Agencies Make Entry Into Calif. Recall Fray

Though California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger came out swinging in his first ad campaign—”without fear or favor” was the Republican’s right hook—few seemed to notice he was shadowboxing. No opponent had stepped into the ad ring, not even imperiled Gov. Gray Davis, whose Washington political consultancy, Doak, Carrier, O’Donnell & Associates, has maintained TV and radio silence. But now, contenders are ready to compete in earnest, and they are collecting ad experts to help them.

Last week, independent candidate Arianna Huffington’s first ad broke; Republican Peter Ueberroth, working with Reagan ex-officio Dan Schnur, tested radio spots; and Democrat Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, endorsed by the AFL-CIO and soaring above the others in an early poll, hired Richard Ross of Ross Communications in Sacramento, Calif., and independent Palisades Media Group in Santa Monica, Calif. (Palisades’ political-division evp is Jean Brooks, former vp/COO at Carat USA and finance director of the California Democratic Party.)

As important as Huffington’s “Think outside the box” spot are the agency men behind it—her answer to Schwarzenegger’s heavyweight consultant Don Sipple and Bustamante’s ad team. Creative director Bill Hillsman’s North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis previously took a professional wrestler, Jesse Ventura, and a virtually unknown progressive, Paul Wellstone, to the Minnesota governor’s mansion and the U.S. Senate, respectively. But Hillsman is equally proud to have sold the Mall of America during a recession. The Huffington spot’s writer/director, Scott Burns, a veteran of eight agencies, wrote the Aaron Burr “Got milk?” spot at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco. (Burns still directs commercials for H.S.I. Productions for clients such as Ford, Coors and Baskin-Robbins.)

To Hillsman, the past political bias against Madison Ave. has led to poor work. “The prevailing wisdom is to buy 2,000-3,000 [gross ratings] points the last week, which is absurd because political ads are so bad.” Take Sipple’s first Schwarzenegger ad: “I hope they keep doing more like that,” Hillsman ribbed. “It is a conventional approach. … It’s surprising that [Arnold is] not trusting [his instincts].” Sipple did not return calls.

Ironically, Hillsman might have been in Schwarzenegger’s corner. On Ventura’s inauguration night, the former wrestler grabbed Hillsman by the arm and said that Schwarzenegger was waiting in his office for him. Hillsman thought it was a joke. Instead, he was buttonholed by Schwarzenegger for 20 minutes. “He asked very astute questions,” Hillsman recalled. “He was thinking of running as an independent and wanted to know how to successfully run between the two parties.”

Hillsman said his strategy for Huffington’s campaign is to energize the 13 million “irregular or lapsed voters” in the state, the independents “who have to stomp their feet to show up in any poll” and “younger Americans disengaged by politics.” He added that he hopes to spend $10 million, a voluntary limit set by Huffington.

Brooks and Chris Wysocki, partner of the independent Rescue California Committee, consider the decision by Infinity Broadcasting, which owns more than 30 radio stations in California, not to accept candidates’ radio ads in the interest of “equal time” disingenuous. “They just don’t want to sell time at the lowest-unit charge,” Brooks said. Meanwhile, the RCC’s first pro-recall ad, created in-house, is set to break this week. “Once we start,” Wysocki warned, “we won’t stop.”