Other Battlegrounds

At almost every major ad gathering I’ve attended, some top agency exec will take the podium to denounce political advertising as a blight on our industry. They say these slimeball practitioners are dragging down our high creative and ethical standards. (I always wonder if these speakers have ever seen cable spots after 10 p.m.)

Guess what? The political people have mutual disdain. They call us “Madison Avenue”—not a term of endearment. To them, it means we’re a bunch a navel-gazing, condescending elitists who take months, not days or hours, to make commercials and whose production costs for a :30 far exceed most budgets of feature-film winners at Sundance.

As someone who has straddled the fence for 20 years, doing both product and political ads, and often publicly bemoaned the lack of creativity in political work, let me partially recant. And now that Karl Rove is being hailed as the marketer of the year in many quarters, I think we can learn some important lessons from these folks—or at least stop demonizing them.

Starting in 1952, Madison Avenue was in charge of presidential ads. McCann did Eisenhower. Doyle Dane did JFK. Then, various individuals, not agencies, played major roles. Over the years, these included Harry Treleaven, Pete Dailey, Phil Dusenberry, Hal Riney, Donny Deutsch, Mal MacDougall and Sig Rogich, to list a few. Often we worked in conjunction with the political media types, adding a level of creativity to what was often pedestrian, slap-it-together-in-post work.

But the political guys outsmarted the agency people and took control. They began monopolizing House, Senate and gubernatorial races. When their clients won, they’d be grateful and loyal as they rose up the food chain. Ultimately, presidential candidates, too, questioned our value. In 1992, I was part of an ineffectual Bush ad team made up of agency “all stars.” This group was quietly replaced by political guys when the campaign stalled. In 1996 and 2000, both parties had outside Madison Avenue advisers, but this was cosmetic. Last year, they hardly even pretended. The political ad guys, by the way, have no interest in emulating us. They don’t whine over not working at a Wieden. The best ones make boatloads of money and would much rather win a Pollie than a Clio.

So what can we learn that might apply to our own situations?

• Negative ads work, or there wouldn’t be so many of them. Sometimes it’s sledgehammer negative. Sometimes it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s ridicule. Conventional wisdom says that no one likes negative ads—especially editorial writers, ad execs, focus-group attendees. But they remember them and act on them. Academics may say they turn people off politics and depress turnout. Yet in this most negative of years, there was a record turnout.

Maybe it’s just coincidence, but suddenly big-brand ad battles are getting nastier, more in-your-face and, dare I say it, closer to the political model—AOL vs. NetZero; Bud vs. Miller; DHL vs. UPS vs. FedEx; Subway vs. McDonald’s; and, of course, the E.D. drugs. Wal-Mart is copying another political trick—trying to pre-empt negatives with a positive campaign about the company while responding to its critics.

• Tactical can trump strategic. When the chips are down, long-term branding may be a colossal waste of money. The alternative is to just do it … just sell something … and do it by going after your opponents (I mean, competitors!).

• Does a single garden-variety 30-second spot really need to cost an average of more than $350,000, when most political spots come in at less than $100,000 (and many come in at less than $30,000)? Do we need 41 takes of the SUV negotiating a puddle or driving along those same curves of Highway 1? Does it really sell more cars? Can anyone really tell the difference between 35-millimeter and the latest digital video? Someday there’s going to be a client revolt, and it won’t be pretty. Until then, many agency people are still in pass-the-Dom-and-book-me-in-the-Bel-Air mode.

• Slow and steady doesn’t win the media race. Mention an effective frequency of three to a political media buyer and he’ll laugh hysterically. When political guys buy media, they don’t mess around—1,000 GRPs a week is the ante. Yes, I know it’s short term, but the lesson for all of us is, when you’re on, be on big. And big, even followed by a long hiatus, is better than dribbling it out over long periods.

• It will never again be Morning in America —perhaps the high-water political mark for Madison Avenue. If you weep nostalgic for that kind of campaign, don’t forget that in 1984, Ronald Reagan, for all practical purposes, ran unopposed (the guy’s name was Mondale). Had the race been tight, the Darth Vader school would have prevailed.

A record $1.6 billion was spent on the last election—to the delight of station owners in battleground states who are now customizing their new yachts and G4s. But campaign spending is ongoing. Already, groups are beginning to spend zillions—pro and con—on Social Security reform, Supreme Court appointments, energy policy and other major issues.

Holding companies may own some of the political media firms, but mainstream Madison Avenue has virtually no influence on the great issues of the day. While we can learn from the political side, we still have much to contribute. I believe it’s our obligation as an industry to get back into the fray. Winning is all that counts. A politician or issue can win pretty or win ugly. Pretty would be a nice change of pace.