By Davy Rothbart
California Sunday Magazine
Adam Swart started Crowds on Demand as a 21-year-old UCLA undergrad. He’d volunteered with Jerry Brown’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign and found that it could be challenging to rally large crowds to speeches. Adam believed a niche service providing crowds might appeal to campaign directors. But once he launched the service, he found that he was asked to wield his crowds in a way he hadn’t anticipated — not only to support a candidate but to protest a candidate. A candidate might muster 500 supporters to a speech on a college campus, but if Adam sent just five recruits to demonstrate outside the auditorium, he discovered that the media would give equal coverage to both the rally and the demonstration.
That was only the beginning. In New York, the advance team for a well-known but controversial foreign dignitary hired Adam to send people all over Manhattan holding signs and flags supporting the guy, without his knowing, to buoy his spirits before an important speech. Adam has summoned crowds for a Danish artist’s performance piece. He has sent angry mobs to picket outside car dealerships, law firms, and restaurants. His company is like a Charlie Kaufman movie come to life.
After I reveal to Adam that I’m a journalist, curious about his business, he invites me to join him for dinner in San Francisco, where he’s come for a Crowds on Demand job. He suggests the Fairmont Hotel, and we sit in the grand atrium as a piano player fills the room with a bright rhapsody. Adam has what NFL draft experts call “a high motor.” He talks in hyper, precise bursts, listens with intensity, drives a silver Tesla, and works out for two hours a day at the Equinox gym in Santa Monica, cranking through P90X workouts and pushing weight-laden sleds. To launch his company, Adam parlayed profits from his teenage investments in Southwest Airlines and Toys “R” Us. Now, just two years out of college, he has an office on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, two full-time employees along with some part-time staff, and he claims his business is bringing in more than $1 million in annual revenue.
Crowds on Demand, he says, serves several clients a week, sometimes a day — most in L.A., San Francisco, and New York but an increasing number in smaller cities like Nashville, Charlotte, and Minneapolis. When people inquire about a potential event, Adam guides them through the possibilities and the approximate costs: $600 for fake paparazzi at a birthday dinner; $3,000 for a flash mob dancing, chanting, and handing out fliers as a PR stunt; $10,000 for a weeklong political demonstration; $25,000 to $50,000 for a prolonged campaign of protests. According to Adam, protests have become the company’s growth sector, and just as with advertising, repeat impressions are key. “When the targets of our actions see that we’re going to be back, day after day, they get really scared,” he says. “We’re in it for the long haul, and the problem’s not going to go away on its own.”
Picture: BrokenSphere (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons