The Startup
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The Startup

Comscore’s data deals

Renaissance Technologies, the Long Island hedge fund where Robert Mercer made billions of dollars innovating algorithmic trades, has owned stock in Comscore for the last six years. Four months ago, it bought another 19%.

The second year into that investment—and less than a month before the 2016 U.S. presidential election—Mercer’s Cambridge Analytica announced a deal with Comscore. It agreed to provide viewer data from 52,000 households for Cambridge to use for political ad buys.

“Our alliance with comScore takes television ad-targeting to a new level, which not only includes better targeting, but also messaging,” said Ed DeNicola, then Cambridge’s Head of TV.

The new data meant it could merge its voter information, behavioral psychology and data analytics platform with data that showed what people watch what TV shows on what stations at what times in what zip code.

A month before the deal, Cambridge was paid $5 million by the Trump campaign to buy targeted digital and TV advertising.

Comscore collects, measures and analyzes data from four main sources: panel data collected from at least 2 million online users; census data gathered from sensors placed on about 90% of the top 100 U.S. digital media properties; survey data; and data obtained from partners. It packages the data and sells it to more than 3,200 clients in 75 countries.

Three months after Trump was “elected”, Comscore was delisted from Nasdaq. It missed an SEC accounting deadline connected with its $14 million SEC fraud settlement.

Serge Matta

From February 2014 to February 2016, Comscore and its CEO Serge Matta made deals with outside companies to give away user data — sometimes much more than they’d asked for — and then lied about how much those deals were worth.

Then he and other senior managers used those deals to artificially inflate the company’s value by at least $43 million. They lied to their accountants, an independent auditor, Wall Street, the FBI and the SEC. Matta was ultimately charged with fraud, restricted from being an officer or director of a public company for 10 years, fined $5.7 million and had $2.1 million in compensation clawed back. He and Comscore were not required to admit any wrongdoing.

As Comscore’s CEO, Matta made deals with Facebook, Cambridge, Google, iHeartMedia, CNN, Roku, DISH, Yahoo, Viacom, Adobe and others.

Its technology is used in the ad campaign tracking tools that Facebook and Google offer its users. The month Matta was hired, Comscore signed a deal to let Google use its measurement technology with the DoubleClick ads platform.

A few months after that, Comscore settled one of the largest Internet privacy class action lawsuits in U.S. history. It was sued by at least 10 million users who unknowingly downloaded its OSSProxy software — through its bundling with other partner software — and had personal data stolen from their computers. They say their data was then stored on Comscore’s servers and analyzed, packaged and sold to media outlets.

The “software collect(ed) a variety of information about a user’s computer, including the names of every file on the computer, information entered into a web browser, including passwords and other confidential information, and the contents of PDF files.”

At the time, Comscore estimated it was collecting 14 petabytes of online user data from around the world at a rate of about 20 terabytes a day.

A year after Matta became CEO, annual revenue was down almost $60 million. During that time, according to the SEC, he was leading negotiations with Company E to sell up to 20% of Comscore at a discounted share price. Because the sale would dilute Comscore’s stock value, Matta made a deal with Company E for it to provide a future “revenue stream” through its subsidiary to make up for the shares discount. The SEC considered that deal—and others—to be fraudulent.

A review of Comscore’s actions during that time show that Matta was working with the WPP Group (now WPP plc) to negotiate a sell of Comscore’s businesses in Norway, Sweden and Finland. They closed the deal with WPP paying $243 million for up to 20% of Comscore.

WPP is the world’s largest advertising company.

As part of the deal, WPP’s Kantar — its data, research and analytics business — formed a global alliance with Comscore to further “expand the digital data that WPP collects and uses for its larger business in advertising, marketing and other areas.”

WPP has more than 100 advertising, public relations, media and market research subsidiaries. They do work in 112 countries for 369 of the Fortune Global 500, all 30 of the Dow Jones 30 and 71 of the NASDAQ 100. It earned more than $15 billion in revenue in 2018.

Its founder is Sir Martin Sorrell. In 2004, he made a deal with Mikhail Lesin to merge his ad agencies in Russia—Ogilvy & Mather and Young & Rubicam and PR firm Hill & Knowlton — with the local advertising agencies of Video International (VI), a multibillion-dollar media agency founded by Lesin.

Lesin was a longtime Putin ally who worked with the Kremlin to take control over Russia’s independent TV stations and newspapers. He developed and launched Russia Today. He served as Russia’s Minister of Press, Television and Radio and was head of Gazprom-Media. Five years ago, he was found dead in a Washington, D.C. hotel room.

