Bill Hillsman was in a hairy situation.
Hired by an old friend, Paul Wellstone, to head up the advertising for Wellstone's run for a U.S. Senate seat in Minnesota, Hillsman and his small Minneapolis ad agency, Northwoods Advertising, faced a tough challenge. The candidate, virtually unknown at the time, was being badly outspent by his opponent, and Wellstone's poll numbers were dreadful. But in a way, Hillsman consoled himself, this was all good news -- because it meant that the high-priced political consultants who typically take charge of major campaigns had little interest in Wellstone. Hillsman was free to do the ads as he saw fit.
He sought out some of the best local ad agency people -- including Fallon McElligott's Bob Barrie and Luke Sullivan -- and the team soon came up with an idea that was startlingly quirky for a political ad. To make the point that Wellstone was being heavily outspent, the team created a spot called "Fast-Paced Paul," in which the candidate is shown racing through a 30-second ad that rapidly jump-cuts from scene to scene; Wellstone is shown for a second with his wife and family, then in front of the house he grew up in, then with a farmer, then on a schoolbus, all the while speed-talking about one issue after another. The spot had a slapstick sensibility, but it also made a serious, important point: that Wellstone didn't have money to waste on lots of advertising. He had to cut to the chase. "We showed that spot to the campaign team, and afterwards, it was the quietest room I've ever been in," recalls Hillsman. "And then someone said to us, 'You aren't serious, are you?'" After some prodding by Hillsman, and as Wellstone's political fate looked worse by the day, the spot finally ran. "The numbers changed overnight," Hillsman recalls. Indeed they did. Wellstone went on to win the 1992 election in a stunning upset.
Humor and candor
The moral of the story could be that there really is a role for fresh ideas -- and for talented advertising creatives -- in the wasteland known as political advertising. The Wellstone campaign, along with a few other subsequent examples (including the quirky ads for Jesse Ventura's successful 1998 gubernatorial campaign, also created by Hillsman), suggests that it makes sense to bring creative ad people into the political campaign process, allowing them to inject political ads with a touch of humor, candor, conceptual thinking, sophisticated film technique -- i.e., the basic ingredients of today's best product advertising. After all, if political ads could become more like clever, image-building Nike and Apple Computer ads, wouldn't that be a vast improvement over the attacks, innuendo, blatant pandering, and hackneyed themes and slogans that have been at the rotten core of most political advertising for decades?
The question has been debated back and forth for years, and has risen up once more in the current election season, as various candidates this year have turned to Madison Avenue for help with their advertising. But even as the flirtation between politicians and agency creatives flares up with each new election campaign, the schism between political advertising and product advertising continues to widen. Most observers say that, with the exception of a few scattered campaigns like Wellstone's, agency creatives have had minimal impact on a process that is now dominated more than ever by political consultants and pollsters.
The political pros generally do not share agency creatives' views and philosophies about advertising. It shows in the work: product ads have moved away from negative comparisons and false claims, but political ads have continued to embrace these tactics, "using communication techniques that we, as product advertisers, abandoned decades ago," says Hillsman. The public seems to have noticed this dichotomy, and weighed in with its vote. At a time when some studies show product advertising is more well-liked than ever by consumers these days, the antipathy toward political ads continues to build, and to spur cries for reform or an outright ban.
So why aren't more ad people throwing their hats into the ring? Many ad agencies avoid getting involved in politics for pragmatic reasons, says Andy Berlin, co-founder of Berlin Cameron & Partners, who worked briefly on advertising for Bob Dole's presidential run in 1996. "Most agencies fear that by taking a political position, they'll alienate clients or possibly divide their own staff," Berlin says. Lee Lynch, a founding partner at Carmichael Lynch, says his agency used to work on political campaigns in the late 1960s (Carmichael Lynch worked with Nelson Rockefeller, Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey -- "anyone running against Nixon," says Lynch), but gradually stopped doing it because the intense pressures of a political campaign overloaded the agency. "And it's hard to ask someone to work incredible hours for a person they may not agree with or believe in," Lynch adds.
An alternative for many ad executives is to work freelance on political campaigns, to shield the agency from political pressures and conflicts. But that's not an ideal situation either, some say. "What you end up with is ad hoc groups of people from different agencies, who are not used to working together," says William Eisner, who runs the Milwaukee-based William Eisner & Associates. Moreover, when ad execs are brought on as individual freelancers, their role becomes akin to that of a film director hired by an agency. "You become the hired craftsman, not the thinker who makes the big decisions," says Berlin.
Indeed, the whole process of political advertising seems to cast agency people in the role of outsiders -- usually subservient to the political consultants and pollsters who are much closer to the candidate. When an agency person decides to works on a political campaign, "you have to check your ego at the door," says Jef Loeb, a onetime political consultant who now runs his own ad agency, San Francisco's Katsin-Loeb. "The consultants and the pollsters are in charge. If they want to kill your idea, it's dead."
