Maine Shops Created the FBI’s Most Wanted Whitey Ad

News report on the ad generated tip leading to Bulger

Might be time for a new Effie Awards category: best Most Wanted ad.

The 30-second TV spot that the FBI credits with generating a tip that led to the capture of long-sought-after murder suspect James “Whitey” Bulger was created by two small agencies in Maine: Northeast Media Associates and Blackfly Media.

The South Portland-based Northeast got the job and pulled in Blackfly, a video correction specialist in Portland that Northeast had worked with in the past, said president Angela Helton. Working closely with FBI agents, they produced the resulting spot in about three weeks.

The just-the-facts-ma'am direct response approach didn’t break new ground creatively. But the indirect strategy of featuring not the suspect but his girlfriend—as suggested by the FBI—proved brilliant. About 36 hours after the ad broke in 14 cities, the FBI had found Bulger (and girlfriend Catherine Greig) in Santa Monica, Calif.—16 years after he fled Boston and became a fixture on the FBI’s Most Wanted list.

The FBI has used TV ads in the past but not to this extent, said Damon Katz, chief counsel at the FBI's Boston division. The bureau revealed its ad plan in a Monday press conference and publicized it online via its website and Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter accounts. The tipster learned of the effort in a subsequent national news report, Katz said. 

The FBI allotted $5,000 for TV production and another $45,000 for the media buy, which included two cities in California: San Francisco and San Diego, according to Katz. The ad, scheduled to run for a week, was pulled after Bulger’s arrest. The government is seeking a refund for the remainder of the time.

The FBI chose the markets based on past associations with the couple, and the ad ran during daytime programs like The View, The Dr. Oz Show, and Rachael Ray, Katz said. The shows appeal to women in the same age demographic as Grieg, a 60-year-old former dental hygienist who has had multiple plastic surgeries.

So what led the FBI to the Maine agency market, of all places? Well, the state is within the Boston division’s footprint, which covers Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.

Also, Northeast Media was “recommended by FBI headquarters’ media office and I think a big part of that was because [Northeast president] Angie Helton was a former TV producer who has won Emmys,” Katz said. “And they passed our checks. We weren’t just going to send this out to anybody we didn’t check out first.”