When Argentina's presidential election campaign started, not a lot of people expected Mauricio Macri to beat the heavily-favored government candidate in a dramatic last-minute reversal of fortune.
But Joaquin Molla, a partner with his brother Jose in Miami ad agency The Community, had unshakable faith. For the last year, Joaquin Molla masterminded advertising and communications strategy for Mr. Macri and other candidates of his coalition party Cambiemos ("Let's Change"). They were fighting an Argentine government determined to stay in power after 12 years of populist rule by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her late husband Nestor that had left the country with a failing economy, crippling currency controls and an inflation rate of 25%.
Mr. Molla and his agency's Buenos Aires office, La Comunidad, had been working for the last six years for the city of Buenos Aires, where Mr. Macri was the city's mayor before running for president. (The Miami office won a 2015 Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity for a print campaign for the city of Buenos Aires' bike program).
Mr. Molla pulled together an advertising dream team of three agencies – La Comunidad and independent Buenos Aires shops Don and Circus – and about 80 people who worked closely together to create more than 300 spots that ran on TV and social media. The campaign had digital and relationship teams and creative stars like Don's Juan Manuel "Papon" Ricciarelli and Esteban Seimandi, La Comunidad's Ramiro Raposo and Seto Olivieri at Circus. From the Circus office in Mexico City, Julieta Rey worked on planning.
The campaign's most effective weapon: the footage shot over two years of Mr. Macri visiting with ordinary Argentines.
"He'd post on Facebook that he was going somewhere and ask people to invite him to their houses," Mr. Molla said. "We followed him with a camera. No script, mostly just real people in real moments. That was key. I became obsessed with authenticity."
The goal was to portray Mr. Macri, who wasn't well known outside Buenos Aires, as approachable and in touch with real Argentines, even though he was the son of a rich industrialist. Mr. Macri made his name as president of Boca Juniors, a popular Argentine soccer team that had fallen on tough times. Mr. Macri got the team winning again and turned it into an international brand with clever marketing moves like merchandising of a wide range of new products and corporate box seats. He has said he was inspired to enter politics after the life-changing experience of being kidnapped back in 1991 by rogue police officers; he was released after his father paid a multi-million dollar ransom.
Mr. Molla said one of the hardest things was "the fight with my own ego" to resist the challenge to do splashy, blockbuster ads. Instead, the campaign offered carefully-edited videos of a casually-dressed Mr. Macri hanging out with the people he visits and listening to their concerns. In others, he talks about issues like eradicating poverty or simply speaks to the camera in a long close-up with his message for change. In one spot that is a favorite of Mr. Molla's, Mr. Macri talks about all the things he won't do, like pick pointless fights, or talk without ever listening, or try to stay in power forever. The unspoken words "like the current government" hang in the air.
Unlike the U.S., Argentina's presidential election campaign is brief. Each party's candidates were finalized in an Aug. 9 primary and the general election was held Oct. 25, with a runoff to follow a month later if there wasn't a clear winner.
The government's hand-picked candidate Daniel Scioli, the governor of Buenos Aires province, was so heavily favored to win by a wide margin that he didn't turn up for the first presidential debate. Mr. Scioli, who is also from a wealthy family and lost an arm in an accident years ago while speedboat racing, then flew first class to Italy while Buenos Aires province was devastated by heavy flooding. Voters noticed. The government party disparaged Mr. Macri's close ally Maria Eugenia Vidal, who was running for Mr. Scioli's former governor post in a campaign Mr. Molla's team also handled. The government party mockingly dubbed Ms. Vidal "Heidi," after the children's book character.
Instead, Mr. Scioli took about 37% of the vote to Mr. Macri's 34.3%, forcing a runoff election a month later. In a presidential election with multiple candidates, the winner needs either 45% of the vote or a 10-point lead over the No. 2 contender to avoid a runoff. And then something else happened. Ms. Vidal won, putting Mr. Macri's party in power in the province where 40% of Argentina's population lives.
"Everyone was shocked," Mr. Molla said. "They underestimated us."
For the next month, Mr. Molla stuck to his strategy, while the panicked Argentine government party went negative. Their ads said Mr. Macri would take away peoples' businesses, end all government benefits and deport immigrants, Mr. Molla said.
Mr. Macri now had more TV time, since candidates get free TV ads based on how well their parties did in the previous election. During the primary period, Mr. Macri was entitled to one spot for every six for Mr. Scioli. During the main campaign, Mr. Macri got half as many spots as his opponent, and in the runoff, they were equal.
Mr. Macri addressed Scioli voters. In one ad, he said "If I'm president, you'll be part of the change … I'll work for everyone and not just those who voted for me. We all want the same thing, a better life."
He won more than 51% of the vote on Nov. 22 and became Argentina's president on Dec. 10. Ms. Fernandez de Kirchner, the outgoing president, refused to attend his inauguration and wouldn't turn over the official presidential Twitter account.