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

In the breathless world of conservative online politics, Arsenal Media is here to help you go viral. The company, co-founded by Benny Johnson, a gadfly meme enthusiast, lists clients such as Rep. Madison Cawthorn and Dana Loesch and takes credit for more than doubling Donald Trump Jr.’s Facebook followers.

Most enticingly, it seems to provide a tried-and-true playbook for making content great. A slide of a pitch deck, viewed by Custom Hour, describes a “viral influencer network” as the secret to growing customer content, showing a single video passed around by a network of friendly faces. “This organic distribution network serves as the vehicle your customer needs to ensure it reaches its intended audience,” a document promises.

Much of the field depends on Johnson himself, who plays a huge role in the deck. With his background on BuzzFeed (where he left amid a plagiarism scandal) and Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire, it’s easy to think he’s found the secret formula to make conservatives go viral.

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

But while that pitch has made Arsenal one of the most talked-about campaign shops in Republican politics, employees within the company tell a different story. Six former employees who spoke to Custom Hour described a chaotic work environment, full of internal bullying, toxic HR practices and an intense culture of secrecy. That uncertainty has led to three employees leaving the company in the past two weeks, and many insiders suspect the company’s problems are just beginning.

Most urgently, some contractors say they are not being paid. Karl Slater began freelance editing for Arsenal in May 2021, but he soon noticed irregularities in the company’s handling of money.

“Invoices should be sent to [CEO] Jason Cole, but I suggest you put me in a cc,” an Arsenal employee wrote to Slater in an email Custom Hour received. “Also – I’ve noticed it seems easier for him to pay via PayPal.”

Soon the bills had risen to $8,795, and they still went unanswered. Slater issued a formal demand the following month and then took the matter to court, winning a verdict in November. Custom Hour spoke to Cole, who declined to make an official statement, but agreed to grant specific factual claims; he insists he paid the bill as soon as he became aware of the verdict, and he has provided evidence that the payments were obtained by a collection agency earlier this month. But as of publication, Slater says he has not yet received the money, and the Second Judicial District Court in Minnesota still lists the case as unresolved, a clerk said Wednesday.

Arsenal’s biggest hit came in the summer of 2020 when it began working for Kim Klacik, a black Republican running for office to fill the Baltimore congressional seat released after the death of Rep. Elijah Cummings. Arsenal’s Klacik ad showed the then-candidate walking through impoverished areas of Baltimore. The footage was unusual for a Republican campaign, including glitchy jump cuts and an ESPN-esque flare, promoting a provocative campaign slogan: Black lives don’t matter to Democrats.

As promised, the ad went viral, with over 4 million views on Twitter in less than a day, according to the New York Post† Those opinions translated into real money, raising more than $8 million for Klacik’s campaign.

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

For the campaign stores involved in the ad, it was a jackpot. A report from The Washington Post unveiled an unusual deal behind the ad: The marketing company promoting the video, Olympic Media, would receive up to 70 percent of the money generated from it, more than $4 million. Arsenal took a smaller cut, but still ended up with a significant ad windfall.

As a political figure, Klacik didn’t get very far: She ran in a district leading Democrats by 27 points and ended up losing by more than 40 points. But the ad’s success showed the huge potential for viral conservative candidates — and how the money generated could be funneled back into contractors rather than campaigns. Arsenal started taking on more clients with long odds and unusual profiles, hoping to repeat the same fundraising strategy.

“They go looking for the not-so-typical-looking Republican and run them for office and try to recreate the magic,” a former employee told Custom Hour. “They’re always looking for the next one. It’s almost like Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick.’

The company’s unusual relationship with campaigns doesn’t end with the atypical distribution of fundraising. Arsenal’s general consultancy contracts, one of which was reviewed by Custom Hour, stipulated that the company would have “exclusiveness over the hiring of senior staff, consultants and salespeople with the client’s prior approval” and would train those campaign staff “for their necessary responsibilities.”

Johnson has begun to distance himself from the company

The terms are highly unusual in political campaigns because of the self-handling problems that such an arrangement entails. In an interview with Custom Hour on Tuesday, Cole said this contract language has been updated to clarify that customers have more control over their hiring. Custom Hour was unable to confirm this change

Even with those terms, the company has had no trouble attracting high-profile candidates. Last year, Arsenal teamed up with Kari Lake, a Trump-backed Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, and Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), who received more than $80,000 per candidate, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) data.

Despite the company’s high contracts with leading Republican candidates, employees told Custom Hour they were overworked and underpaid — if paid at all.

Payroll administration has been a mess since Arsenal’s inception, workers say. According to them, Cole rarely used official payroll software and chose to pay employees through online payment processing apps such as PayPal or Venmo. While some companies pay contractors on these apps, one full-time employee said they never signed tax documents when they started working and received most of their paychecks on these apps. Using these apps does not exempt a company from their tax filing requirements, and it may be a violation of the terms of service to use these apps for payroll purposes if a company is not properly registered with the app.

Several employees said Cole has yet to provide them with the W-2 or 1099 papers they need to file their tax returns this year. Cole told Custom Hour on Tuesday that every employee must complete W-4 and I-9 paperwork before they are ever paid. (Multiple sources contradict these claims.) He did not deny that he sometimes made late payments.

Strangely, Johnson has begun to distance himself from the company. As late as April 1, Johnson’s website listed him as both co-founder and chief creative officer of Arsenal. But the language disappeared from Johnson’s site after the release of a Puck article describing his association with Arsenal, and he has denied any formal employment with the company after its publication.

Responding to a request for comment from Custom Hour on Tuesday, a Johnson spokesperson wrote to him “outlining the vision for what the company could become” and said: “It is probably true that Arsenal would not have come about without the early contribution of Benny in the establishment of the company.”

“I haven’t been yelled at like that since I was probably seven years old”

Still, the spokesperson insisted there was no formal relationship between Johnson and Arsenal, saying: “He is not currently an owner, director or even employee of Arsenal Media.” Putting it more sharply, Cole said Johnson started out as a contractor and had not been involved in the company’s operations for over a year.

But there is reason to believe that these statements underestimate Johnson’s role at Arsenal, at least as of this year. Workers told Custom Hour that in January Johnson had both referred clients to the company and directed creative work under the company’s name.

The confusion is particularly strange given the outrageous role Johnson seems to have played in office life. Former employees describe Johnson bullying or humiliating staff members when videotaping or client work didn’t go according to plan, often in the company’s internal Telegram chats.

Johnson can be “very rude, very poisonous, yelling at people, like profanity, vulgarity, making women cry, pushing them to their limits,” said a former employee. “I haven’t been yelled at like that since I was probably seven years old on the playground.”

In one incident, a source told Custom Hour that Johnson yelled on the phone at a female employee as she boarded a flight to Las Vegas in September 2020 to attend a video recording. Johnson’s problem with the employee is unclear, but he is said to have demanded that the staffer apologize to himself, his wife and his newborn daughter. The employee in question has no comment on the matter.

“Benny can be a tough director, there’s no doubt about it,” a Johnson spokesperson said when confronted by the allegations. “That level of stress isn’t for everyone, but it’s also contributed to Benny’s success.” Neither Johnson nor Cole confirmed or denied the September 2020 phone call with the female staffer.

Still, the pressure has forced the company to lay off staff just as the midterm election cycle heats up. Custom Hour confirmed that three employees have: left Arsenal in the past two weeks, although the specific reasons for the departure are unclear.

Meanwhile, contractors like Slater are still struggling to get paid. Earlier this year, Slater received a writ of execution against Cole, allowing law enforcement officers to seize payment for his debt – but Arsenal are not disclosing Cole’s company or correct address, so the request has yet to be executed, Slater says.

According to Arsenal’s website, the company is currently hiring a graphic designer, among others. And applicants like Slater are still attracted to the image the company creates.

“Arsenal got the content production and content delivery aspect of the advertising game. We succeeded,” says a former employee. “But they really screwed up the politics of it all.”

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