A Call to Arms

Back in the days of the Tuesday Team, the goal was clearly defined: Produce memorable, feel-good ads that would put Ronald Reagan in the White House for another four years. An advisory board plotted strategy, while a creative team executed the plan. Egos were shunned. Group chemistry was critical. The effort was, of course, a great success.

Now, as the country enters a war on terrorism and the economy heads into a recession, the Ad Council, backed by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, wants to recreate that success for George W. Bush’s administration. The plan is to formulate PSA campaigns that address such issues as anti-discrimination, tolerance, mental health and parental responses, although the details are still being worked out. At least a dozen shops will be asked to produce the pro bono spots.

The task will be a tricky one. The White House will have a hand in plotting strategy and developing a message, and it will want a say in determining what the overall themes will be. Sources in Washington say Char lotte Beers, recently confirmed by the Senate as Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and a former chairman of J. Walter Thompson, is likely to act as a government representative for the effort. But some ad industry sources would prefer the point person to be someone with easy access to the president who can get things pushed through quickly, ideally close adviser Karen Hughes.

The White House’s involvement has prompted some creatives to question whether the PSAs’ main purpose will be pure public service or the furthering of Bush’s political agenda. “Is this a wolf in sheep’s clothing?” asks Bill Hillsman, founder and chief creative officer of North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis and a veteran of political campaigns for Jesse Ventura and Ralph Nader. “The administration is trying to do anything it can to keep up support for the military. And they are desperately trying to do something about the economy. I suspect this will backslide into something that gets the economy going again, because that is what the ad industry is also interested in.”

Recruiting the right caliber of talent has been daunting. The hope, sources say, is to have one rep from each of the three big holding companies—Omni com, the WPP Group and the Interpublic Group of Cos.—join the “elite” three- to five-member team charged with developing a strategy. Michael Sennott of Lowe Lintas & Partners, and a veteran account handler at McCann-Erickson, will lead the executive team. Sennott, who plans to retire from Lowe in December, declined to comment and referred calls to the Ad Council. At press time, the remaining participants were expected to be named shortly.

Tuesday Team alum Phil Dusen berry, chairman of BBDO, New York, says he wants to be involved in some way but needs more information. “It is hard to say who is going to run the show when you don’t know what the show is,” he says.

Some potential contributors, like Ron Berger, CEO and chief creative officer of Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, have declined participation because of the time commitment that would be involved, although Berger said his agency may help produce the ads. Others think their time is better spent on smaller, more local efforts.

Jim Ferguson, chief creative officer of Young & Rubicam, New York, was part of the Park Avenue Posse, which contributed to Bush’s 2000 campaign. “Would I rather spend my time working on a committee in Washington or make something happen where I can raise money and see the benefits immediately?” he says. “If George Bush asked me, I would do it. But to be part of a committee—no. ‘Let’s form a committee and make ads’ is the best joke I’ve heard since Sept. 11.”

Creating the right message strategy also poses difficulties. There are no good historical reference points for this type of effort, some experts note. During World War II, when the Ad Council—known then as the War Advertising Council—worked to rally Americans behind the war, the message crafters knew what they were facing. That’s not true today.

“Anyone who claims to be an expert in this area is suspect, because this is uncharted territory,” says Roy Spence, president of GSD&M in Austin, Texas, which created the “I Am an American” Ad Council spot currently on the air.

A potential danger, says Nina Di Sesa, chairman and chief creative officer of McCann-Erickson, is to proceed with no clear vision. “Everyone wants to do something, and clients want to have a voice,” says DiSesa, whose shop prepared a current Laura Bush spot. “The big question is, What is it that we want to do? What is our mission? What do we want to say to the world? And what happens if we go to war? People are frightened, they feel vulnerable, and you don’t know what to say to make it better.”

“It’s nice to have all the ad people working together like they are in a Montessori school, but somebody had better define some objective that the use of mass media can meet that will be useful in the war effort,” cautions Tom Messner, who worked on Bush’s father’s presidential campaign in 1988. As for spots the Ad Council has done lately, Messner says, “I think they are wasting time and money doing National Brotherhood Week.”

Alex Bogusky of Miami shop Crispin Porter + Bogusky shares the sentiment. “We don’t need to focus this on each other—[Ameri cans] are pretty unified,” he says. “I would love to do an anti-bin Laden propaganda leaflet that we could drop in Afghanistan.”

Experts also warn that the public can be especially wary of advertising during a national crisis. “It is very difficult to put anything out there that says it came from an advertising body,” says Jeff Goodby, co-chairman of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco. “People are going to consider the source. There are so many advertisers out there saying that they are concerned about this that it has somewhat damaged the sincerity of the messages.”

The key, says Dusenberry, will be a combination of skill and humility on the part of team members. “It would be a matter of getting people to leave their egos at the door,” he says. “That’s something we did with the Tuesday Team. We got people to contribute without worrying whether their spot was chosen.” Group chemistry is also essential, he says.

It may not be necessary for the team to agree on one strategy. Ellis Verdi, president of De Vito/Verdi, New York, who worked on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate campaign, says a national effort might want to send a few different messages. “You have the civil-liberties issues on one side and the fact that we will be in a particular kind of war on the other,” he says. “The advertising should help us get back to normal, but it will have to balance the issues we face as a country right now—the balance between security and freedom.”