A Saatchi scion's next move

June 7, 2012: 1:12 PM ET

Edward Saatchi of the famed advertising family is the brain behind the Obama campaign's big data application. Now, big business is buying in.

By Reena Jana, contributor

FORTUNE -- It's cocktail hour on a spectacular late spring evening, and Edward Saatchi is sitting at a table on the roof of SoHo House in Manhattan. A slight wind blows through his unruly mane of orange curls. The crowd, like Saatchi -- yes of the famed Saatchi & Saatchi advertising family -- is young, energetic, and casually glamorous. A buzz of voices can be heard talking about work over the sound of clinking wine glasses.

But this scene is not an ad for a high-end hotel or luxury spirit. Saatchi is talking about NationalField, a secure operations and management software program. NationalField has an interesting provenance in an election year: it's based on the tool used by the Obama campaign in 2008. Saatchi and two other 20-something Obama volunteers, Aharon Wasserman and Justin Lewis, developed and designed the original system as well as its new version aimed at corporations. Today, in its enterprise form, it's being used by the Democratic National Committee (not surprisingly, their first paying customer) as well as ad agency WPP, global consumer-goods behemoth Unilever (UL), and healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente, among others.

Four years ago, Saatchi was a Master's student getting dual degrees in philosophy and economics at the Sorbonne in Paris. The son of Maurice Saatchi and best-selling novelist Josephine Hart (and nephew of Charles Saatchi), Edward was inspired by Obama's bid for presidency in 2008 -- even from across the Atlantic. "I started calling the campaign office in Chicago on the number I saw on Obama's Web site. They said, whatever you do, don't come...as a foreigner, it would be complicated," Saatchi recalls. "But I got on a plane to Des Moines and just started volunteering."

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He commuted back and forth from the Sorbonne to work on the campaign, putting in full-time hours. When working for the Obama campaign in the States, he was tasked, along with Wasserman and Lewis -- then strangers -- to find a way to measure the performance of fellow volunteers. "We were put in charge of a lot of data. But it was difficult to get people engaged with numbers because the existing data tools stank—not just the ones the campaign was using; they stink everywhere," says Wasserman, now sitting across from Saatchi at SoHo House, leaning back in his chair and peering behind aviator-style sunglasses. "We held conference calls, emailed out leader boards. One night it was 2AM and we working on a leader board, and we thought, wow, everyone in this room has Facebook (FB) open on their computer right now. Can we build something like Facebook for data?"

So they designed a web app for the Obama campaign. "It's Yammer with metrics," Saatchi explains, referring to the buzzy enterprise social network. "We wanted to make a social networking tool that was as elegant as Facebook, but not for sharing cat photos. Primarily, though, it was about how to make the organization more data driven."

What sets NationalField apart from Yammer or Facebook is that it is built around the organizational chart of a company, rather than mere friendships. "The program knows whom an employee reports to. This defines what you see, and it is what we patented: it is a hierarchical social network," Saatchi explains in his smooth British accent as he orders ham and cheese croquettes and pea soup.

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NationalField documents, in real-time, what employees are doing, from making cold calls to closing a deal. Its interface that looks a lot like Facebook's, and intentionally so. Chris Hughes, one of Facebook's co-founders and the baby-faced mastermind behind the external social networking strategy of the 2008 Obama campaign, is one of the company's key advisers. The design is so intuitive to anyone who is comfortable using Facebook, that it feels only natural to workers to update the status of their work tasks in the same way that they list where they're eating lunch or what band they're listening to on that other site.

But NationalField has other features, such as one that can turn data into graphs for managers, so they can get a quick, comparative overview of their reports' efforts to determine who's effective as well as who isn't. There are other apps within NationalField that users can purchase, too, to further customize the program—and which bring additional revenue to NationalField beyond the cost of implementing the system. So far, NationalField has raised $1 million from angel investors, whom Saatchi and Wasserman will say include an individual who works at Microsoft (MSFT) as well as an adviser to Google (GOOG), without naming names. And although Saatchi obviously has resources via his family, they are not investors.

The impressive list of clients the start-up has developed was relatively easy to build, say Saatchi and Wasserman. That's because they had contacts who had volunteered with them on the 2008 Obama campaign and used the earlier version of NationalField first hand, who later moved on to positions AT Unilever and other major corporations. Since launching the commercial version of NationalField, the number of users has grown in triple-digit percentage points, Saatchi says, and the company's staff will double by mid-June. The word-of-mouth approach to growth remains their marketing strategy. Although NationalField was launched in early 2012, Saatchi says they have no plan to run ads and there is not a single salesperson on NationalField's staff.

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Of course as it's a company based on the high value of data, NationalField has been gathering statistics on how their tool has quantitatively helped to improve communication and business in a variety of organizations. In a third-party survey OF 1,006 managers using NationalField (conducted by Opinion Matters) that looks at the effects of NationalField on employee performance, those polled said their employees had come up with 32% more ideas than before. They had 27% fewer meetings, 21% less time-wasting e-mails, and 61% said they felt "greater sense of community." While these stats are impressive, it's easy to wonder also about measuring the qualitative effect of using NationalField. For example, are the abundant new ideas good, or even better than those that came up were before?

Perhaps that point is somewhat irrelevant, as the goal of NationalField really is to improve an organization's efficiency. One client, the Center for Green Schools, a Washington, D.C. initiative of the U.S. Green Building Council that promotes the creation and maintenance of environmentally friendly educational buildings across the country, has found that the tool has streamlined communication processes.

Before signing up to use NationalField, "We needed a way to disseminate information and get real-time feedback from hundreds of university groups in the field," says Patrick Lane, a project manager at the Center for Green Schools. After the organization began using NationalField, he says he now has "the ability to quantify their progress and manage the system much more efficiently."

So far, NationalField is only an internal tool, but that could change—just as Saatchi, Wasserman, and Lewis decided after the 2008 Obama campaign to commercialize the original version. That was never their intention; their goal, they say, was merely to make their job of managing hundreds of Obama volunteers easier and more effective by mimicking the intuitive, visual, and enjoyable aspects of social networking. Saatchi envisions that companies will also want to invite their vendors and clients to use it, too, to improve how they measure outside service providers and business partnerships. "People want transparency," Saatchi explains. "Companies will want to show how much work or effort went into a job, internally and externally. Perhaps it will destroy mystery, but the added information could be an advantage."

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