Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Confession of a political adman

I have something to confess. Please don’t tell my mother. Let’s keep this between you and me.

Are you ready?

I used to write political advertising.

There. I’ve admitted it. That’s the first step, right?

Bill Hillsman called me up one afternoon back in 1990 and suggested we have a beer after work. We met in a bar on Hennepin Avenue in Minnneapolis and, after a little talk about advertising and baseball, he came to the point.

An old professor of his, Paul Wellstone, was running for the Senate against the rubber stamp record and formidable war chest of incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz. Since Wellstone couldn’t out-spend Boschwitz, the plan was to outsmart him, with a few great ideas from a handful of then-young advertising creatives.

Hillsman wanted me on the team, primarily to write newspaper ads. He liked what he called my “beer-and-a-shot tone.” Was I interested?

Shoot, yes I was interested. Twelve years earlier, Twin Cities based, internationally acclaimed ad legends Ron Anderson and Tom McElligott had done the campaign that sent Boschwitz to the Senate. Here was a chance to do great work in the same category – and on the correct side of the political aisle for me, with my family ties to the Irish of Chicago’s Great South Side.

We (the creative team) were a rabblesque group; an advertising underground; a network of cells – each working independently. Hillsman was the only guy who saw and knew everything. His genius that political cycle was to let geniuses be geniuses – especially two young men working at what was then Fallon McElligott and Rice.

Their TV spots for Wellstone were brilliant – so brilliant that the spots hardly aired as commercials at all. Hillsman just shared them with the press, and let the news stories the spots generated substitute for buying advertising time. The rest of us did what we could, with secondary television commercials, radio spots and newspaper ads.

As a human being, as a long shot, Wellstone was imminently likeable, warm and infectiously enthusiastic. We called him “the product,” and when he won we were overjoyed. It was a brilliant and happy accident.

There were some unhappy (for the ad team) results. Ego ascended. Feelings bruised. Credit, of which there should have been more than enough to go around, was meted out unfairly. Jealousy took over. Many of the most-talented members of the Wellstone 1990 ad team never did political advertising again.

I dd. Hillsman hired me to write TV, radio, and print ads for gubernatorial, senatorial, mayoral and state Supreme Court candidates. I wrote ads for initiative in referendum efforts, too.

There were no more happy accidents, though. Not for me. Each new campaign picked up additional accretions of smarmy consultants, pollsters and spin-meisters, all of them counseling the candidate and the campaign to avoid highly creative commercials, advocating for formulaic, tried-and-true mediocrity.

The last straw was Wellstone 1996, when the Senator, seeking to appear senatorial, opted to work with inside-the-beltway consultant Mandy Gruenwald. I went cold turkey after that. I haven’t done any political advertising since.

Hillsman, being shrewder, more Machiavellian, thicker of skin, stronger of stomach, and larger of ego, endured – and continues to succeed. There was a parting of the ways with Democratic party insiders, followed by Jesse Ventura’s gubernatorial campaign, Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential run (which some believe stripped enough Gore votes away to make the election close in Florida and set up the Bush vs. Gore Supreme Court decision), and a litany of congressional, senatorial and gubernatorial efforts. He wrote a book. If what I read on the Internet is right, he is creating ads for Democrat Ned Lamont this cycle. Lamont is the upstart who beat three term incumbent Joe Lieberman in the Democratic Party primary in Connecticut.

For many advertising creatives, Hillsman hangs like a pedophile on the schoolyard fence, pockets full of candy in the form of opportunities to make high-profile television spots.

I’m on the wagon, though. Clear of eye, strong and certain again, in recovery, a bit concerned about what I might do if offered a shot at Norm Coleman in 08, but taking this election cycle one day at a time,

But let’s just keep this to ourselves. Let’s not tell Mom.

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