Now that John McCain has gone from comeback kid to front-runner, it's easy to forget that he started out with a team of some of the biggest ad consultants in Republican politics -- and that the team fell apart as those big shots left and the money started running out.
"What we were able to do, we did it all with spit and glue, with almost no money," said Mark McKinnon, who put together George Bush's Maverick Media ad team four and eight years ago and got drafted to head McCain's team, "Foxhole Productions."
That team included Mr. McKinnon; Michael Hudome, a Bethesda, Md., political-ad consultant who had run the McCain team's 2000 Michigan campaign; Justin Germany, a 28-year-old web-ad expert pressed into duty as cameraman and editor; and Mark Salter, the campaign's chief of staff and speechwriter, doing triple duty as an ad copywriter.
Mr. McKinnon is still awed by the success. "A hundred improbable things had to happen and 99 have," he said.
It wasn't supposed to be that hard. In early 2006, the campaign left the day-to-day heavy lifting to Russ Schriefer and Stuart Stevens, of Stevens & Schriefer Group in Washington, and Fred Davis of Strategic Perception, Los Angeles. All had worked on the Bush Maverick Media team. Mr. McKinnon, vice chairman of WPP Group's Austin, Texas-based Public Strategies, was included as an adviser.
Set up with the expectations of being the front-runner and raking in front-runner-level funding from donors, the campaign was hamstrung by, among other things, Republican outrage over Mr. McCain's immigration stance. He went from "Maverick" to "McAmnesty," and came to be seen as the "establishment" candidate as newcomers such as Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson entered the race. What followed was a McCain campaign shakeup and a cutback in the budget, including in ad spending. With money tight and donations slowing, the team was forced to make its stand in New Hampshire.
And with no money to pay media advisers, Messrs. Schriefer, Stevens and Davis abandoned ship.
"The campaign melted down and everybody quit, leaving me and the interns," said Mr. McKinnon. "He was written off by everybody, but I pledged to stay in it until the bus ran out of gas or the bus ran me over."
Mr. McKinnon, suddenly an unpaid adviser with a shoestring budget, cobbled together a team. Mr. Germany, who works for web production company Campaign Solutions, already was doing web work for the campaign. That web work turned into campaign videos, ads and film.
Mr. Hudome previously had worked for and supported Mr. McCain, but not in an advertising role. He and his firm, MH Media, became the campaign's media buyer and began producing its advertising. Mr. McKinnon directed ads that he and Mr. Salter wrote together.
"To say it was full time was an understatement," said Mr. Hudome, who called the campaign "brutally rewarding."
They also closely watched the budget. Mr. McKinnon said a bio film produced during the Bush campaign cost $100,000. Mr. Germany put together an 11-minute "Courageous Service" bio film for the McCain campaign for $5,000.
TV ads were repackaged as web videos and radio spots, and the campaign's advertising was bought day to day, not week to week.
And then immigration became less of an issue, news stories suggested that the Iraq surge Mr. McCain supported was working, and more voters started showing up at McCain town meetings in New Hampshire.
"Did I believe it would happen? Only in my wildest imagination," said Mr. McKinnon. "But I know it's a game of survival and we had the best survivor in the bunch. ... McCain always had a strong brand."
Mr. McKinnon called the race a "monster gut check for the candidate" but also said Mr. McCain intends to take a more conventional approach to putting together an ad team when the nomination is official.
After all his strong support, Mr. McKinnon would be expected to lead the fall effort. But he may be a bystander if the Democratic candidate is Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Mr. McKinnon told NPR last week that he'd still support Mr. McCain, but would be uncomfortable doing the kind of attack ads any candidates would have to run.
"I met Barack Obama, I read his book, I like him a great deal," he told NPR. "I disagree with him on very fundamental issues. But I think ... it would be a great race for the country. I would simply be uncomfortable being in a campaign that would be inevitably attacking Barack Obama. I think it would be uncomfortable for me, and I think it would be bad for the McCain campaign."
Mr. McKinnon declined to comment further on his NPR statement.