Working with political consultants has been a nightmare for some agency creatives. "Most agency people just get fed up with consultants and walk away from politics," says Hillsman.
Agency-siders say there are two basic problems with consultants. One is their tendency to guard their turf. Ad professionals may just be dabbling in politics on the side, but "for the consultants, this is where their bread is buttered," says Ellis Verdi, president of DeVito/Verdi and a participant in Hillary Clinton's current Senate campaign effort. DiNoto Lee partner Greg DiNoto, who worked at Deutsch when talent from that agency was tapped for the Clinton campaign, has found that "Consultants are super-territorial."
It doesn't help that the candidate sometimes forces the consultants to hire agency people in the first place. Freelance copywriter Paul Spencer says that was the case when he was brought in by the Clinton campaign in 1992. The consultants running the campaign, led by Mandy Grunwald, had been urged by Clinton after the primaries to get input from agency pros. "That had to be seen by them as a rebuke," says Spencer. "They were basically forced to hire us, and then they were put in charge of our work -- which is asking for trouble. Most of our ideas never saw the light of day." Andy Berlin encountered a similar problem on the Dole campaign. "Ideas went absolutely nowhere," he says. "There was an impenetrable thicket around the candidate."
Even when the agency freelancers can present their ideas to the candidate directly, the odds are against them. "Politicians don't like intangibles," says Chuck Schiller, a creative director at The Richards Group who worked briefly on Steve Forbes' presidential campaign. "You have a meeting with the candidate and the agency guys walk in with creative storyboards. Then the pollsters walk in with charts and percentage signs. Who do you think the candidate is going to listen to?"
The larger problem is that there is a culture clash between agency pros and political pros. "The political junkies who work on campaigns are a different breed," says Loeb. "Their favorite movie is The Candidate, and the ads they do are just like the ads in that movie from 30 years ago. They see no need to change anything." Lynch concurs: "These are cut-and-paste news guys. They're completely formula-driven."
Eisner likens the consultants to professional carnies. "They just go from one campaign to the next, doing the same things, sometimes using the same slogans for different candidates, over and over again."
If agency people tend to have a dim view of consultants, the feeling is definitely mutual. Consultant David Townsend of the Sacramento- based political consulting firm Townsend Raimundo Bessler & Usher sees agency people as being "soft," both on issues and on tactics. "Often, the agency guys want to sit in a room and come up with wild ideas, but they won't do the hard work that has to be done in a political campaign. In politics, you have to respond to what your opponent does. Yes, every campaign starts with nice themes and messages, but then, as it gets going, someone finds a weakness and they're pounding you, and you have to respond. The ad guys don't like that part." Townsend cites Michael Dukakis' failed presidential campaign, which involved a number of top agency people. "They didn't respond to the Willie Horton ads from the other side. And he lost."
Agency creatives have a lot to learn about political advertising, Townsend believes. "We don't have brand loyalty on our side, like Coke and Pepsi," he says. "Each time, we're starting from scratch. And it's not about just gaining market share -- for us, it's winning and losing. You have to kill your opponent. The cola wars are genteel by our standards."
As for the charge that political pros resent agency people, Townsend thinks it's the other way around: "The agency guys resent us, because what we do is more profitable than product advertising." He boasts that political campaigns buy heavy amounts of media, with a 12 to 15 percent commission going to the consultants. "Plus, we get a flat fee, and a winner's bonus. It kills the ad guys there's so much money spent in politics and they're not getting it."
The culture clash extends to fundamental differences between the two camps about what political advertising should accomplish and how it should achieve those goals. Roughly speaking, agency executives feel the first order of business is to make the candidate likable as a person; consultants feel that the issues that divide the candidates are what matters. "It's a basic disagreement in that we lean toward emotion, and the other side is extremely rational," says Eisner.
In trying to project a likable personality for a candidate, agency creatives feel that political ads can use the same techniques as brand-building campaigns for products. "There's no reason why the political ads can't be done with humor, metaphor, sophistication and narrative," Berlin argues. If that necessitates higher production values, so be it. Many agency people believe political advertisers should be spending more of the budget on quality, instead of "spending only a couple of thousand on a low-budget ad and then spending millions of dollars on media, trying to bludgeon us with that ad," says Hillsman.
Meanwhile, the opposing side is often highly critical of attempts to "sell candidates like a bar of soap." Mark McKinnon, the consultant at the head of George W. Bush's campaign, insists that the public doesn't want political ads that gloss over issues in favor of storytelling and entertainment. "That kind of high-concept advertising -- with caricatures, humor, things that are too metaphorical -- can be wrong for political ads," he says. "Voters today demand reality, and they want straight facts. They don't want political ads to be overproduced and overscripted."
