Steve Bannon is getting by with a little help from the world’s biggest ad agencies
A working theory of how major brands ended up in bed with War Room: Pandemic
Here’s what’s new with us:
We were interviewed by Mozilla! We are super proud of this one [How two women are taking on the digital ad industry one brand at a time]
Claire was quoted for a piece on publisher branding in AdWeek
Claire was quoted in AdAge’s piece about David Dobrik and influencer brand safety
How do your ads end up on Steve Bannon’s TV show?
Hi folks, Nandini here. Last week, I was checking in on Steve Bannon’s latest media venture War Room: Pandemic when an odd commercial break caught my attention: four high-quality ads running on an identical loop every 10 minutes or so. It wasn’t programmatic — these ads looked like they had been placed directly.
I have been consumed by the mystery ever since. Who greenlighted these placements? Do these brands know they are sponsoring a show whose host called for the beheading of Dr. Fauci and later urged his followers to join the insurrection at Capitol Hill?
In the following days, trusted sources reached out to me to confirm that multiple brands were not aware of these ad placements and were working to investigate how they happened. Three of the advertisers - GoDaddy, GoodRx and Norton Lifelock - also vanished from the lineup.
We couldn’t resist. We started our own investigation. It didn’t take us long to find a direct line between Real America’s Voice (AVN), the media outlet that hosts Steve Bannon’s show, and two of the more recognizable names in advertising: Havas Media and Horizon Media.
We also learned that other consumer brands like Casper, Peloton, Purple, Stanley Steemer, UnitedHealthcare, Vistaprint and Chewy, may have been unwittingly financially supporting a major disinformation operation hidden within a legitimate-looking media network.
How? We reached out to all the agencies and brands mentioned in this piece hoping for some answers. Of the brands, only GoDaddy responded.
So in today’s issue of BRANDED, we’re sharing our working theory of how unsuspecting advertisers ended up funding a Steve Bannon production — yet again.
Brands (usually) don’t place ads themselves
Here’s what we already know: Major brands don’t generally place ads themselves. They hire agencies to do it for them. This is how it generally works:
Brands → Agencies
Brands (or advertisers) lean on agencies to help them reach their desired target audiences and demographics. For most brands, this is the most efficient way to place ads. It’s not unusual for brand teams to be hands-off during this process and sign off on an Excel spreadsheet presented to them by their agency.
Agencies → Media Networks
Agencies (or “media buyers”) provide the expertise to facilitate media buys on behalf of clients. They develop relationships across a range of media networks, make recommendations and develop media plans for clients.
Media Networks → Audiences
Media networks (or “media owners”) develop the audiences. They provide commercial breaks on their outlets, and package & pitch their audiences to agencies in order to fill those ad spots.
So given what we know, we’ll work off the assumption that none of these brands directly placed ads on this show. What’s more likely is that they were placed by their agencies who weren’t quite keeping their eyes on the ball.
So here’s what we think happened
This is no Cambridge Analytica, so this isn’t going to be hard to keep up with. Here’s the rundown.
War Room: Pandemic runs on Real America’s Voice (AVN)
Bannon needed a new hub for his bullshit after leaving Breitbart and being kicked off his SiriusXM show. He found his home base with Real America’s Voice.
AVN was founded by a media network called Performance One Media LLC
AVN’s website tells us that the outlet “is a wholly owned subsidiary of Performance One Media LLC.” That is, the *media network* and the *media outlet* are owned by the same person.
And the pitch for the outlet is really something:
“Real America’s Voice is a media solutions firm that enables Content Providers, Agencies and Advertisers to leverage our 130 years of combined media expertise to deliver the country’s first audience-driven news platform!
Our Creative Services, Video Production, Content Delivery, Media Buying and Broadcast Studio teams have been delivering impactful messaging to multi-screen, multi-cultural and multi-platform audiences for over 15 years.”
Sure, they’re missing a few key details — for example, it’s a major disinformation hub employing the likes of Steve Gruber and Raheem Kassam — but who’s counting?
Performance One Media’s owner is a career criminal & fraudster
It gets sketchier. The Daily Beast reported last year that Performance One Media is owned and operated by Colorado-based Robert Sigg, who has a track record of white-collar crime dating back to the ’80s.
