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Pro-Brexit demonstrators protest outside the Houses of Parliament on November 23, 2016 in London, England.

Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Blame Canada, for Brexit?

It turns out the real winner of Britain's Brexit referendum last June wasn't politicians like Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage who led the Vote Leave battle. It was Zack Massingham, a 34-year old, self-proclaimed technology nerd from Victoria.

Mr. Massingham's company, AggregateIQ, was instrumental in guiding the Vote Leave effort, so much so that the campaign spent 40 per cent of its total budget on the company's voter identification technology and advice.

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The scope of AggregateIQ's role emerged last week when Britain's Electoral Commission released the final tally of spending by the Vote Leave and Remain sides during last June's referendum on Britain's membership in the European Union. According to the figures, Vote Leave paid AggregateIQ £2.7-million ($4.4-million), out of its total budget of £6.8-million (the spending limit for the official Vote Leave and Remain campaigns was £7-million each). AggregateIQ got another £675,000 from a Vote Leave backer to target young voters.

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Vote Leave organizers credit Aggregate, which has just 20 employees, for helping win a narrow 52 per cent to 48 per cent victory on June 23, stunning pundits and some pollsters who expected the Remain side to eke out a narrow victory.

"Without a doubt, the Vote Leave campaign owes a great deal of its success to the work of AggregateIQ. We couldn't have done it without them," Vote Leave's campaign director Dominic Cummings said in a glowing endorsement posted on the company's website.

It's quite a coup for Mr. Massingham, who has only been involved in politics for six years and started AggregateIQ in 2013 after earning a masters of business administration at the University Canada West and working in IT at a local college. He got the political bug in 2011, when he helped out as a volunteer for Michael de Jong's unsuccessful bid for the leadership of the BC Liberal Party.

"Coming from the technology and business world, I saw that the way campaigns were being run was wildly inefficient," Mr. Massingham said in an interview from his office, located above a row of shops in downtown Victoria. "I just kind of looked at some of the challenges the campaign faced and realized, through my education and other experience, that the business world had actually solved quite a number of these problems at least in a small way."

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He became fascinated with political campaigning and helped out with a few other local races before developing his own technology and setting up AggregateIQ. The company helps campaigns develop a clear message, deliver it to a receptive audience and get identified supporters out to vote. "You always want to try and reduce everything down to the simplest form of the argument and then repeat those simple lines again and again and again and that becomes your brand," he explained.

His main tools are online messaging through social media outlets like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. He prefers them to traditional media, such as broadcast or print, because the impact is easily measurable. "The tremendous opportunity you have with digital is that you are able to measure everything that much faster, even almost instantly. Print, it's just you fire it off into the ether and whoever ends up at your website ends up at your website. There's not attribution."

One of the challenges of a traditional campaign, he added, is steering candidates away from wasting time and money on "vanity projects", such as cool-looking videos that generate lots of views but do little to deliver actual supporters. "Knowing when to spend what money, and where, and what the impact is going to be, is actually very important," he said.

He got involved in the Vote Leave campaign through word of mouth, a friend of a friend who passed on a suggestion to the campaign leadership in London to check out the Canadian upstart. By then, Vote Leave had gone through several agencies with little success. "We just had a really open and honest conversation about what it was that we can do, and that there were no magic bullets for campaigns and that you really have to take a deliberate approach in the way that you run things," he said.

By the time AggregateIQ joined Vote Leave the organizers had already settled on a message, "Take Back Control". AggregateIQ took that theme and came up with a digital strategy, crafting different pieces of communications to come out at different times, for different audiences. Along the way they tailored pitches to make sure identified supporters got to the polls on voting day. "You're creating a feedback loop. If you are paying attention you can really start to predict things quite accurately within the different audience segments that you might be targeting," he said.

By contrast, Mr. Massingham said the Remain campaign lacked focus. "When we asked internally what was their message? When we looked at it, there were dozens of messages. They kept changing them and being really responsive to things that actually probably weren't helping their cause," he said.

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While he wasn't certain of victory on June 23, he had a sense that Vote Leave had turned the tide. "I think we definitely saw that that there was something bubbling and that it was probably all going to come down to turnout. Who had the more compelling message for the base to actually turn out."

Mr. Massingham doesn't like to talk about his other clients, but he will say that business has picked up since Brexit. He's agnostic politically, taking on candidates of all political stripes and advocacy causes of almost any description (he has done work in the United States but insisted not for U.S. President Donald Trump). He's also modest, refusing to boast about the Brexit triumph and giving credit to the campaign leadership.

"It's not often that you get to work with a team as tight and as high functioning as the one they had put together," he said. "They knew exactly what it was that they wanted to do. They just needed help executing on it. And we helped them with that and added to it."

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