Eight stories, in fact, to that lofty floor-with-view in a nondescript Arlington, Va., office building containing the Bush-Cheney '04 campaign headquarters. It's far from the windowless, Austin, Texas, bomb shelter that housed the ad team during Mr. Bush's first run at the White House. But judging from the rough-and-tumble electioneering from both candidates so far, the bomb shelter seems more appropriate.
"We are dealing with issues of war and peace," said team member Mark McKinnon, a former country-and-western songwriter. "It's a more serious time [than four years ago]. Fundamentally this race will be decided on the economy and the war on terrorism."
"The whole tone has changed,"said fellow maverick Stuart Stevens, who is both a GOP consultant and Hollywood scriptwriter. "The fact is, we are at war."
Songwriters and scriptwriters may seem odd choices for political warriors, but hardly unusual in the eclectic blend of political strategists and Madison Avenue vets that make up Maverick-including the man who helped make Taco Bell's talking Chihuaha famous.
Mr. McKinnon, who sports all black topped with a porkpie hat with a white band, decorates his desk with a lava lamp and a sign reading "stratergy," gently poking fun at Mr. Bush's pronunciation. He once was close to having Elvis Presley record one of his songs, but the King first. Mr. Stevens was a writer for NBC's political TV series "Mr. Sterling" and co-producer of HBO's "K Street." His partner, Russ Schriefer, besides writing spots for President Bush, will play a big role in coordinating the messaging during the GOP convention. Also part of the returning team are Madison Avenue vets: Harold Kaplan, senior VP-creative director of WPP Group's Y&R Advertising, and Hispanic agency executives Lionel and Kathy Sosa, now of Sosa Consultation & Design, San Antonio.
This time, however, Mr. McKinnon decided to expand the team to get fresh input. "My obligation to the president is to get the absolutely best talent. In order to do due diligence we expanded the team to make sure we had the absolute best."
Added are Vada Hill, senior VP-marketing for Fannie Mae, and the ex-marketing director of Taco Bell; veteran GOP strategist Alex Castellanos (who, although he did not work for President Bush, crafted the Republican Party's negative ads against Vice President Al Gore in `00); Chris Mattola, a Philadelphia GOP strategist; Frank Guerra, principal in Hispanic political shop Guerra DeBerry Coody, San Antonio; Fred Davis, chairman of Strategic Perception, Los Angeles; and Dallas GOP strategist Scott Howell. First-timers rounding out the team are Sara Taylor, a former pollster turned campaign strategist, Mike Shannon, media planner and Ashley O'Connor, producer.
Matthew Dowd, Maverick's statistics and media guru four years ago and now the campaign's director of strategy (Karl Rove's post four years ago) said there are fundamental reasons for the combative tone as Mr. Bush goes head to head with Sen. John Kerry, D.-Mass.
"The environment in 2000 was peace and prosperity. Everything was going fine and the question was what to do next. This time there are challenges in the economy and we have challenges because of the war on terror and Iraq and everything associated. We have a debate on direction," he said.
There are marketing shifts as well. Four years ago, the campaign didn't start advertising against Vice President Gore until July. Now, because the president is a known entity and the campaign flush with cash, spending is beginning earlier. "It's easier when you are running as an incumbent to spend time defining your opponent, because the president [has defined] himself to a large degree in his official capacity," said Mr. Dowd.
A key strategic difference is that this time around, candidates' TV ads are increasingly generating heavy, unpaid "earned media" on cable news stations and in network news shows. Technological advances have allowed more people to view more of the candidates' advertising on the Web, either via official sites or ads being sent to supporters virally.
the ripple effect
"A huge part of the presidential campaign is what fuels free media and a big part of advertising strategy has to acknowledge that," said Mr. Dowd. He noted that the controversy over Sept. 11 images in Mr. Bush's campaign ads resulted in $6 million in free air time for the ads and 40 million people seeing the spots who otherwise would not have seen them.
Mr. McKinnon said the 5 million to 6 million supporters who view the ads on the Web are crucial. "Those 6 million talk to 6 million others and it's like a rock hitting a pond. And the ripples stretch pretty far. The Internet is a great new tool for that." Mr. Schriefer said the campaign also has to now consider the impact of people viewing ads as news stories along with those viewing them as ads.
He also said he is making far more use of technology this time to prepare creative. Work gets put on a protected Web site and each of the dozen or so members of the team can offer input.
As expected, the Bush team is cagey about its plans, but offers clues.
Mr. Dowd said he would be surprised if current gross rating point levels for the Bush ads in the 19 or so states at stake continue through the whole campaign. He also said the campaign will continue its most extensive use of national cable in a presidential race.
"For a lot of reasons that we have researched, the efficiencies, the audience ... we will continue that," he said. "There is an audience watching the Learning Channel that we are advertising on. Various swing groups. It's an efficient way to reach them."
Mr. McKinnon said he felt the Gore campaign four years ago overused regional ads and underused an overall message, and the Bush campaign did the opposite. "We will admit that we had a very good national campaign and not as good a regionalized or local campaign. We have to do a better job" now, he said, adding that he has asked certain members of his team to monitor individual states.
The campaign has already produced a number of ads for later use, but he declined to say how many or what they are about. "We continue to refine and adjust and also to continue to respond creatively and strategically to the environment as it involves, but we have a long-range plan."
This election, the early drama and the mudslinging has clearly commanded America's attention. "People are very interested in this because of the black-and-white nature of this election," said Mr. Dowd, who also predicted the political conventions will draw record audiences this year.
"There is dramatic difference between these two candidates, not only as individuals, but on where they stand. I think from both sides, Republican and Democratic, there is a high level of interest in this election. It's not like [just] two people running. There are as dramatic differences in these two people as you have had in 20 or 30 years. That has caused people's interest to be raised. You have a higher level of interest eight months before Election Day than you had in October four years ago."
Maverick Media aims to keep it that way.