He Got Game

How the former U.S. Senator and NBA star’s early embrace of Madison Avenue is turning the long-shot candidate into a hot political property
In July 1998, a secret team of ad executives huddled at DiMassimo Brand Advertising, a small New York ad agency with a big conference room. Host Mark DiMassimo welcomed veteran industry players including Linda Kaplan Thaler, Richard Kirshenbaum, Caroline Jones, Mike Becker and Frank DeVito to a confab with Bill Bradley, the former three-term U.S. Senator who was considering a run for the presidency.
At the time, Bradley was not exactly a hot property. The 6-foot, 5-inch former basketball star had quit the Senate nearly three years earlier, declaring that “politics was broken.” He lambasted Democrats and Republicans alike. Once a leading light of the Democratic Party, Bradley spent his post-Senate years roaming the political wilderness: traveling, writing and lecturing. He even worked briefly as an essayist on the CBS Weekend Evening News.
In the summer of ’98, he was considering ending his political hiatus. With the grace of an athlete, he floated into the room and took his place at the head of the table. The visitors–personally recruited by Bradley’s advertising advisers, Alex Kroll and Becker–were curious about Bradley’s agenda. Afterall, ad executives are typically called on later in the game, not before a potential player declares his candidacy.
“What’s your opinion of Bill Bradley as a brand?” Bradley asked at the meeting one participant described as a “consciousness-raising session” that Bradley ran like an “AA meeting.” The potential presidential hopeful asked for a bare-knuckled appraisal of his pros and cons. The ad executives obliged, grilling him on everything from his proposed platform to his “Senator Sominex” image and lack of executive leadership. Though a fiercely private man, Bradley opened up and acknowledged his weaknesses–a move that surprised and impressed those at the meeting.
“He was able to step back from himself and his ego and take a very hard look with some very hard-nosed people at ‘Bradley the Brand,'” says DiMassimo, 37, who went into the meeting a political independent and came out a Bradley backer. “He won me over. I was like, ‘Where can I sign up?'”
That sentiment was shared by the group. Thus, the all-volunteer team, dubbed the Crystal Group after Bradley’s hometown of Crystal City, Mo., was born. Meeting in agencies,
private clubs and hotels, it proceeded to tear Brand Bradley apart and examine the pieces.
By the time Bradley called a press conference Dec. 4, 1998, to announce the formation of a presidential exploratory committee, his message and image had been fine-tuned. “I run to unleash the enormous potential of the American people,” explained Bradley, using a line that came out of the Crystal Group sessions.
In the year since the press conference in Newark, N.J., Bradley has vice president Al Gore on the run. At press time, Bradley had slashed Gore’s once-daunting lead by two-thirds, according to national polls. He pulled ahead of Gore in the crucial first primary state of New Hampshire and was trailing only slightly in Iowa, where the first caucuses are held. Meanwhile, “Dollar Bill” is living up to his nickname, amassing a bigger war chest than Gore despite his refusal to accept “soft money.” After ignoring the challenger for so long, Gore has declared himself the underdog and Bradley the favorite.
Thanks goes, in large part, to the Crystal Group. Rather than waiting until the home stretch to turn to Madison Avenue like most candidates do, he made that fabled street of dreams one of his first stops. That’s no surprise. Bradley has been maniacal about preparation since his high school days, when he would practice his basketball shot for hours every day in empty gyms. He’s approaching his play for the presidency the same way.
As Bradley, 56, and Gore, 51, continue a series of debates this month, the battle for the Democratic nomination is still up for grabs. Yet one thing is clear: Bradley’s decision to form his ad team more than two years before the election–earlier, perhaps, than any candidate in history–has helped him relaunch himself as a hot political property.
The team has Bradley’s campaign 2000 ad strategy and tagline–“It can happen”–locked and loaded. It is in production on more than a dozen TV, print, radio and Web ads that are set to break next month. Throughout the process, the Crystal Group has worked closely with the top political operatives from Bradley’s campaign headquarters in West Orange, N.J. Bradley senior advisor Will Robinson and campaign chairman Doug Berman serve as the team’s day-to-day clients. Robinson’s Washington, D.C., firm, MacWilliams Cosgrove Smith Robinson, is handling media buying.
“Putting the team together was a brilliant move,” says Caroline Jones, a member of the Clinton/Gore team in 1996. “A key to success for any campaign is to get advertising people involved early. We know how to talk to consumers of any color or class.”
The 2000 presidential contest is quickly becoming a three-horse race between Bradley, Gore and Republican front-runner George W. Bush. While Bradley is embracing Madison Avenue, establishment candidate Gore is relying on well-known Washington media consultants like Carter Eskew. Gore’s Century Media Group in mid-October broke its first campaign commercial (penned by the veep himself) bashing Senate Republicans for voting down the nuclear test ban treaty.