Ventura action figure
So which side is right? There's no definitive answer, though history suggests the agency position has been vindicated a number of times. One of the well-known examples was the 1984 Reagan re-election campaign, whose ads by the "Tuesday Team," including Hal Riney and Phil Dusenberry, created the warm, fuzzy and highly effective "Morning in America" theme that helped propel Reagan to a landslide (of course, Reagan was a heavy favorite who probably would have won even if he'd hired the Mentos team). The 1992 Clinton campaign team, which enlisted creative stars like Donny Deutsch and Linda Kaplan Thaler, was also a case study in successful Madison Avenue-style branding; the agency people certainly didn't do it alone, but they did produce much of the upbeat and important "man from Hope/Clinton on the bus" imagery. On the other hand, the aforementioned 1988 Dukakis presidential campaign does stand as a notable failure; critics felt the ad campaign, which enlisted Madison Avenue heavyweights like Ed McCabe, never shifted into focus.
Perhaps the more interesting case studies have been at the local political level, where ad agency creative efforts have produced some big upsets. After pulling off the Wellstone stunner, Hillsman and his Northwoods agency went on to create the ads for Jesse Ventura's successful 1998 campaign. Because he was brought onto the campaign late, Hillsman had to create ads without relying much on the on-camera presence of Ventura, who was busy on the campaign trail. As a substitute for the real thing, Hillsman created humorous ads featuring a Ventura action-figure doll. The over-the-top style "was the kind of thing you never see in political ads," says Hillsman, "but it took Ventura about two seconds to approve it, because there weren't all these advisors around, and Ventura himself understood pop culture." The advertising created a stir and helped give Ventura momentum, and the candidate's surprising victory gave Hillsman another notch on his belt. Fellow Minnesotan Lynch says of Hillsman: "He's the patron saint of lost causes -- but he's been turning them into winners."
He's not the only one. In the Midwest, where the D.C.-, New York- or California-based consultants sometimes don't bother to roam, a few other ad agencies have also seen impressive results. When Steve Eichenbaum of Milwaukee's Eichenbaum & Associates took on Russ Feingold's senate run in Wisconsin, Feingold was being outspent 14 to 1. "It seems like that's the only time you get to be creative, because a guy who's being outspent like that is forced to do something different," says Eichenbaum. Being creative is just what Eichenbaum did, shooting guerrilla-style ads that followed a self-deprecating Feingold as he marveled, tongue in cheek, at the mansions his opponents lived in, then took the viewers inside his own modest bungalow. The ads were a hit, and Feingold won. Then, when he was up for re-election, his opponent, Mark Neumann, took a page out of Feingold's book by creating offbeat ads of his own. Produced by Eisner's agency, one spot poked fun at Feingold for funding a study on the possibility of using flatulent cows as a source of methane; the ad showed a scientist in a field, trying to catch cow farts in a jar. It didn't produce a victory, but the ad was hailed by Time as one of the best political spots of the year.
Park Avenue Posse
These scattered examples of successful advertising approaches haven't won over skeptical consultants, though some do acknowledge that agencies certainly have something to contribute to the mix. That's why McKinnon has brought agency people in on the Bush campaign; his so-called Park Avenue Posse is led by Jim Ferguson of Young & Rubicam. (The Gore team, meanwhile, seems to want no part of the agency crowd; Gore spokesman Chris Lehane recently told The Wall Street Journal that "Madison Avenue created a lot of hype for the Edsel, but they couldn't sell it once people took a closer look.") But McKinnon does intend to keep the political pros firmly in charge of the advertising; he believes that the Reagan and Clinton campaigns were able to use ad agency talent successfully only because the consultants "kept tight control over the process," he says. "You can have ad guys involved, but you've got to have a political funnel where it all gets channeled."
Coming weeks will tell if the involvement of agency creatives can elevate a Bush campaign that sunk to pretty low advertising depths in the primaries. Some believe there's more at stake than just the outcome of the race. "Nobody's really stepped up to the plate in terms of doing honest persuasion in politics, and it's definitely time," says DiNoto. If ads could begin to incorporate more style, humor, and candor, "people might actually begin to look forward to watching political ads," muses Eisner.
Lynch, meanwhile, believes that if political ads behaved more like product ads, they might help save an endangered political process. "Think of it this way," he says. "If commercials for America West Air tended to focus on past crashes by its competitor Northwest Airlines, and Northwest, in turn, only talked about safety problems with America West, the result would be that some people would stop flying altogether. And that's the situation we have with political advertising - it's part of the reason voter turnout keeps going down. It has to stop."