NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Thirty-six-year-old adman J.J. Balaban has been at the center of some of this election season's most heated battles. Earlier this year, Mr. Balaban, who is part of the venerable Democrat shop Campaign Group, put together one of the most successful TV spots of the primary round when he helped Joe Sestak defeat incumbent Arlen Specter for the nomination for his Pennsylvania Senate seat, a surprising victory.
Since that win, Mr. Sestak has been locked in an even more tense fight against Republican opponent Pat Toomey, a contest pollsters have effectively called a tossup as late as two weeks before election day. But that's not all.
Mr. Balaban has also been fighting the attention game against one of the most closely watched candidates this season: Tea Party star Christine O' Donnell. Mr. Balaban has been tasked with directing notice toward her Democrat opponent Christopher Coons (who?), even though he's leading in the polls.
"Let's just say it's been pretty crazy," he told Ad Age recently. "But every campaign at this point is hot and heated." About Mr. Coons, Mr. Balaban said that though he doesn't have the national profile of Ms. O' Donnell, the candidate has worked to build a strong base of supporters over a long period of time, whereas Ms. O' Donnell has in some ways been more of a top-down creation. "Part of the reason why Chris is leading is because he's been out in the vineyards working for a number of years building a record," he said. "Some have said that Chris' advertising has focused more on Delaware, and her ads have focused more on herself."
It is a fact that also defines Mr. Balaban's overarching strategy.
"He really takes the time to get to understand your district and your audience," said Derek Kilmer, a state senator in Washington. "I think a lot of the stuff you see on TV, it almost feels cookie-cutter. That's not true of the work J.J. does. He takes the time to understand the candidate. He understands how an ad plays in Pennsylvania has to be different from how an ad plays in Washington state."
As an example, Mr. Kilmer said that his district in suburban Tacoma has a large population of military families. "J.J. took time to understand that," he said. "He's just very thoughtful, and he's got a demeanor that removes stress and carbonation from a highly carbonated process."
The two first met as friends at Princeton, where Mr. Balaban was in the Woodrow Wilson School, a curriculum focused on public policy that stands as Princeton's only selective major -- known within campus circles as the brains of the brains. Mr. Balaban was also a member of Tower, an eating club known for taking in Wilson School students as well as those keen on theater.
"I was a total Tower stereotype," he said of his interests. As for theater, he said he had wanted to be on stage since high school but, "it turned out I had absolutely no talent whatsoever. I quickly realized that was a dead end."
Mr. Balaban, who has always gone by "J.J.," (stands for Jack Jeffrey), settled for being a stagehand. "I still really enjoyed myself," he said.
After college, he went to Washington and worked as a press secretary on Capitol Hill as well as working on various campaigns until he joined the Campaign Group in 2002. Every region has its political machines and longstanding power brokers, and in Pennsylvania democratic politics, Campaign Group is the closest institution to party anointment.
"It can be a great branding event to get Campaign Group to be your media buyer," said Rob McCord, Pennsylvania State Treasurer, who is also a friend of Mr. Balaban. "When I was first running, a lot of people thought, 'Oh, this is a comfortable-living business guy, he's not going to stay in and do what it takes to win.' But J.J. courted me to the Campaign Group. That was important to getting that credibility."
Mr. McCord said what he liked about Mr. Balaban's approach is that he doesn't yield to simple emotional impulses. "He looks for data and differentiating ideas -- he's remarkably effective. But at just the right time he'll blend in his wry sense of humor. He can lighten the situation."