Texas Gov. Bush is following a lone-star strategy. Mark McKinnon’s Austin, Texas-based Maverick Media is leading his ad attack. Last month, Maverick broke Bush’s first major campaign under the theme, “A Fresh Start,” with four 30-second spots in New Hampshire and Iowa.
The work is “designed to communicate his compassionate, conservative message,” says McKinnon, a former Democratic media consultant and songwriter for Kris Kristofferson. It focuses on Bush’s record as Texas governor and his “commitment to a positive campaign.” Lionel Sosa’s San Antonio, Texas-based GarciaLKS, which handles Bush’s Hispanic ads, also ran ads in Iowa. The “Fresh Start” theme “resonates with people,” says McKinnon. “They want a different kind of campaign and a different kind of president.”
Gore and Bush may still turn to Madison Avenue next year to augment their media teams. While they sit and ponder whether and how they should embrace the ad industry, Bradley continues to secure additional talent. Like Bush, Bradley recruits his players partly because of their proximity to his geographic base.
Longtime Advertising Council president Ruth Wooden, 53, joined in July and, because of her expertise at recruiting professionals to work for nonprofit causes, has succeeded Kroll and Becker as day-to-day leader and organizer. Warwick Baker O’Neill’s Kevin O’Neill and Young & Rubicam’s Marvin Waldman added their copywriting skills earlier this year. Dan Wieden, one of Bradley’s many friends in the business, has been invited to pitch in, say insiders.
“I think the American people would be hard pressed to find a better presidential candidate than Bill Bradley,” says Wieden, who would not say whether he plans to join the team. “I haven’t seen that type of passion and integrity in a political candidate since [Eugene] McCarthy.”
Spike Lee, a public supporter of Bradley, may direct or star in some spots, sources say. Michael Jordan may join former Chicago Bulls coach and Bradley confidante Phil Jackson on the campaign trail. And while the jock vote seems to be locked up–a host of all-stars will take to the Madison Square Garden floor Nov. 14 to raise funds–Bradley is also finding support in the entertainment industry. His fan base stretches from Michael Eisner and Barry Diller to Robert Redford and Harrison Ford.
To regain momentum, the Gore team has begun to attack Bradley at public appearances. But the members of Bradley’s camp are unfazed. “Al Gore plays for keeps. But he’s a dead man walking,” declares O’Neill, 46. “Bradley will be the nominee, no question. You can’t discover America’s future in a focus group. Bradley has a view.”
From his All-American days at Princeton to his pro basketball career where he was ribbed as “Mr. President” by his Knick teammates, the White House has always been a “backdrop” in his life, as he noted in a recent interview. A smart, stately man who has always assumed leadership roles, friends and associates say he was destined to play in the political arena.
When Bradley decided to enter the 2000 race–after considering runs in ’88, ’92 and ’96–he knew he wanted to run a positive, issues-oriented campaign. Among the first people he turned to was Alex Kroll, the 61-year-old former chairman and chief executive of Young & Rubicam. The two have a lot in common. Both are ex-professional jocks and political animals–Kroll memorably used his chairmanship of the 4A’s in 1992 to launch a controversial effort to “monitor” political advertising. Both men are secretive. When Bradley got married, all but one of his Knick teammates found out about it in the papers. And, during his first Senate campaign, he met his driver every morning at a gas station to keep his home address unknown. Kroll, meanwhile, ran such an autocratic ship at Y&R that the agency was nicknamed “The Kremlin” during his tenure.
Bradley and Kroll were kicking around ad strategies as early as the mid-1990s when Kroll asked his friend to serve as an advisory chair on the Ad Council, say sources. In early 1998, Bradley gave Kroll and Becker–another Y&R veteran–the green light to recruit a team even though he had not yet decided to run. Bradley had one major demand. He did not want the usual spin doctors. He wanted an ad team that was new to political advertising. Becker delivered, bringing in a mix of rookies and political independents like Kirshenbaum, DiMassimo and O’Neill and veterans including Kaplan Thaler and Jones.
Bradley has usually kept the press at arm’s length, calling them “grossly invasive” in one of his books. (Bradley declined to be interviewed for this story.) So it’s no surprise this candidate’s ad team operates in the shadows. Early on, the team communicated mostly by e-mail. “We never met in restaurants. Bradley’s kind of tough to hide,” recalls Becker.
During the first phase of the campaign’s development, the team wrote white papers and commercials, played with theme lines and slogans and studied Bradley’s Senate speeches and television appearances. The goal: distill Bradley’s thoughtful but often long-winded themes and ideas into powerful, winning messages.