“In 2006, he was convicted for his role in a $19 million mortgage-fraud scheme. At the time of his arrest, the FBI announced that Sigg and his fellow defendants were charged because of their ‘alleged roles in a scheme to obtain loans employing stolen identities, and then utilizing these loan proceeds to purchase substandard houses.”’
Now, we’re not trying to say that people with a criminal past are not capable of change, but we would perhaps proceed with a little caution when it comes to a guy who perpetrated a scheme as odious and low-brow as this one.
Performance One Media seems to be running a very intentional strategy
Performance One Media boasts a total of four outlets, but one of these things is not like the others. If we didn’t know any better, we would say that someone snuck a major disinformation outlet in there between “the weather” and “fishing.”
Weather Nation — “24-7 Weather-News Delivering National \ Local \ Regional Severe Weather Coverage”
America’s Voice — “A Powerful New Voice In American Politics”
Pursuit — The Most Widely Distributed Fishing and Hunting television network in America
ICTV — “A television platform for content creators, infomercial marketers and television shoppers”
So…is this a scam or what?
Is it a scam if it takes you about ten minutes of googling to put all the pieces together? To us, it looks like we’re looking at a couple of grifters who managed to con a system that is ripe for a con. How hard do you think they laughed after they wrote this up?
If it’s this easy to get scammed, then we have only ourselves to blame.
In the meantime, the mystery deepens: Performance One Media suddenly scrubbed its website of all its partner and client logos yesterday (Tuesday) afternoon. This was one day after we started sending out emails.
This leaves us with more questions:
Were Havas and Horizon ever actually working with Performance One Media?
If so, how did they vet this network?
How long were they serving ads on this network before we pointed it out?
Brand safety is bigger than adjacency — it’s about who’s getting your money
All this points us to the possibility that the way we currently think about brand safety has outlived its usefulness: it’s not just about what content your ads show up next to. It’s about assessing the real-world impact of your brand’s financial ties — something that cannot be automated.
One of Bannon’s advertisers, GoDaddy, has pulled its ads. They told us:
“We don’t advertise on the site. It was an unintentional oversight related to automated advertising and the ad was immediately pulled when discovered. We always aim to advertise on sites that are aligned with GoDaddy’s mission and values and we apologize if this upset any of our customers.”
But those brands that did not appear directly on Bannon’s show still have a big question to answer: they now have to decide whether they want to have a relationship with a business that feeds into — and could possibly even be a strategic ploy to fund — a disinformation network.
We’re sure there’s more
There is more to this story — and there are more national brands supporting Steve Bannon’s show. Next, we will be updating you on AVN’s advertiser line-up on Pluto TV, a ViacomCBS company.
But for now, these are the agencies that — according to Performance One Media’s now-scrubbed website — have a relationship with Performance One Media. If your brand is working with any of the following, reach out to ask them whether they are running your ads on this network. And then tell us about it.
We have pasted their responses (if any) beside their name:
Havas Media (note below)
Horizon Media (Replied to say “We are not an agency partner, we have purchased a small amount of ad inventory through Performance One on Weather Nation. We do not place any advertising dollars on America’s Voice of anything related to Steve Bannon.”
R2C Group (now Rain the Growth Agency)
TCA (Replied to say “TCA (logo below) was not aware of the use of our old company logo on their site based on any media they represent.” and “We are not aligned partners.”)
Eicoff & Company (Replied to say “We are not active with Performance One.”)
As always, thanks for reading,
Nandini and Claire
P.S. We’ve shared a screenshot of Performance One Media’s website before they scrubbed it Tuesday afternoon.
Note 6:30p EST Wednesday March 31: Havas Media got back to us after publication. Thank you to this team!
Havas Media is not partner of Performance One Media and has not purchased media on America’s Voice. A nominal amount of budget has run on Performance One Media owned Weather Nation and Havas is working with distribution partners to block all affiliated outlets.
We are fully committed as a business to ensuring safe, appropriate and ethical media investment for our clients and will further address the link between Performance One Media and America’s Voice – we have committed to the Conscious Advertising Network’s manifestos to ensure advertising does not fund hate speech or misinformation.
Performance One Media’s website, p1.media, on Monday March 29, 2021: