Deborah Norville, Miss USA and the Man Behind Those Spitzer Ads

Although the ghastly heat of last week that made Manhattan feel more like Calcutta is finally just a memory, it was hard to tear ourselves away from the wall-to-wall coverage on ‘Baby Cambridge’ (who finally has a name — Welcome George Alexander Louis!) to come to lunch at Michael’s today. But once we made our way to 55th and Fifth, it was back to business as usual. The Wednesday lunch crowd has been firing on all cylinders all summer long, and today was no exception.

Aside from the usual suspects (Matt Blank, David Zinczenko) there was, of course, plenty of good people watching to keep us occupied, including the random celebrity sighting  (a very tall Miss USA) and an A-list couple who practically glowed with happiness (Deborah Norville and Karl Wellner). Perhaps that’s because their impeccably well-mannered teenage son, Kyle Wellner, who was dining with them, rose and extended his hand with a “nice to meet you” every time a well-wisher came by. Impressive.

I was joined today by Lisa Linden, longtime public relations adviser to Eliot Spitzer, and Jimmy Siegel of Siegel Strategies. Jimmy is the creative force behind Spitzer’s campaign ads that begun popping up last week online and are now airing on cable and broadcast television in New York City. Jimmy spoke with me exclusively to give me the story behind the new campaign ads that have generated plenty of commentary by politicos everywhere. The self-described “political junkie” first met Spitzer, then running for governor, at a fundraising dinner in late 2005. “I wanted to get into politics, and I was a long time admirer of Eliot when he was the state’s attorney general. I thought he did an amazing job,” Jimmy told me. “At the end of the night, I hung around and, fortified by my third glass of Cabernet, I approached him and said, ‘I want to help get you elected.'” Spitzer gave him then-deputy campaign manager’s Miriam Hess‘ card (who, incidentally, now works with Jimmy) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Diane Clehane and Jimmy Siegel

Jimmy spent over 20 years at BBDO, rising from junior copywriter to vice chairman where he was responsible for some of the most memorable ads ever for Visa, Pepsi and Charles Schwab, and had just formed his own company when he met Spitzer. The campaigns he later created for Spitzer’s gubernatorial run were characterized by The New York Times as “emotionally stirring” and “fresh and effective” by The New York Daily News. This time around, while the objective — getting Spitzer elected — may be the same, the game and the stakes have changed considerably.

When asked whether the former governor’s announcement that he was running for New York City comptroller took him by surprise, Jimmy responded, “Yes and no. Besides being my client, he is also a good friend and I know this is something he thought a lot about. He went back and forth about it. He stayed out [of politics] as long as he did, because he needed to reflect.” When the two men discussed doing campaign ads and how to handle the scandal that drove Spitzer from office, Jimmy said, “I felt that people should hear from him directly and Eliot agreed.” The result is a 60-second spot that features Spitzer speaking to an unseen interviewer (Jimmy, off-camera) and saying, “Look, I failed big time. I hurt a lot of people. When you dig yourself a hole, you either lie in it the rest of your life or you do something positive.” The spot wraps up with images of various New Yorkers flashed across the screen while Spitzer concludes, “Everyone, no matter who you are, deserves a fair shot, I’m asking voters to give the same to me.”

“We wanted Eliot to talk about how he felt in a little more detail,” said Jimmy of the spot that has been dubbed ‘the apology ad’ in the press. “This was Eliot speaking from the heart about how he felt and offering some contrition.” When I commented on the editorial feel of the spot, Jimmy explained, “When someone is looking off-camera, it’s a conversation; when they look directly into the camera, it’s a speech.” When I asked him why he chose to focus the camera on Spitzer holding his eyeglasses for an extended shot, he told me, “There was a John Ford western with John Wayne where he was an older, cavalry officer and I thought it was poignant that he wore glasses. It said something. I like the fact that Eliot wears glasses. I think it shows that he is older and perhaps wiser. I also like to show hands because I think they are very expressive.”  The other ad, a 30-second spot, focuses more on Spitzer’s track record fighting corporate corruption and, said Jimmy, “was made to remind people of what he’s done.”

Jimmy, a passionate supporter of democratic causes says one of the things he’s “most proud of” is the video he created for President Barack Obama saluting the country’s veterans and narrated by Tom Hanks. He has worked on many political campaigns, including Hillary Clinton‘s presidential run and was part of the team responsible for her announcement video. “I wanted to put more emotion into Hillary’s ads, but ran into some resistance. I think people often vote because of the emotions they feel about a candidate,” he said of the experience. He hopes she’ll run again as he “would love” to work with her again.

Not all of Jimmy’s work behind the camera is focused on politics. He was recently tapped by the United States Golf Association to produce “While We’re Young,” named after Rodney Dangerfield’s iconic line from Caddyshack poking fun at tortuously long golf matches. “There’s a real effort to speed up the game,” explained Jimmy, who landed none other than Clint Eastwood to get out the word in the spots which aired during the U.S. Open and is currently running on various networks.

Somehow, Jimmy has also found time to write four books, including the bestseller Derailed, which was made into a movie starring Jennifer Aniston and Clive Owen. Trust me, the book was much, much better. He is currently at work on his fifth novel, a tale of a young girl’s life after abduction. What about writing a book set in the world of politics? “I’ve thought about it. We’ll see,” said Jimmy. God knows he has plenty of material.

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Miss USA Nana Meriwether, Matt Rich, Eva Roosevelt and a gal we did recognize. Anyone?

2. Peter Brown

3. Inside Edition‘s Deborah Norville with husband Karl Wellner and their handsome and well-dressed son (in a blue blazer and red tie!), Kyle Wellner

4. Showtime’s showman, Matt Blank

5. Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman

6. Most of ‘The Imber Gang:’ Dr. Gerald Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Jeff Greenfield and Michael Kramer

7.  Manolo Blahnik’s George Malkemus and stylist Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele

8. Jimmy Siegel, Lisa Linden and yours truly

9. The Pilot Group’s Marshall Cohen

10. v beaute founder Julie Macklowe

11. Agent Wayne Kabak

12. Andrew Stein and Michael DelGuidice

14. Stephen Swid

15. TV Guide Magazine acting CEO, Jack Kliger

16. Digital Place-Based Advertising Association’s new president and CEO, Barry Frey, (Congrats!) with Eli Silberman, who just published a new book, E Train to Masada.

81. Fairchild Fashion Media president and CEO, Gina Sanders, and the perennially best dressed scribe Amy Fine Collins