Early on, the working tagline was, “We can be that good,” a line also used in the December 1998 speech. But after Waldman coined “It can happen,” the team shifted into high gear. Waldman, who is leaving Y&R to work on the campaign full time, wrote Bradley’s first two ads. The ads were art-directed by Eric David at Kaplan Thaler’s shop. While one team member says the choice on the line caused a schism within the squad, Wooden denies it. “‘Maximizing potential’ is strategy language,” she says. “‘It can happen’ is the creative translation of that.”
Bradley and his team are using a three-pronged strategy to beat Gore. First, play up Bradley’s outsider status and diverse experiences compared to Gore’s image as the ultimate Washington insider. Second, position Bradley as the candidate of “Big Ideas” versus Gore’s “baby steps.” Third, drive home the message articulated so forcefully by Bradley-backer Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) that Gore “can’t be elected,” while Bradley can because he’s supported by Independents and even some Republicans.
The real message of “It can happen,” says a team member, is that “Bradley can not only beat Al Gore but can beat George W. Bush.” These messages were introduced in the first Bradley ads, which debuted in New Hampshire and Iowa in late September.
“Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have more than sound bites and photo ops when you’re choosing a candidate for president? I think so,” says the headline establishing Bradley as the outsider. Half-page newspaper ads inform voters that ads will focus on one big idea at a time followed by the tagline, “A different campaign. It can happen.” Healthcare is one “big idea” the team subsequently addressed in an ad that said, “Access to affordable, quality healthcare. It can happen.”
The team is now moving to Phase Two–breaking into separate teams, dividing ad duties, going into production, hiring directors and shooting spots. Kaplan Thaler, who helped create the “Man From Hope” video for Bill Clinton in 1992, is working on a family/kids video for Bradley, say sources.
Bradley’s speeches from the beginning have involved phrases and slogans crafted by the ad team. For instance, a soaring riff describing Bradley’s Norman Rockwell life in Crystal City–delivered by O’Neill at one meeting–was woven into Bradley’s formal campaign announcement in his hometown this past September. Becker has taken the lead in designing the campaign’s logo and icon pins. With the Internet playing such a major role this year, the team has helped hone Bradley’s Web site.
What’s it like to have Bill Bradley as a client? “He’s bemused by advertising people,” reports O’Neill. “He has a healthy suspicion of spin, which makes his dealings with us pretty interesting.” On one hand, they say Bradley treats them with respect, using them as a sounding board and focus group. On the other, his high-minded ideals make him reluctant to go on the attack, which some argue has resulted in several missed opportunities. As a counterpoint to Gore’s now-famous gaffe about having created the Internet, for instance, O’Neill wanted Bradley to claim credit for “inventing the basketball net.” Bradley said no. At another point, Kirshenbaum, 38, proposed comparing Bradley to Lincoln. That didn’t fly either. “He thought it was too presumptuous. Remember what happened when Dan Quayle compared himself to JFK?” says DiMassimo.
Bradley is also ambivalent about promoting one of his most well-known strengths–his athletic stardom. He vetoed O’Neill’s idea to write a column on the retirement of Wayne Gretzky, John Elway and Michael Jordan.
Bradley has always written his own speeches and books. So team members get angry at any suggestion they are scripting this candidate. “Let’s get something straight,” says O’Neill, jabbing his cigarette across the table at the Oyster Bar in New York. “Our job is to help him express his ideas, not create them. He is who he is and he believes what he believes.”
If Bradley is suspicious of the ad process, he has good reason: His track record is spotty at best. Earlier ad efforts for earlier races were effective, but sometimes hokey. Witness the spot from his 1984 Senate run showing a hard-working Bradley tossing a hook shot into a wastepaper basket. “Bill Bradley. With you on his team, he can’t miss,” was the tag.
In his last Senate re-election campaign in 1990, the advertising effort was disastrous. As upstart Republican Christine Todd Whitman was giving him the fight of his political life, Bradley went to the hole once too often with the basketball hero routine and ended up tasting the hardwood. His play-it-safe spots showing him shooting hoops missed the angry mood of New Jersey voters. Bradley’s near-upset, despite spending 12 times as much as Whitman, helped squash his presidential hopes for 1992.
Probably the best Bill Bradley ad ever had nothing to do with politics. A few years ago he appeared in an ESPN SportsCenter spot poking fun at his own policy-wonk image.
Sitting in the studio with anchors, he tries to engage them in an earnest discussion on taxes–but the anchors keep interrupting him with basketball questions like whether his Knick shorts ever “gave him a wedgie?”
As a brand, Bradley is an interesting collection of strengths and weaknesses. Backers almost uniformly cite his intelligence, integrity and ability to tackle complicated issues. Stories that would seem apocryphal about most candidates are true with Bradley: how, as a kid, he asked unpopular girls to dance so they wouldn’t feel left out; how he turned down endorsement deals in the 1970s because his black teammates weren’t getting the same offers.