WPP’s GroupM is the parent of media companies Mindshare, MediaCom, Essence, Motion Content Group, Performance Media Group, m/SIX, Wavemaker and Xaxis.

Xaxis maintains one of the world’s largest programmatic ad platforms and deals in more than $100 billion in ad buys every year.

Programmatic ads are bought and displayed based on algorithms that fuel an automated bid and sell process by ad traders. These individual trades set the value for billions of ads every year. In 2018, more than 80% of digital display marketing in the US was done via programmatic advertising. Last year, $45 billion was spent on programmatic advertising.

Xaxis traders play both sides of the transaction for WPP clients. Aside from buying ads for them, it also buys ad space in bulk and sells it to them at a higher price. The practice earns Xaxis at least $1 billion in annual revenue.

It also earned it an FBI investigation. Two years ago, federal prosecutors looked into the media-buying practices of WPP and its competitors — MDC Partners, Omnicom, Publicis Groupe and IPG. They were suspected of excluding competition and fixing the bidding process.

The programmatic ad exchanges have long been investigated for their lack of transparency and money laundering activities.

Four years ago, Russian hackers were found to be using an army of automated web browsers from fraudulently acquired IP addresses to “view” up 300 million video ads per day on falsified websites. Operation “Methbot” illegally earned $3 million to $5 million a day.

Burson-Marsteller (B-M) is another agency owned by WPP. Now named Burson Cohn & Wolfe, it’s a New York-based PR company that’s spent decades defending dictators, industrial disasters and genocide. It partners with the Russian agency Mikhailov & Partners, which was awarded a contract by Russia’s Central Election Commission to cover the 2018 presidential election and run a social media voter awareness campaign.

Before that, B-M worked with the Russian Federation to help spin its narrative during the WADA doping scandal. It also represented former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych in his attack on opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. This was the same campaign convicted felon Paul Manafort ran for Yanukovych and his Party of Regions.

During some of that time (2005–2012), Mark Penn was B-M’s worldwide CEO. He was chief strategist on Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign and her 2008 presidential campaign. (Don Baer became B-M’s CEO after Penn left. Baer was Bill Clinton’s communications director.)

Penn’s been on Fox News and a contributor to The Hill. Last November, he met with Trump to share data and impeachment advice. He never thought Trump had any “real connection…to any Russia collusion conspiracy as was advertised” and “the (Steele) dossier was a sham…”

Seven months after WPP bought part of Comscore, Comscore paid $732 million for Rentrak. The purchase gave it the ability to merge its Internet-traffic data with Rentrak’s TV viewing data. The combined data gave it “detailed consumer demographics…far beyond age and gender with the exact TV shows, web site or mobile experiences that the target consumer is watching.”

The merger gave Comscore a large amount of new TV and video audience data that it used to make new data-sharing deals and evolve its own software capabilities. It also brought together companies who had a history of working with the Koch brothers.

Comscore’s partnered with the Kochs since at least 2012 when it was working with i360 to gather and analyze offline data on voter registration, political affiliation, social issues and behavioral demographics to target persuadable voters.

i360 is a data firm that was started by Michael Palmer, the CTO on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. It merged with the Koch network and is funded by its Freedom Partners. Its database identifies 199 million voters and has 1,800 unique data points on all 270 million Americans.

Rentrak started working with i360 a few years after Comscore did. It provided Republican campaigns with new segments of voter data from its TV audience analytics. A few months after Rentrak announced its work with i360, the Kochs struck a deal to share its voter data with Data Trust, the data company the RNC started almost a decade ago.

The deal was a merging of all the Koch data from groups like American Crossroads and American Action Network and the RNC’s voter data for hundreds of millions of Americans that it had gathered over the decades.

Two months later, the American Democracy Legal Fund filed a complaint with the FCC accusing the RNC, American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS, Americans for Prosperity, the GOP Data Trust and i360 of “illegally coordinating through the ongoing exchange of non-public strategic campaign and party data resulting in millions of dollars in prohibited contributions from Super PACs and corporations to Republican campaigns and parties in the form of “coordinated communications.”

It alleged that “outside groups that accept unlimited contributions from undisclosed dark money sources are subsidizing the RNC’s entire data program in violation of the law.”

The next year, i360 and Data Trust signed a similar deal.

Also that year, Xaxis released Xaxis Political, its new programmatic trading platform for political ads. It offered more than “20 pre-built models predicting turnout, partisanship, ideology and positions on hot-button issues…”

It’s integrated with HaystaqDNA, the data and analytics vendor for Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. HaystaqDNA was founded by its CEO Ken Strasma. He produced the predictive analytics models used by John Kerry’s Democratic primary campaign and Barrack Obama’s first presidential campaign.

Matta left Comscore a month after Trump was elected.

