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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Alexander Nix brought low after pioneering data-driven political campaigns

Reasoned charm and a plausible manner made Alexander Nix the 'showy salesman' of a game-changing political consultancy

Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, speaks at the Web Summit, Europe's biggest tech conference, in Lisbon on November 9, 2017. Pedro Nunes / Reuters
Alexander Nix, chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, speaks at the Web Summit, Europe's biggest tech conference, in Lisbon on November 9, 2017. Pedro Nunes / Reuters

Lanky and with the slightly harassed appearance of a super-achiever, Alexander Nix was an accomplished front man for a firm that claimed to be revolutionising the art of political campaigning.

Comfortable in the surroundings of Park Lane’s Dorchester Hotel, Mr Nix met his nemesis in the form of hidden cameras recording as he worked through his relaxed yet persuasive pitch to a prospective client.

With a reasoned charm, Mr Nix explained that the art of political campaigns was not all about exploiting data and using social media platforms to access hitherto unreachable voters. He cited other arts that had proven effective in his experience. Smearing rivals by setting up bogus property bribery scandals or using “Ukrainian girls” to work up a sex scandal.

There was even the suggestion that the basis of a long-term “secretive relationship” could be done by “different vehicles, in the shadows”. The product of England’s premier public school, Eton, where princes William and Harry, among many others, were educated, brought a certain self-awareness to the television sting. At one point, he digressed, conceding his proposed smear campaign “sounds a dreadful thing to say”.

After the TV report was broadcast, the mask had slipped somewhat for the 42-year-old former financial analyst. Close to tears, he told a TV interviewer that as a well-born Englishman he was humouring his guest, having been led into discussing honey traps and other dirty tricks.

Asked for an assessment of how the high-flying technology company had fallen so low, he said he should not have revelled in the “air of mystery” surrounding the company. “I have some regrets about the way that I have represented what the company does,” he said.

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Mr Nix joined the forerunner to Cambridge Analytica, called Strategic Communications Laboratory, in 2003 and was tasked with building up its US work. He became a regular face among the power brokers in Washington DC and eventually the front man for Cambridge Analytica. The standalone operation attracted US millionaire backers, most notably the wealthy Mercer family.

That lanky frame and practised manner became a regular feature at technology conferences. Huffington Post called him a “showy salesman”.

Cambridge Analytica is thought to have run more than 40 national political campaigns after quickly moving on from its information warfare roots to specialise in Big Data campaigns in the social media era.

In an interview with Techcrunch in 2017, Mr Nix revealed he was working on a biography of his undoubted groundbreaking work on political micro-targeting. The working title: “Mad Men to Maths Men”.

In fact the firm's biggest break, the contract to work with Donald Trump’s successful presidential campaign, was anything but scientifically plotted out. As Mr Nix told Forbes: “None of the vendors wanted to work with Trump.”

With offices in world cities stretching from Australia to the US, Cambridge Analytica employs more than 200 people. Mr Nix has offered to quit the firm if the move would salvage its reputation.

With more revelations to come, Mr Nix could indeed be spending a lot more time with the stable of polo ponies assembled to pursue his favourite sporting pastime.