“In an environment where it’s easy to be cynical, if he says something, I believe it,” says DiMassimo. “I would trust him with my money, my life and the nuclear button. How many people can you say that about?”
Bradley has also defied expectations and made race a major issue in his campaign. During a recent gathering of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bradley was treated like a “rock star,” reports Jones, who escorted him around. “The Gore people were pissed off at me,” laughs Jones, who had offered her services to the Gore camp but got no response. “It really shook them up to see the kind of support that Bill Bradley has in the black community.”
Gore’s recent moves–like relocating his campaign headquarters from Washington to Nashville–“smells of panic,” says Jones. “We have set the fire over here, and they are choking in the smoke.”
On the other hand, Bradley has his weaknesses: his perceived lack of loyalty among some Democrats; his fairly orthodox liberal views; his lack of executive leadership. Given his Boy Scout image and his refusal to respond to Gore’s negative jabs, even some supporters wonder whether he’s “tough enough” for the job.
“Are you kidding? Remember the ’56 Blows’ speech?” retorts one team member, referring to Bradley’s Senate speech in 1992 when he slammed the podium 56 times to protest the Rodney King beating. “He’s not scared of anything or anybody.”
Bradley’s biggest weakness has always been his lack of charisma. The problem for Gore? He’s as charismatically challenged as Bradley. Republican leaders gleefully describe the pair as “Tweedle-Dull” and “Tweedle-Duller” while Jay Leno notes, “Bill Bradley is so boring his Secret Service code name is Al Gore.” Yet Bradley has been remaking himself. He has surprised even his supporters with some of his TV antics, like getting bulldog Sam Donaldson to admit he smoked pot, too. “He’s having fun, and it shows,” says Wooden.
Throughout his life, Bradley has been underestimated. Yet he has never lost a political campaign. As far as his ad people are concerned, that’s not about to change. “This could be over sooner than you think,” predicts O’Neill. “The most precious asset an incumbent vice president has is his aura of invincibility and inevitability. Once that’s punctured, all hell breaks loose. And that’s what’s happening with Bradley and Gore.”
Bill Bradley
U.S. Senator from New Jersey, 1978-97. Key legislation: Tax Reform Act of 1986. Author of four books. New York Knicks, 1967-77. NBA champion, 1970, 1973.
Princeton University, 1965. Rhodes Scholar, Oxford University, 1967. Olympic gold medalist, U.S. basketball team, 1964.
Born July 28, 1943, Crystal City, Mo. Married Ernestine Schlant. One daughter. Wife has another daughter from previous marriage.
Alex Kroll
Former chairman/CEO, Young & Rubicam
Titular leader and adviser-at-large. Has focused on strategy, but counted on as a shot blocker if political operatives try to run roughshod over ad squad. Kroll is the team member with the closest relationship to Bradley.
Caroline Jones, Caroline Jones Inc.
Oversees ads targeting African Americans and other minority groups. Has longest political resume on the team, including stints with Bill Clinton, Walter Mondale, Jesse Jackson and David Dinkins. Willing to play hardball if things get rough.
Linda Kaplan Thaler, Kaplan Thaler Group
Richard Kirshenbaum, Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners
Two major creative players in the lineup. Kaplan emerging as team’s creative leader, say insiders. The duo must generate the most offense. Kirshenbaum is a political rookie; Kaplan was a member of the Clinton/Gore team in 1992.
Mark DiMassimo, DiMassimo Brand Advertising
Marvin Waldman, Young & Rubicam
DiMassimo, the youngest member of the squad, will use his edgy creative skills and Internet savvy to fire three-pointers at Gen X voters. He might pair with new recruit Alan Blum of The Blum Group.
Waldman, who is leaving Y&R to devote his full attention to the campaign, coined the “It can
happen” slogan and wrote the first ads.
Ruth Wooden, National Parenting Association
Mike Becker, beckercommunications
Wooden, 11-year president of The Advertising Council, joined in July and is now day-to-day leader. She’s also chief liaison with Bradley senior advisor Will Robinson and campaign chairman Doug Berman. Becker, a former CD at Y&R and Wunderman Cato Johnson, spearheaded early recruiting, organizing and communications. He’s now shifting to a creative role.
Kevin O’Neill, Warwick Baker O’Neill
O’Neill joined the game late but saw immediate playing time creatively.
Margaret Mark
Ex-Y&R executive spearheading research.
Frank DeVito
DeVito Fitterman
Eric David
Copywriter from Kaplan Thaler
Irene Weisberg
Creative services manager from Wunderman Cato Johnson
Hanno Fuchs
Ex-Y&R executive working on strategy.

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