LOS ANGELES "Stop working for the ni**er."
The year was 1975. In the client's mind, George Lois had crossed a line: On his own time and dime, he'd mounted a controversial newspaper ad campaign and solicited celebrity endorsements to free boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter from jail.
Lois hadn't consulted with his partners, James Callaway and J. Ronald Holland, before undertaking Carter's cause. When you lose the big accounts, he said recently, "you gulp. But [my partners] more than understood."
The self-described "left-wing Democrat," who has worked officially for politicians ranging from Robert F. Kennedy to Dennis Kucinich, added, "I've almost always had trouble with clients."
More than 30 years later, creative directors enjoy unprecedented access to free media channels -- and they're using them to support candidates and causes.
Ben Relles, at the time digital strategist at Agency.com in New York, made an unofficial contribution to Sen. Barack Obama's presidential campaign with his "I've Got a Crush on Obama" video starring the "Obama Girl." The Omnicom shop's clients include Chevron, a favorite Obama target along with other big oil companies. Chevron declined to comment on Relles' video or its relationship with Omnicom. Relles said he left the agency to start a political satire site, barelypolitical.com, and that the video played no role in his exit.
Mike Jurkovac, CEO of New York production company Cyclops, produced the pro-Obama music video "Yes You Can" (directed by Jesse Dylan), which has gotten a whopping 5 million hits on YouTube. In the video, for which Jurkovac has received praise, not flak, musicians and actors speak and sing the words Obama is saying on the split-screen.
Donny Deutsch, chairman of Deutsch, New York and Roy Spence, principal of GSD&M Idea City in Austin, Texas, worked outside their agencies on both of Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns. Spence is working on Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign -- despite military critic Clinton having made a point of questioning the contracts of one of GSD&M's clients: the U.S. Air Force.
Spence declined to comment, but a GSD&M rep said the Air Force -- which did not respond to an inquiry from Adweek -- is well aware of Spence's outside work.
Deutsch/LA president and CCO Eric Hirshberg sells GM's Saturns on the clock and Obama, who contends he'll take on the auto industry, when he's off it. Hirshberg produced and directed the unofficial Obama video "Hope Changes Everything" with Deutsch cohort Tom Dunlap, director of integrated video.
The black-and-white campaign ad, which imbues the presidential candidate with a cool, rock star glamour, was professionally seeded on sites by like-minded business ally Josh Warner, president of The Feed Company in Los Angeles. Released Feb. 11, the video has already garnered more than 80,000 views.
Hirshberg doesn't just oversee the Saturn campaign, he does its voiceovers. Yet GM remains nonchalant about his political work, despite Obama telling the United Auto Workers that he personally called Mike Sheridan of Local 95 to support a strike against GM. "I know someone once said what's good for GM is good for America," Obama said in a November speech. "But it's time we also recognized that what's good for the UAW is good for America."
"I'm proud of our partnership with Eric Hirshberg and the Deutsch team," said Jill Lajdziak, general manager of the Saturn division, Detroit. "His personal choices are certainly his own. We respect anyone who wants to get involved in a cause or volunteerism or whatever their personal mission is."
Publicly held Interpublic Group, which owns Deutsch, said it has no beef with his Obama work, either -- as long as Hirshberg does it on his own time.
"I'm 100 percent committed to my clients' success," Hirshberg said. "I don't talk to GM about politics any more than I talk to them about my synagogue. Telling me I can't make commercials for Obama is like telling a carpenter he can't work for Habitat for Humanity in his spare time."
Candidates aren't the only controversial causes. While his agency represented energy company BP, Josh Tavlin, group cd and senior partner at Ogilvy & Mather in New York, spearheaded pro bono spots warning against global warming for the Ad Council. And IPG's McCann Erickson works for Nestl