies have bad news to tell their shareholders or the public, and I think the best policy is to come out with the whole truth, and fast, before anyone else beats you to it. This way you have a chance of getting people on board. One thing that allows me to apply my political work to my work in the corporate sphere is the fact that many economic decisions in our lives are, in fact, political in nature. I'll give you an example in the Israeli context. When the local cafes Aroma and Hillel were just starting out in Jerusalem, what they both represented was change - from full service to semi self-service. The ensuing competition between the two became very political, even if they themselves weren't aware of it. Each stood for a set of values, with Aroma more liberal and Hillel more conservative. You know, Hillel attracted more of the religious community, and Aroma became a hang-out for a certain liberal crowd - and not only because some branches are open on Shabbat. These things were projected, in logo, name and layout of the cafes. Though not necessarily a conscious decision on their parts, all businesses project some kind of values. I always advise my corporate clients to make such choice consciously. Competition isn't always about the quality of a product - as in the case of Aroma and Hillel. It's about how one makes you feel when you sit there, as opposed to the other. It's about where you're more comfortable, and about where people like you sit. That's what I bring to my corporate clients: this idea of looking at their business situations through a political prism. This goes for banks, health funds, cellphone companies... for them, every day is "election day." But businesses often can't see this for themselves. They need someone to come in and show them where they should be going strategically. How did you get involved in this business? After years in military intelligence, I wanted to make a change. I knew that I wanted to get into the behind-the-scenes of politics, but I didn't know enough about it even to know what type of job. So, I sat at home for three days and I came up with a list of 100 people in relevant fields - politicians, PR people, strategists, lobbyists - and sent them each an e-mail. Only two out of the 100 responded. Interestingly they were the two most senior people in their respective fields. One was an Israeli lobbyist, Boris Krasny. The other was Arthur Finkelstein. Each gave me an interview. At the end of my interview with Finkelstein, he said, "Look, we're impressed, but we don't have a job to offer you." So I said, "OK, tomorrow morning, I will be in the office at 8 a.m. and I will start working for you for free." He and his partner, George Birnbaum, agreed. I worked this way for a long time, and in retrospect, it was the best investment I ever made. That's how I got my start. I like telling this story, because it was the most senior and serious people who answered me and were willing to give me a chance. That taught me a lot about what makes great people great. And it taught me about the fact that you can take the cold-call approach. It's something I implement in my business involvement today. Sometimes I look at elections that are going to take place in a year and a half, and I simply call the candidate and introduce myself. I find that often works. The conventional wisdom is that you need connections. But it turns out that this isn't always the case. I also implement it as an employer, when people call me looking for work. Because this is the way I started out, I love paying it back.