Q&A: A-Political's Jimmy Siegel and Danny Levinson

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Gillibrand for Congress - 'Have You No Decency?'
Gillibrand for Congress - 'Have You No Decency?'
A meeting last year between former BBDO/New York executive creative director Jimmy Siegel and then attorney general Eliot Spitzer at a fundraiser turned into an opportunity of a lifetime for Siegel and his partners at A-Political, Moxie's Danny Levinson and Robert Fernandez. Their new media strategy/consultancy has brought a fresh look to campaign ads and helped sweep Spitzer and others into office in November while catching the eye of Hilary Clinton, who has chosen A-Political to help strategize her 2008 Presidential campaign. A-Political nabbed eight Pollies last month, an award given out by the American Association of Political Consultants and considered the trade's highest honor. Given the state of traditional political ads up to now, that may not seem like a compliment, but A-Political has been working to raise the quality and profile of a campaign communications."Have You No Decency?" at left took home a silver in the online category and an honorable mention for best web film, while A-Political won golds for "Let it Shine," below, and "18 Votes" for State Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins as well as two outdoor ads.

What are the fundamental difference between brand building for products and brand building for politicians?

JS: There are different factors. I think one of the things that happens in politics that happens much less when you're doing regular brands is something happens everyday that you might have to react to, which certainly, generally, unless you're Taco Bell lately, isn't the case for brands in the world.

DL: People, if they're passionate about politicians, it's an emotional attachment, so I think Jimmy's able to write stuff that really gets pretty visceral, and I think people aren't, unless it's Starbucks, as emotionally attached to their products.

DL: A new spot we did for Eliot Spitzer, "Baby," we shot Tuesday, it ran on Wednesday.

JS: We shot it in one day, we edited it and got it out the next day. And that's frankly part of the fun. One of the things I always liked about the ad business was I liked deadlines, I think they're fun, and in some respects, certainly some times they're not, but having to do things fast produce fast, is fun, but take that times ten in politics. You really have to move fast.

Was believing in the candidates you work for part of your credo when you started A-Political?

A-Political creative director Jimmy Siegal
A-Political creative director Jimmy Siegal
JS: Part of it is Danny has a very good business with Moxie, he shoots a lot, the company is very successful, it has been for a number of years now, I've done OK, both with previous advertising and novels, and we went into this because we both have a passion for politics and want to work for good people that we believe in, so in some respects we don't have to [work for clients we don't believe in]. I'm sure there are some political consultants, some media consultants feel like 'well, we'll take whoever comes through our door because we need the business and whoever it is, we'll do it. We were in a place, where, financially, you could say 'ok, we'll take only who we believe in,' and those are the cases.

DL: And because we had Eliot, who we both so strongly believe in, we could do good work, and because of that other people came our way, and then we get to sit with people and decide who jives up best with our mentality. And quite honestly we're knocking on wood every day about it.

It's nice that winning business leads to winning more business.

Spitzer 2006 - 'Let It Shine'
Spitzer 2006 - 'Let It Shine'
JS: We're not saying this in any way to crow about ourselves, but most media consultants tend to go after candidates. We've been very fortunate in having a lot of candidates come to us. That's not usually the case. It's been nice so far. I think what we needed to do with Eliot and what we wanted to do with Eliot was that people were really looking for something to believe in. I think everybody's looking for that in some respects as a voter. It's rare to get that. I think Eliot was really someone they could believe would do the right thing for them, no matter what. I just wanted to keep feeding into that, here's someone who would do the right thing for you, here's a crusader. One of the commercials that was the most popular that we did, "Let It Shine," with the kids and a track by Judy Collins, even though there was very, just little mentions at the very end, drawn on a chalkboard, of what he wanted to do with education. At the end when they did polls asking 'What's the issue that Eliot most cares about,' or the thing that he's going to do the most for, education came out. Which I thought proved an interesting point, because the typical education commercial for a candidate would generally have been wall to wall copy about what he's going to do, walking through schools, surrounded by kids, here's my 11 things I want to do about education in the state. But you don't have to do that. If you do a commercial that touches people emotionally and viscerally and just gives you a little bit, the basic tenets at the end, you can accomplish more, because as we all know, which was something in regular advertising you'd have to sit down with the client when they forget, the first rule of any advertising is getting people to watch it. It's amazing how it's the most fundamental thing but it's the most forgotten thing in the business.

But isn't there a responsibility to inform as well? Don't people still look to candidate ads to inform them on positions?

A-Political director Danny Levinson
A-Political director Danny Levinson
JS: Absolutely, and the commercial did inform to some extent. It gave his three main points. Those are the main tenets. But they're not supposed to be policy statements. You're throwing them on the air and you've got to get people to watch them. If you make them a policy statement, who's going to watch? In some respects, like any commercial, you have to reward the viewer to spend thirty seconds, especially these days as we know.

DL: We believe in the less is more theory too, because the regular political commercial, it really does inform you of everything the person has done, will do, where they were born and how they were raised. And to a certain extent if you get too much information you get nothing.

We're a ways away from the next presidential election but everyone's already campaigning for the nominations. It's already started. It would seem too costly to begin running ads now, so what are you guys doing? Are you throwing them alternatives that would keep the momentum up?

JS: There's been some web stuff, but we're part of [Hillary Clinton's] strategic team, we talk about things and what's going on and stuff like that. Yes, there haven't been any real ads yet and there won't be for a while.

But do you think there's a danger in burning out, where the public doesn't have the endurance the politicians do?

JS: It does start earlier and earlier. Bill Clinton announced in November of 91 for the 92 race, a year in advance. Now people are announcing two years in advance. Is there a danger people are going to get tired, and I'm talking both parties, all candidates, everything, is there a danger people are going to get tired of a presidential campaign that goes on for two years? Maybe. It's possible.

DL: I think that's why having people who are communications specialists will allow us as we go along to do different kinds of things, and Jimmy will be able to write different things.

JS: I think Danny's right, it's going to be up to any candidate to hopefully try to find ways to get the message out there in a) ways that are different than before and b) in ways that constantly refresh, so if you have such a long campaign you don't tire people by the time you have to actually vote for someone, so yeah, it's going to be a challenge I think for every candidate.

Thinking about the nasty side of the Internet, you can make an ethically bad attack ad and put it on the Internet and have seemingly few repercussions about who the author was or who paid for it.

JS: I don't think there's much difference. 527's go on TV, something might be called the something fund but you're not really sure.

DL: Everybody can find out who did what these days.

JS: And you can have a pretty ethically bad ad. God knows we've seen some bad ads in this campaign cycle, the ad that went on about Harold Ford, Jr. with some woman at the end going 'Call me, Harold,' that was terrible frankly. There's stuff put on TV itself that shouldn't be. I'm not sure if the Internet makes it easier to do that or not.

DL: There's no anonymous anymore. Eventually you'll find out who did it. The Internet allows it a quicker dissemination.

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