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Campaign Diary: Kaplan Thaler talks about life on the campaign trail with the Crystal Group

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When Madison Avenue formed its own Bradley Bunch to work for Bill Bradley's presidential campaign, Kaplan Thaler Group President-CEO Linda Kaplan Thaler was among the first recruits.

* Flashback to July 1985: My future husband, composer Fred Thaler, sees footage from an old Knicks game on TV and points to Bill Bradley. "I bet one day this guy runs for president."

What he neglected to add was: "And I bet one day that I'll be writing countless music tracks for Bradley's presidential ads while my wife ends up working day and night for a year and a half creating commercials for his campaign while running a $180 million company that she just opened and raising two small attached-at-the-hip children in a new home that still has lightbulbs dangling from the ceilings."

Gosh, who would have thought?

* July 1998: Mike Becker (former creative director at Young & Rubicam) and Alex Kroll (former CEO of Young & Rubicam) invite me to join the Crystal Group, an exploratory committee (including creative gurus such as Richard Kirshenbaum [a partner at Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York], Caroline Jones [CEO of Caroline Jones Inc., New York] and Frank DeVito [partner at DeVito Fitterman, New York], and brilliant researcher Margaret Mark [president of Margaret Mark Strategic Insights]) for Bill Bradley. The former senator, it seems, is thinking about running for president.

What an opportunity to help change the course of history, to ride the tidal wave of glory that will break the flood of poverty and despair for millions of Americans. What an honor to support a man who I truly admired. There is no end to the work that I would do for this campaign.

* August 1998: It is apparent that there is no end to the work I am doing for this campaign.

Together with many of our talented Kaplan Thaler Group staff -- Gerry Killeen, Tom Amico, Hal Friedman and Eric David -- we are preparing concepts and ideas round the clock. We are energized by the power of good. We want to end poverty. We want to heal the racial divide. We don't quite know what campaign finance reform is yet, but it is still early and we will learn.

Sen. Bradley continues to think about running for president.

* September 1998: Sen. Bradley continues to think about running, and we win four new accounts.

* November 1998: So run already.

* December 1998: Our agency doubles in size. We move for the second time in a year.

Sen. Bradley continues thinking about whether he should run.

* January 1999: It is official. Sen. Bradley has announced that he is thinking about running.

* March/April 1999: In anticipation of the candidacy, the Crystal Group expands and everyone begins to see the writing on the wall. (We urge group members instead to use the legal pads we can now afford to give out at the meetings).

* May 1999: Bill Bradley unofficially announces his candidacy.

* June 1999: We get set for the long, hot summer ahead. We are thrilled that e-mail reaches the most remote areas of Block Island. A short essay about how "We Can Be That Good," by Hal Friedman, Mike Becker and myself, gets incorporated into Sen. Bradley's stump speeches. This is good.

We must have advertising ready by August. This is bad.

* July 1999: Ruth Wooden (former Ad Council president) is brought in to organize this creative herd of cats. We welcome newer members Marvin Waldman (formerly of Y&R) and Agi Clark (formerly of N.W. Ayer & Partners). Will Robinson (MacWilliams Cosgrove Smith Robinson, Washington) and his coordinator Tierney Hunt are introduced to help unite his political agency with Crystal Group.

We can't wait to share with our new friends that very special feeling of watching the sunrise from our office windows.

* August 1999: I volunteer our group to create a 2-minute biographical film for Sen. Bradley based on interviews and historical footage. Laurie Garnier, creative director at Kaplan Thaler, and Lisa Bifulco, our agency's executive producer, estimate this will take, max, about eight days to produce.

* September 1999: Four weeks later, we are still producing the bio, now affectionately referred to as the "Unabridged Version of War & Peace." Certain events during the shoot lead me to believe this is the harbinger of an ill-fated campaign:

* During the interview with Sen. Patrick Moynihan, a microwave in the next room explodes, filling the air with PCB particles. In a fit of coughing and gagging, we interview him outside instead.

* While taping Sen. Bob Kerry, a rabid neighborhood dog barks incessantly, making it virtually impossible for me to hear anything Sen. Kerry says. Consequently, my only comment to the senator at the end of the interview was to tell him that I think he is extremely handsome. Luckily for me, the dog's yelps drown out his reply.

The highlight of all the interviews, however, was the one with Ernestine and Bill Bradley. Two more real and caring individuals one could not find. The interview is a highlight in my career.

The interview was never used.

* October 1999: Still editing the 2-minute bio. The final spot is passionate, telling and moves many on the Bradley team to tears.

* November 1999: We now understand the tears.

There is not enough money to air the 2-minute spot. We are currently editing it down to a :15.

* December 1999: The group divides to conquer, with Lisa working with all the teams to produce a flurry of ads. One touching commercial features a woman who thanks Sen. Bradley for passing the bill enabling women to have 48-hour hospital stays after childbirth; another highlights his solid pro-choice record. Fred Thaler orchestrates powerful music to underscore the commercials. Richard Kirshenbaum's team creates some wonderful college posters for the Iowa caucus. These ads prove very effective at positioning Sen. Bradley as a truly genuine person, without the trappings of the Beltway politician.

Bill's longtime friend, director Sydney Pollack, shoots an interview with Sen. Bradley. We watch. We listen. We nosh (we're closest to the food services table).

Meanwhile, Vice President Gore mercilessly disses Sen. Bradley's healthcare plan, playing into people's fear of change. He makes erroneous claims about the plan destroying Medicare.

The Bradley team is divided; half positive our advertising should go negative, half very negative about not staying positive. The third half could go either way.

Things are not looking great, but, hey, it's not like we're reading about Sen. Bradley having a heart problem or anything.

* January 2000: The New York Times publishes news about the senator's heart fibrillations. I get palpitations just reading it. True, it's not life-threatening. Even my mom has this condition. But, hey, my mom isn't running for president.

Sen. Bradley tanks in Iowa but, despite all the press about his heart, loses by only a few points in New Hampshire. We think the New England newspaper endorsement spot we ran helped close the gap. But a loss is still a loss, so we will try harder and make the weeks till Super Tuesday count.

Things will be looking up soon.

* Feb. 17, 2000: Things are not looking like anything that remotely approaches the direction up.

We produce a funny ad that Marvin writes with Ed Koch and Spike Lee together, to be used in the New York market. Tom and Eric, with director Henry Corra, shoot some man-in-the-street interviews that feel honest and real.

I leave for vacation (my first in three years) overjoyed that some of our best work will get on air.

We hope this helps.

* Feb. 22, 2000: This doesn't help.

The Koch and Lee interview airs, but the nomination seems like a dim memory. But all is not lost.

They decide to run the 2-minute bio after all.

* March 9, 2000: It's been a roller-coaster ride I'll never forget.

Ultimately, it's not about blame or criticism or spin, but about a devoted group of volunteers who believed in Sen. Bradley and his progressive and visionary reforms.

I am thankful to have met and become friends with so many brilliant people, such as Alex Kroll, Will Robinson, Doug Berman, Gina Glantz and Ruth Wooden. I am honored to have worked with directors Henry Corra, Michael Dana, Phil Arfman, Jeff Feurzig, Thomas Kaufman, DP Michael Duff and editors David Mester, Graham Frazier and Don Sanders. I am proud of the many at Kaplan Thaler and other agencies who worked for months while never giving up their day jobs.

But most importantly, I had the great fortune to have gotten to know Bill Bradley.

Probably the greatest president this country will never know.

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