With such minimal returns, why do advertising creative leaders continue to dive into presidential campaigns?
Obviously, they are drawn by the allure of being part of something big. And what’s bigger than helping to elect the leader of the free world? Also, who wouldn’t want to help create another legendary ad like “Morning in America”  for Ronald Reagan in 1984?
The reality, however, is that presidential campaigns today rely on highly targeted, tactical efforts—often created by D.C.-based shops—not on glossy, anthemic films. Consequently, creators of campaign ads often end up with just a poster or an online video to show for their efforts, if they’re lucky.
Jim Ferguson learned that lesson in 2000 when he was part of then-Republican candidate George W. Bush’s “Park Avenue Posse,” a group that also included Bob Kuperman and Gary Goldsmith. At the time, Ferguson, then chief creative officer at Young & Rubicam New York, suggested several ideas for commercials, though none saw the light of day. Still, he’s taking another stab at kingmaking this year, aligning himself with the Republican front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
In a typically frank interview, Ferguson, a 57-year-old Texan known for his colorful use of language, acknowledged his swing and miss with Bush but said it was already different this time around. For one, he’s part of Romney’s staff, working full-time as a creative director rather than moonlighting, as he did with Bush. Also, he has embraced the tactical nature of the beast.
“The difference now for me is I’m in the middle of it,” Ferguson said last week. “I’m there slugging it out every day with, ‘What did the governor say on the stump today, and how are we going to turn that into a 30-second spot?’ or a Web video or something like that. So right now I’m out shooting commercials here in Iowa.”
Less than two months in, Ferguson already has had a hand in nearly a dozen TV ads and a steady stream of online videos. Now that he’s outside of the big agency world and his own boss (he runs a small Dallas shop, Fire in the Hole), he can put product advertising on hold and work every day in the trenches.
Ferguson’s ads are generally issue-oriented and not legendary. Still, he feels part of a larger calling. “I f-ing love what I’m doing now. I f-ing love it, man. This is exciting and I’m on the ground” floor, Ferguson said, adding that he has long been interested in politics. “You go on a journey to find out what you really like and what turns you on. And what turns me on is the fact that I’m making a difference.”
Lenny Stern certainly shares that sentiment, having worked as a political consultant before co-founding the brand consultancy SS+K in 1993. The shop had largely steered clear of politics until 2008 when Barack Obama’s camp hired it to reach younger voters, a segment that helped propel him into office. As Stern put it, “When you can be part of something and use communications to help engage people around an issue, a person or a movement that you think can make your community, your country or—dare I say it?—the world a better place, that’s a pretty exciting thing.”