Exactly how much did Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes (left) spend on Google ads in his 2017 re-election campaign against challenger Scott Lindsay (right)? A search for the answer shows the importance of full, accurate disclosure by digital platforms.
Exactly how much did Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes (left) spend on Google ads during his 2017 campaign against challenger Scott Lindsay (right)? Ulysses Curry

It would seem a straightforward question: How much did Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes spend on Google ads during his successful 2017 re-election campaign?

According to Washington State and Seattle laws, there should be a readily available answer.

Yet there I was on a cold and rainy afternoon last week, walking the cobblestones of Pioneer Square in search of Holmes's election ad receipts.

I found them inside the spacious, wood-floored offices of NWP Consulting, a political strategy operation with a client list that includes everyone from the governor to members of the Seattle municipal court bench. Also on NWP's client list: Holmes.

I passed the consulting firm's founder, Christian Sinderman, as I entered the building, which is a typical Pioneer Square brick-and-mortar located on South Main Street, near an old trolley stop and across from Occidental Park.

Sinderman is a reedy man with salt-and-pepper hair that appeared, on this day, to be flying in as many directions as his political work. He seemed as eager as I was to get to the bottom of this. So was Erin Schultz, a partner at the firm who greeted me once I stepped inside the office. She helped with Holmes's 2017 campaign.

At issue was a white binder from Google that had arrived on the desk of Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission director Wayne Barnett on February 22. The binder was Google's response to Barnett's demand that the company comply with Seattle's unique law on election ad transparency, and it was filled with printed copies of online political ads aimed at Seattle's 2017 municipal elections (as well as data on each ad's cost, purchaser, and "number of displays").

The fact that this disclosure happened at all was a notable first—a tech giant providing detailed information on its political ad sales in response to a 40-year-old municipal law. But Google's disclosure had immediately raised questions.

Was this truly a complete tally of all the Google ads aimed at Seattle's local elections in 2017?

Why hadn't Google included the targeting information for each ad, as expected by Barnett, the Ethics and Elections director?

And why didn't some of the disclosures add up?

It was one glaring example of Google's numbers failing to add up that had brought me to NWP.

According to Google's disclosure, the Holmes campaign spent more than $53,000 on Google ads in 2017.

But according to the Holmes campaign's filings with the Ethics and Elections Commission, he only spent $8,000 on Google ads in 2017.

Someone had to be wrong.

* * *

Before I arrived at the NWP offices, Schultz had been busy working on a totally different digital ad project—a sign of how much the art of politics is now merged with the art of buying and spreading messages through online platforms.

With the legislative session in high gear in Olympia, she'd been part of a plan to buy digital ads aimed at the one constituency that can actually vote on bills: lawmakers.

To do this, NWP simply narrowed the digital ad's geographic targeting coordinates so that it was aimed precisely at the state capitol, where presumably lawmakers checking their smartphones would get the message. Not too long ago, this idea would have sounded like science fiction. Now it's routine.

We walked into a small, windowed meeting room and Schultz, a no-nonsense veteran of more than 100 campaigns, opened her laptop.

Earlier in the day, when we'd talked over the phone about Google's disclosure of $53,000 in Holmes ad spending, Schultz had told me: "I cannot for the life of me figure out where those numbers are coming from."

But Google's disclosure, while erroneous in NWP's eyes, had led to the discovery of an error on the consulting firm's part.

While NWP still believes Google's disclosure of more than $53,000 in ad spending by the Holmes campaign is way off, the consulting firm now admits it made a mistake in its reporting to Seattle's Ethics and Elections Commission.

The Holmes campaign actually spent close to $21,000 on Google ads in 2017, not the $8,000 the campaign had initially reported.

It's an important correction to the public record—and one that wouldn't have occurred without Google's disclosure.

* * *

Still, there remains a big discrepancy between what NWP now says the Holmes campaign spent on Google ads (close to $21,000) and what Google says the Holmes campaign spent on Google ads (more than $53,000).

Holmes is not the only person facing serious discrepancies related to the recent Google disclosure.

Failed mayoral candidate James Norton, according to Google's disclosure, spent $9,794.16 on one Google display ad in 2017. But that's more than Norton reported spending on his entire campaign ($7,798.88).

