Verdi sells N.Y. on Sen. Hillary

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How does it feel to be an advertising executive for a political candidate whose husband regularly has you travel to his workplace to give advisory reports and critiques of your ads?

For Ellis Verdi, it proved to be an intriguing introduction to politics. Of course, Mr. Verdi's candidate was first lady Hillary Clinton, who was running for the U.S. Senate seat from New York, the workplace was the White House and the husband was President Bill Clinton.

"We were in a weekend meeting at the White House, sitting around a small conference table for hours, six or seven of us including Hillary and Bill, and we were presenting the first TV [spots],'' said Mr. Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi, New York. Mr. Verdi and Sal DeVito, the agen-cy's creative director, were the Madison Avenue component of Team Hillary, the ad team for Mrs. Clinton's campaign created by Mandy Grun-wald, president of Grunwald Communications, Washington. The team also included pollster Mark Penn of Penn & Shoen, Washington.

While most of the successful campaign's ads were completed by Ms. Grunwald, DeVito/ Verdi did the campaign's first biographical ad and several others, including one widely shown in upstate New York accusing Mrs. Clinton's opponent, U.S. Rep. Rick Lazio, of ignoring upstate New York's economic problems. The spot featured a picture of an ostrich sticking his head in the sand.


Hired when New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was expected to be Mrs. Clinton's opponent, DeVito/Verdi had attracted the campaign's attention with ads for New York magazine that tweaked Mr. Giuliani so successfully that the mayor attempted to have them banned from New York buses. The ads claimed the magazine was "Possibly the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn't taken credit for." Its ads for the American Civil Liberties Union also caught the campaign's attention.

The agency was part of the team that sat down at the White House to discuss changes that would be necessary after Mr. Giuliani suddenly dropped out of the race. "The campaign had done a lot of research on Giuliani and we were ready for a significant battle with two larger-than-life characters. With Lazio, we had to retool conceptually and strategically," Mr. Verdi said.


Mr. Verdi said although the shop produced only a few ads for the campaign that ran, he is happy with his experience. "It is very different from a campaign for a marketer. There are time constraints from the minute you start. You have one shot [to convince the voter] and then it is over. And unlike normal advertising, voters learn more about campaigns from the press than from actual advertising."

Ms. Grunwald said the campaign credits DeVito/Verdi for good ideas and said the campaign didn't use the agency more because of some of the quick turnaround problems endemic to politics.

"They are really very fast for a Madison Avenue firm. The ostrich ad on the upstate economy was a perfect assignment for them because they had time to think about it. But on the political side, so much is changing so fast, it is [usually] faster and easier to make the ads overnight ourselves than to explain it."

She gave as example an ad produced when the campaign heard GOP phone-bank callers were attempting to suggest that a donation to Mrs. Clinton's campaign tied her to the Oct. 12 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen.

"We strategized, made some ads accusing the Lazio campaign of exploiting the issue and tested the ads all within 24 hours, held the ad for a day because we didn't want to be accused of exploiting the issue, then when we saw editorials from The New York Times and Newsday, re-edited the ad and had it to stations by 10 a.m." That lightning turnaround may have been tough for any Madison Avenue shop, she said.

Mr. Verdi agreed there are major differences between political ads and product marketing. "There's a general sense that most political advertising is not to be believed or trusted,'' he said.

Copyright November 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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