Jimmy Siegel is one of the few breakout stars in political advertising this year, credited with bringing the sheen of Madison Avenue to the mudslinging world of politics. But critically acclaimed as his work may be and despite at least one sure win in New York this week, he's yet to be tested in a real political crucible.
After 23 years as a creative and eventually senior executive creative director at BBDO, including writing Visa's post-Sept. 11 "Give my regards to Broadway" spot, Mr. Siegel has turned what started out as a surprise assignment to work on New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's gubernatorial effort into a political-ad agency called A-political.
Mr. Siegel, 52, is joining his directing and production partners at Moxie Pictures, director Dan Levinson and Exec VP Robert Fernandez, to produce ads for Democratic candidates and political groups. Besides Mr. Spitzer's campaign, Mr. Siegel has done ads for the September Fund and for several New York state candidates.
Mr. Siegel said his decision to enter the political maelstrom was a combination of restlessness and happenstance. After years at BBDO and a successful career as a thriller writer, he was looking for something else. And he found it after approaching Mr. Spitzer at an event. That meeting led to a round of TV spots that had critics and bloggers from both sides noting the quality and tone of the campaign.
Mr. Siegel said the move into politics just seemed natural.
"I've always been a political junkie and thought it was an interesting business to get into and one where I could contribute. The fact that I did well enough in advertising financially and with the books and didn't have to worry made the decision easier."
He also said despite the controversy of political advertising, he hoped to get past some of the second-guessing of corporate advertising these days.
"There was a general sense of trusting your agency people less and less, and traditional advertising started to change a lot," he said. "This terrible word 'empowerment' came into vogue, and there was much second guessing and far less appreciation.
"I came into it thinking I could work for some candidate I could believe in and do something a little different," he said.
Many of the TV ads for the Spitzer campaign feature striking cinematography and inspirational voice-overs rather than the grainy chop jobs and aggressive attacks common to political ads. Even when focusing on negative aspects of the state, the copy can seem like an inspirational call to arms. "For every New Yorker whose husband or child has to go somewhere else to get a job ... for every New Yorker drowning in property taxes ... there is someone strong enough for all of us," says the "Portraits" spot. The "Tribute" spot will put political-ad watchers immediately in mind of Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" commercial. (In fact, Mr. Levinson was involved in production of the 1984 ad.)
But the ads are also noticeable for what they don't mention: Mr. Spitzer's opponent.
One Democratic ad executive suggested that the Spitzer campaign situation is atypical because of Mr. Spitzer's large lead; the Spitzer camp can afford to be creative because it's not in a dog fight.
"It's not very often you walk into a campaign with a 50-point lead," he said. "On Madison Avenue, creative and the big idea is king, but in politics ... clever and creative are often at opposite ends."
While praising the Spitzer ads as "terrific" and "fun to watch," the Democratic executive cautioned that in a competitive campaign, they might not be as successful as an ad saying: "Joe Schmoe says he's independent, but 90% of the time, he's voted for Bush's agenda."
The Democrat said the September Fund ad-which features citizens demanding actions from a bush-"doesn't take the next step and say that if you send a Republican to Congress, what do you think you will get? Saying that is not as sexy, but it wins elections."
A Republican ad executive was more appreciative.
"It seems like big-agency advertising. It breaks the mold. It's very good, nicely written and tightly done without a wasted word," he said, specifically praising the ad in which Mr. Spitzer talks.
Mr. Siegel said he's getting a lot of favorable responses, including some interest from prospective Democratic presidential candidates.
"It's been extraordinary and great," he said. "People seem starved for a fresher, more visceral kind of political advertising."