"They're wrong," Norton told me, speaking of Google's numbers. "This is very concerning to me." He said he was contacting the company to try to figure out what happened.

Several other campaigns face similar discrepancies between what Google reported and what they've reported to the Ethics and Elections Commission, including the winning campaign of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan.

Google reported that Durkan's campaign spent $1,984 on ads through its platforms in 2017. The Durkan campaign reported spending a whole lot more on Google ads: $54,924.50

Inside the NWP meeting room, Schultz took me on a tour of the Holmes campaign's Google AdWords account to prove that the new, revised number for Holmes's Google ad spend is, in fact, correct.

On Schultz's laptop, we cruised through pages showing all the ads her firm purchased on behalf of Holmes in 2017. As she'd told me it would, that spend added up to nearly $21,000—not $53,000.

* * *

While illuminating, the trip through the Holmes AdWords account was a bracing reminder that those of us who use Google's free services—or the free services of any digital media company—are in fact "the product, not the customer." The data we reveal while searching and sharing is constantly being sold to customers like the Holmes campaign, in the form of promises that their online ads will be targeted at the desired people.

Our look into Holmes's AdWords account also revealed that Google failed to report a significant number of ads the Holmes campaign purchased in 2017.

Google's disclosure only showed the Holmes campaign purchasing video ads.

But the campaign's AdWords account shows that in addition to purchasing Google video ads (for $15,821.53) it also purchased pro-Holmes Google search ads ($894.30), pro-Holmes Google display ads ($3,994.19), and some Google search ads that were focused on moving voters away from Holmes's opponent, Scott Lindsay ($208.74).

And again, the grand total for all of that adds up $20,918.76.

Not, as Google reported, $53,578.

How did Google, which presumably has access to the information inside the Holmes campaign's Google AdWords account, come to apparently both overreport the dollar amount Holmes spent in 2017 and underreport the different types of ads Holmes ran in 2017?

That remains a mystery.

* * *

I told Google on Wednesday of last week that I had questions about its disclosures to the City of Seattle and would like to set up an interview. On Thursday, a spokesperson for Google asked me to send over my questions, but also said: "I don't know that we'll have anything to add beyond our submission to the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission." I sent over my questions on Thursday. I've heard nothing back since.

Barnett, the Ethics and Elections director, said the situation with the Holmes campaign and Google is a sign that those on both of sides of online political ad transactions—the people buying the ads, as well as the commercial advertising companies selling those ads—need more clarity on what to disclose.

"It's evidence of why, prior to 2019"—the next big municipal elections in Seattle—"we need to get solid guidance to campaigns and these companies about what is going to be required in terms of reporting going forward," Barnett said.

For example, he noted that many campaigns currently lump all their digital ad spending into vague disclosures of large "digital ad" purchases, without specifying the platform used for those digital ads or the type of digital ads bought.

"I think it's become a big enough spending category that we need to have them drill down a little bit more," Barnett said. "We need them to provide us with more detailed accounting."

Digital media companies, Barnett added, also need clear guidance on how to report the "exact nature extent of the advertising services rendered," as required by local law.

Once everyone has greater clarity on expectations, Barnett said, the public will have "a far more powerful auditing tool."

* * *

Such a tool is definitely needed.

Between 2013 and 2017, spending on digital ads in Seattle's municipal elections rose by 5,000 percent. That trend seems likely to continue.

In fact, Holmes, who's now in his third term as city attorney, is himself a great example of the trajectory toward larger and larger digital ad spends.

During his first campaign in 2009, Holmes didn't spend anything at all on digital advertising, according to his disclosure filings.

For his 2013 re-election run, he spent just $274 on Facebook ads—and nothing on Google ads.

Then, for his 2017 campaign, his strategists say Holmes spent $19,495 on Facebook ads and $20,919 on Google ads.

Seattle's unique law on political ad transparency puts it in a position to catch up to the demands of this burgeoning medium faster than other places.

But to actually catch up, Barnett may end up having to pursue charges against Google and Facebook for failing to properly follow the city's law.

If he does, it will be Holmes's office that provides the attorneys.