Profile: Bill Hillsman

Back in 1980, after spending time at small shops on ignominious accounts, Bill Hillsman landed a job at Bozell & Jacobs, Minneapolis. There, cd Tom McElligott asked Hillsman to help him prove that the better the creative, the less air time would be needed to achieve good results. Weeks later, McElligott, along with vp and art director Nancy Rice, quit to open Fallon McElligott Rice. The headline in their announcement, recalls Hillsman: “Finally, an agency for those who’d rather outsmart than outspend.”

Hillsman’s behind-the-scenes contribution to that statement resulted in regular lunches with McElligott, who, he says with a laugh, “kept asking about people he should hire — and it was never me.”

Regardless, the lesson he learned from McElligott has resonated throughout his career. (More about that later.) And Hillsman found his own path, opening North Woods Advertising in Minneapolis in 1985, positioning him for an entirely new, and unexpected, challenge: political advertising.

He entered the fray in 1989, when a professor at Carleton College — from which Hillsman had graduated 14 years earlier — decided to run for a seat in the U.S. Senate. The professor, who happened to be Paul Wellstone, contacted his former student, the only person he knew in advertising, for help.

“I set the ground rules,” recalls Hillsman. “We were going to do ads that didn’t look like political ads. We had little money, so he was in no position to disagree.”

The now 55-year-old says he had Wellstone, who went on to serve two terms before dying in a plane crash, say lines under the guise of shooting B-roll. The offbeat results became renowned for their effectiveness. The work included “Fast Paul,” a 30-second, Monty Pythonesque skit in which Wellstone sped through a list of political promises — “Unlike my opponent I don’t have six million dollars, so I’m going to have to talk fast” — while introducing his family and showing the house he grew up in. At first, many in the campaign, including Wellstone, thought the spots were a joke.

Despite being outspent 6-to-1, Hillsman recalls, Wellstone won. “Fast Paul,” he says, transformed the soon-to-be senator from an unknown to someone mobbed by fans on the streets of Minneapolis.

Other election campaigns came calling. Among those requesting Hillsman’s services: former Notre Dame all-American and ex-Viking Alan Page, who became a judge on the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1992; pro wrestler Jesse Ventura, who became governor of Minnesota in 1998; Ralph Nader, for his presidential run in 2000; and John Hickenlooper, for his 2003 mayoral upset in Denver.

Though he’s worked mostly with Democrats and independents, Hillsman runs an equal-opportunity agency — to a point. In 2004 he helped Chicago neophyte pol Jack Ryan win the Illinois Republican Senate primary, but, he says, “I told him I wouldn’t do the general election. It would cost me too much business on the other side.”

This election season Hillsman’s at it again, creating ads for Democrat Alan Grayson in his run against incumbent Republican Ric Keller for U.S. Congress (Florida), and for Democrat Jim Slattery in his senatorial campaign against Republican Pat Roberts (Kansas).

Hillsman created ads for both that suggest they’re G-men at the end of a drug bust. Grayson stands in an airplane hangar and rails about spending on the war in Iraq, noting that the money wasted could fill an airplane hangar. Slattery, in a different hangar, shows a briefcase — “This is a million dollars!” — and accuses Roberts of political graft.

“I’m too ornery to get out of the political game,” Hillsman says. “But someday I would like to speak out for the plurality of independent voters.”