This firm made Republicans go viral — now it’s falling apart

by Jacob Solomon Apr 20, 2022 News
This firm made Republicans go viral — now it’s falling apart

In the world of conservative online politics, you can get help from the team atArsenal Media. The firm was co-founded by gadfly meme enthusiast Benny Johnson.

It seems to offer a tried-and-true method for making content hit it big. The secret to making client content take off is shown in a slide from a pitch deck.

Much of the pitch is dependent on Johnson himself. It's easy to see that he's hit on the secret formula for making conservatives go viral with his background.

Arsenal’s pitch deck describes a “viral influencer network”

Workers inside the company tell a different story about the pitch that has made the company one of the most talked about campaign shops in Republican politics. Six former employees who spoke to The Verge described a chaotic working environment, rife with internal bully, toxic HR practices, and an intense culture of secrecy. Three employees have left the company in the last two weeks, and many believe the company's problems are just beginning.

Some contractors are not being paid. The way the company handled money was something Karl Slater noticed quickly.

In an email obtained by The Verge, an employee of an organization wrote to a colleague suggesting that they send the invoices to the CEO.

The invoices went up to $8,795, and they were still unanswered. After issuing a formal demand the next month, Slater took the issue to court and won. Cole, who refused to make an on-the-record statement but agreed to have specific factual claims attributed, said that he paid the invoice as soon as he became aware of the judgment, and that he produced evidence that payments had been obtained by a collection agency earlier this month. A clerk at the Second Judicial District Court in Minnesota said on Wednesday that the case is still unresolved and that the money has yet to be paid.

In the summer of 2020 it started working for Kim Klacik, a Black Republican running to fill the Baltimore congressional seat left open after the death of Rep. The ad showed the candidate walking through the poor areas of Baltimore. The Republican campaign had a provocative slogan: "Black lives don't matter to Democrats." The visuals were unusual for a Republican campaign.

According to the New York Post, the ad went viral in less than a day and racked up over 4 million views. More than $8 million was raised for the campaign by those views.

“It’s almost like Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick.”

It was a big win for the campaign shops. A report from The Washington Post found that the marketing firm promoting the video, Olympic Media, was set to receive up to 70% of the money generated from it. The ad resulted in a windfall for the club, despite taking a smaller cut.

She lost by more than 40 points as a political figure because she ran in a district with a 27 point advantage for Democrats. The success of the ad showed the huge potential for conservative candidates, and how money could be directed to contractors instead of campaigns. The same strategy of taking on more clients with long odds and off-beat profiles was being tried by the club.

They try to recreate the magic of the Republican party by running them for office, according to one former employee. It is almost like Captain Ahab in the movie.

The company has an unusual relationship with campaigns. The company will haveclusivity over the hiring of senior staff, consultants, and vendors with the prior approval of the client, according to one of the general consulting contracts.

Johnson has begun to distance himself from the company

The self-dealing concerns raised by such an arrangement make the terms highly unusual in political campaigning. Cole said that the contract language has been updated to clarify that clients have more control over the hiring of staff. The change has not been confirmed by The Verge.

The firm has been able to attract high-profile candidates. The Federal Election Commission records show that last year, the company worked with two Republican candidates, one of whom received over $80,000 per candidate.

Employees of the firm told The Verge that they were paid less than they deserved, despite the firm's high-profile contracts with Republican candidates.

Employees say that payroll has been a mess since the founding of the club. Cole rarely used official payroll software, opting to pay employees over the internet. While some companies pay contractors over these apps, one full-time staffer said they never signed tax documents when they began work and received a majority of their salary over these apps. If a business is not properly registered with the app, it can be a violation of the terms of service to use these apps for payroll.

Cole hasn't provided any W-2 or 1099 paperwork to several employees who may need to file their taxes this year. Cole said that every employee is required to fill out W-4 and I-9 paperwork before they are ever paid. Multiple sources disagree with these claims. Sometimes he issued late payments.

Johnson has begun to distance himself from the company. On April 1, Johnson's website listed him as both co-founder and chief creative officer. Johnson denied any formal employment with the company following the publication of a Puck article detailing his association with the club.

A Johnson spokesman credited him withcasting the vision for what the company could become and said it was probably true.

“I hadn’t been screamed at like that since I was probably seven years old”

Cole said there was no formal relationship between Johnson and the club, nor was he an employee.

There is reason to believe that these statements may be understating Johnson's role with the club. According to workers, Johnson referred clients to the company and led creative work under the company's name as recently as January.

It's odd that Johnson appears to have played an outsized role in office life. If video shoots or client work didn't go as planned, Johnson would humiliate staffers, according to former employees.

One former worker said that Johnson can be very abusive, screaming at people, making women cry, and pushing them to the edge.

A source told The Verge that Johnson screamed at a female employee over the phone as she was boarding a flight to Las Vegas to shoot a video. Johnson's issue with the employee is unclear, but he demanded that the staffer apologize to himself, his wife, and his newborn daughter. The staffer was silent on the matter.

A Johnson spokesman said thatenny can be a tough director.

The company has shed staff just as the election is heating up. The reasons for the departure of the three employees are not clear, but they have left over the last two weeks.

The contractors are struggling to get paid. Law enforcement officials have the power to seize payment for Cole's debt, but they don't know the company or Cole's address, so the request has yet to be executed.

The company is currently looking for a graphic designer. The company's image is what draws applicants like Slater to it.

The ad game has a content delivery aspect. One former employee said that they really fucked up the politics of it all.