A year later, ComScore integrated L2’s national voter and demographic files with its TV analytics. L2’s database includes 190 million voter records, 240 national consumer records and 800 million email addresses. It’s the primary data partner for the New York Times and CBS News.

That next summer, Comscore was sued by a group of parents alleging it violated children’s privacy laws by embedding tracking code for market research purposes in “Where’s My Water?”, a Disney mobile app for kids 4-years and older. It later settled the case.

Cambridge also filed for bankruptcy that summer. One of the creditors it listed in its bankruptcy filing was Comcast. Another was Senator John Thune (R-SD).

As the chairman of the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet, Thune runs the committee with jurisdiction over legislation, congressional action and other matters relating to communications. That covers phones, the Internet, commercial and noncommercial TV, cable, satellite communications, wireless broadband, radio and consumer electronic equipment. It also oversees the FCC.

He’s received around $1 million from the telecom industry over the last 30 years. WPP has donated almost $70,000 to Thune since 1995. The Friends of Thune PAC paid i360 $8,000 for work in 2016.

As head of the Senate Commerce Committee, he held hearings on Cambridge and Facebook in April 2018. Ahead of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony, Thune admitted he didn’t necessarily want to pass legislation regulating Facebook and user privacy.

“I’m a ‘light touch’ person when it comes to regulations,” he said.

Two months after those hearings, he and an eight-member GOP delegation visited Moscow over the July 4 holiday. They were there to “strive for a better relationship” with Moscow, not “accuse Russia of this or that or so forth,” according to Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL). While they were in Russia, the U.S. Senate released a report finding Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

Thune never thought there was anything to the Trump-Russia scandal.

“(Trump) has argued all along there wasn’t any collusion on the part of his campaign team or his administration with Russia. And I haven’t seen anything that disproves that,” he said.

Last year, Comscore raised $20 million with an option for another $30 million from Capital Ventures Investments (CVI), a Cayman Islands shell company listed in the Panama Papers. Its director is Igor Palamarchuk. He’s also listed with six other Ukrainians as a shareholder in Laneway Trading.

A month after the investment, WPP said it was selling 60% of Kantar — its data company that partners with Comscore — to Bain Capital. Ogilvy Government Relations is a lobbying firm owned by WPP. It does campaign and fundraising work for Senator Mitt Romney. Bain, co-founded by Romney, contributed more than $100,000 to his senate campaign. Romney also paid i360 more than $50,000 during that campaign.

WPP’s Ogilvy also has a $39 million contract to provide marketing and advertising services to U.S. Customs and Border Protection through 2021. WPP’s Wavemaker created the Coronavirus Information Service on WhatsApp for the U.K. Department of Health and Social Care. Palantir currently has a contract for the U.K. National Health Service to use its Palantir Foundry software to collect public information about COVID-19.

Philip Lader is a non-executive Chairman of WPP. He’s now a Senior Adviser to Palantir Technologies. He was the U.S. ambassador to the U.K. during the Clinton administration. He was also an independent board director for Rusal, Russia’s state-owned aluminum company formerly run by Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Lader resigned from Rusal two years ago.

Despite having to reduce its workforce by 10% last year, Comscore continues to make deals.

It expanded its relationship with the conservative Sinclair Broadcast Group, the largest owner of local TV stations in America with 191 in 89 markets. It also renewed a deal with BuzzFeed to continue tracking its digital content.

In February — and almost exactly three years after its deal with Cambridge Analytica — it announced it had a deal with Comcast to use its TV viewership data. It’s the first time Comcast has allowed its consumer data to be used by an audience research company.

Comcast also owns one-third of Hulu, which has a deal with Comscore to track its viewers. Hulu has previously been sued for illegally sharing users’ viewing history with Facebook and Comscore. The lawsuit was dismissed.

Last month, Comscore signed a deal with Amazon-owned Twitch, the world’s largest video live-streaming platform, to track its esports and gaming viewers. Twitch has 15 million daily users and 140 million monthly users. Almost 3 out of 4 of them are male and between the ages of 16-35. They represent a potential new group of persuadable voters for the November elections.

Trump joined Twitch six months ago.

Twitch and all the other media outlets be used by the Trump campaign to continue its war on facts. Parscale’s already admitted to the “Death Star” disinformation operation he’s running to exploit voters’ biases and undercut the public’s trust in the daily news. He estimates it’ll cost more than $1 billion.

A few weeks ago it was revealed Mercer had started his public support of Trump by donating $355,200 in February to the Trump Victory committee. So far this year, Trump Victory has given almost $30 million to Trump. In return, Trump has paid Parscale’s agencies almost $11 million in 2020.

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