Sunday, September 24, 2023

This Company Made Republicans Go Viral — Now It’s Falling Apart

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

In the breathless world of conservative online politics, Arsenal Media is here to help you go viral. The company, co-founded by Benny Johnson, a gadfly meme enthusiast, lists clients such as Rep. Madison Cawthorn and Dana Loesch and takes credit for more than doubling Donald Trump Jr.’s Facebook followers.

Most enticingly, it seems to provide a tried-and-true playbook for making content great. One slide of a pitch deck viewed by The edge describes a “viral influencer network” as the secret to making customer content take flight, with a single video being circulated by a network of friendly faces. “This organic distribution network serves as the vehicle your customer needs to ensure it reaches its intended audience,” a document promises.

Much of the field depends on Johnson himself, who plays a huge role in the deck. With his background at BuzzFeed (where he left amid a plagiarism scandal) and Ben Shapiro’s daily threadit’s easy to think he’s found the secret formula to make conservatives go viral.

But while that pitch has made Arsenal one of the most talked-about campaign shops in Republican politics, employees within the company tell a different story. Six former employees who spoke to The edge described a chaotic work environment, filled with internal bullying, toxic HR practices and an intense culture of secrecy. That uncertainty has led to three employees leaving the company in the past two weeks, and many insiders suspect the company’s problems are just beginning.

Most urgently, some contractors say they are not being paid. Karl Slater started freelance editing for Arsenal in May 2021, but he soon noticed irregularities in the company’s handling of money.

“Invoices should be sent to [CEO] Jason Cole, but I suggest you put me in a cc,” an Arsenal employee wrote to Slater in an email obtained by The edge† “Also – I’ve noticed it seems easier for him to pay via PayPal.”

Soon the bills had risen to $8,795, and they still went unanswered. Slater issued a formal demand the following month and then took the matter to court, winning a verdict in November. The edge spoke to Cole, who declined to make an official statement, but agreed to grant specific factual claims; he insists he paid the bill as soon as he became aware of the verdict, and he has provided evidence that the payments were obtained by a collection agency earlier this month. But as of publication, Slater says he has not yet received the money, and the Second Judicial District Court in Minnesota still lists the case as unresolved, a clerk said Wednesday.

Arsenal’s biggest hit came in the summer of 2020 when it began working for Kim Klacik, a black Republican running to fill the Baltimore congressional seat released after the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings. Arsenal’s Klacik ad showed the then-candidate walking through impoverished areas of Baltimore. The footage was unusual for a Republican campaign, including glitchy jump cuts and an ESPN-esque flare, promoting a provocative campaign slogan: Black lives don’t matter to Democrats.

As promised, the ad went viral, with over 4 million views on Twitter in less than a day, according to the New York Post† Those opinions translated into real money, raising more than $8 million for Klacik’s campaign.

For the campaign stores involved in the ad, it was a jackpot. A report from The Washington Post uncovered an unusual deal behind the ad: The marketing company promoting the video, Olympic Media, would receive up to 70 percent of the money generated from it, more than $4 million. Arsenal took a smaller cut, but still ended up with a significant ad windfall.

As a political figure, Klacik didn’t get very far: She ran in a district leading Democrats by 27 points and ended up losing by more than 40 points. But the ad’s success showed the huge potential for viral conservative candidates — and how the money generated could be funneled back into contractors rather than campaigns. Arsenal started taking on more clients with long odds and unusual profiles, hoping to repeat the same fundraising strategy.

“They go after the not-so-typical-looking Republican and run them for office and try to recreate the magic,” a former employee told me. The edge† “They’re always looking for the next one. It’s almost as if Captain Ahab in Moby Dick

The company’s unusual relationship with campaigns doesn’t end with the atypical distribution of fundraising. Arsenal’s general advisory contracts, one of which was reviewed by The edgestipulate that the company will have “exclusiveness over the hiring of senior personnel, consultants and salespeople with the prior approval of the client” and would train those campaign employees “for their necessary responsibilities”.

