Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Biden campaign won't rely on the tech and ad agency with close ties to Mike Bloomberg to run its digital operation in 2020, people familiar with the process tell Axios.

Why it matters: Hawkfish billed itself as the digital savior for the Democratic Party in 2020, a plug-and-play technology that could go toe-to-toe with Team Trump. But the flashy-yet-unproven NYC-based agency lost its luster when Bloomberg underperformed in the presidential primaries after spending $1b+.

  • The Biden campaign grappled with a decision familiar to CTOs young and old: Build it or buy it? They've opted to mostly build their own data and digital operation, instead of a wholesale purchase of existing technology to achieve their goals.
  • Digital innovation may be more important than ever in a year in which social distancing has sidelined the traditional campaign trail.

The big picture: Democrats are hellbent on beating the Trump campaign with a more innovative digital strategy in 2020, but they're operating in their comfort zone by using old-school Democratic operatives and ad-buying shops to support Biden's run.

  • Most of the people calling the shots on Biden’s digital operation are working in-house or at agencies that worked on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign.
  • Biden's team is looking to ad buyers who worked with the Obama and Clinton campaigns and old-school, progressive D.C.-based ad buying firms.
  • Trump's operation has been investing in its digital operation since the president's inauguration and made more than 36 million voter contacts with potential voters since lockdowns went into effect on March 13.

Details: The Biden campaign's in-house ad buying is led by Patrick Bonsignore, who was an alum of Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign and a senior vice president at GMMB, a decades-old DC-based advertising and public affairs firm.

  • The campaign has hired GMMB to do digital ad placement.
  • GMMB rival Bully Pulpit Interactive (BPI) works with big progressive super PACs, as well as some advocacy groups and corporations. It used to work with Priorities USA.
  • SKDK, where the Biden campaign's senior advisor Anita Dunn was managing director, does direct mail work for the campaign. Resonance Campaigns, which did direct mail during the primary, will do additional work for the general election.
  • Canal Partners Media, a DC- and Atlanta-based progressive ad buying firm that worked with Bernie Sanders in 2016, has helped place some TV ads for the Biden campaign this cycle.
  • The campaign also is in talks with Truxton Creative founder Terrance Green for additional paid media, according to a person familiar with the talks.

Between the lines: Hawkfish spent a year touting big-name media hires and Bloomberg resources to convince the Democratic establishment that it should be the go-to ad buying agency for 2020.

  • But it drew criticism for secrecy and for repackaging more than innovating. It hired a data modeling agency used by Clinton’s campaign, Blue Labs, embedding its staff to run Hawkfish's modeling.
  • Recode last month reported a firm shakeup. while some progressives remain vocal critics, as the L.A. Times reports.

What's next: Hawkfish is in advanced talks with the DNC for a data and analytics contract, according to two people familiar with the matter.

  • Sources say that Hawkfish also is billing itself as an attractive ad buying firm for super PACs and independent expenditures.

The bottom line: The Democrats nominated an establishment candidate, and now they are trying to get him elected with establishment advertising talent.

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