The terms are highly unusual in political campaigns because of the self-handling problems that such an arrangement entails. In an interview with The edge on Tuesday, Cole said this contract language has been updated to clarify that customers have more control over their hiring. The edge was unable to confirm this change

Even with those terms, the company has had no trouble attracting high-profile candidates. Last year, Arsenal teamed up with Kari Lake, a Trump-backed Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, and Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), who received more than $80,000 per candidate, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) data.

Despite the company’s lofty contracts with high-profile Republican candidates, employees told: The edge that they were overworked and underpaid – if they were paid at all.

Payroll administration has been a mess since Arsenal’s inception, workers say. According to them, Cole rarely used official payroll software and chose to pay employees through online payment processing apps such as PayPal or Venmo. While some companies pay contractors on these apps, one full-time employee said they never signed tax documents when they started working and received most of their paychecks on these apps. Using these apps does not exempt a company from its tax filing requirements, and it may be a violation of the terms of service to use these apps for payroll purposes if a company is not properly registered with the app.

Several employees said Cole has yet to provide them with the W-2 or 1099 papers they need to file their tax returns this year. Cole told The edge on Tuesday that every employee must fill out W-4 and I-9 paperwork before they are ever paid. (Multiple sources contradict these claims.) He did not deny that he sometimes made late payments.

Strangely, Johnson has begun to distance himself from the company. As late as April 1, Johnson’s website listed him as both co-founder and chief creative officer of Arsenal. But the language disappeared from Johnson’s site after the release of a puck article describing his association with Arsenal, and he has denied any formal employment with the company after its publication.

Responding to a request for comment from The edge on Tuesday, a Johnson spokesperson credited him with, “bringing out the vision for what the company could become” and saying: “It’s probably true that Arsenal wouldn’t have come into existence without Benny’s input early in its founding from the company.”

Still, the spokesperson insisted there was no formal relationship between Johnson and Arsenal, saying: “He is not currently an owner, director or even employee of Arsenal Media.” Putting it more sharply, Cole said Johnson started out as a contractor and had not been involved in the company’s operations for over a year.

But there is reason to believe that these statements underestimate Johnson’s role at Arsenal, at least as of this year. workers told The edge that in January Johnson had both referred clients to the company and directed creative work under the company’s name.

The confusion is particularly strange given the outrageous role Johnson seems to have played in office life. Former employees describe Johnson bullying or humiliating staff members when videotaping or customer work didn’t go according to plan, often in the company’s internal Telegram chats.

Johnson can be “very rude, very poisonous, yelling at people, like profanity, vulgarity, making women cry, pushing them to their limits,” said a former employee. “I haven’t been yelled at like that since I was probably seven years old on the playground.”

In one incident, a source told: The edge that Johnson yelled on the phone at a female employee as she boarded a flight to Las Vegas in September 2020 to attend a video recording. Johnson’s problem with the employee is unclear, but he is said to have demanded that the staffer apologize to himself, his wife and his newborn daughter. The employee in question has no comment on the matter.

“Benny can be a tough director, there’s no doubt about it,” a Johnson spokesperson said when confronted by the allegations. “That level of stress isn’t for everyone, but it’s also contributed to Benny’s success.” Neither Johnson nor Cole confirmed or denied the September 2020 phone call with the female staffer.

Still, the pressure has forced the company to lay off staff just as the midterm election cycle heats up. The edge confirmed that three employees have left Arsenal in the past two weeks, although the specific reasons for the departure are unclear.

Meanwhile, contractors like Slater are still struggling to get paid. Earlier this year, Slater received a writ of execution against Cole, allowing law enforcement officers to seize payment for his debt – but Arsenal are not disclosing Cole’s company or correct address, so the request has yet to be executed, Slater says.

According to Arsenal’s website, the company is currently hiring a graphic designer, among others. And applicants like Slater are still attracted to the image the company creates.

“Arsenal got the content production and content delivery aspect of the advertising game. We succeeded,” says a former employee. “But they really screwed up the politics of it all.”

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