Strategic Perception, Inc.

Wall Street Journal

Shop Talk: Moving Numbers

Four Media Geniuses Dish on Smart Spots, Writer’s Block and Paris Hilton...

Published March 2009

John Brabender, Chief Creative Officer, Brabender Cox
Fred Davis, Chairman, Strategic Perception
Julian Mulvey, Partner, Devine Mulvey
Joe Trippi, President, Trippi Multimedia

We weren’t quite sure what would happen when we invited four of the most explosively creative minds in political media to join us for lunch. But it turned out they had more questions for each other than we did. In the private dining room at Charlie Palmer Steak, Editor-in-Chief Christie Findlay and Senior Editor Shane D’Aprile just sat back and watched the sparks fly.

Check out what didn't make the print edition: Read the full transcript of the conversation.

Julian Mulvey: So, Fred, you made possibly the most famous ad of the year— the Paris Hilton ad . I have to say, when I saw that I thought, “The campaign has lost it, they’ve completely come off the rails.”

Fred Davis:
Had you been there, you would have known that we didn’t have any other choice. Obama is in Europe. He’s getting crowds of 200,000 people. We’re sitting around depressed and trying to figure out what in the world do you do to turn that against him. I happen to think Obama has turned out to be a pretty substantive guy. But at the time he was always with Oprah, doing things that were big and glitzy. It was a long ball and it could have just as easily gone the other way, but if it had we wouldn’t have been in any worse shape.

Politics: Did you have time to test it, or did you just have to run with it?

Davis: We literally did almost every ad in the campaign in 12 or 14 hours, so we didn’t have time to test it.

Politics: What was your reaction when you saw Paris Hilton’s response ad?

Davis: I loved it. That response was fabulous and so was the ad the Obama campaign did with Sarah Palin’s wink . I just adored that ad. It was the perfect ad at that moment. Of course, not all the McCain folks loved it as much as I did.

Politics: Julian, you had a client who ran with the Paris Hilton theme, didn’t you?

Mulvey: Well, we had one candidate out in California who was running against Brian Bilbray. We ended up producing this ad— a spoof of the Paris Hilton, John McCain ad . It flashed between Bilbray and Hilton and it opened with, “What do Brian Bilbray and Paris Hilton have in common? They both do absolutely nothing.” (laughter) The local press just loved it. And so near the end of the campaign we had enough money to run about 600 points of TV and we did this other spot with a four star Marine general talking straight to camera . He lambasted Bilbray for voting against the G.I. Bill of Rights and at the end he says, “Brian Bilbray, you should be ashamed.” We moved that race 17 points, and that’s when the DCCC got involved. We lost it by just 3 points in the end, but you can still move big numbers with TV.

John Brabender: If you guys had your choice, how many points would you put behind a spot now?

Mulvey: Well, back in 2000 if you were to run a spot really heavily it would be around 1,400 points. But now, and I’ve heard different people say different things, but we ran some spots up to 2,000 points this cycle just because of all the diffusion out there.

Brabender: In the past people used to get away with running 800 points behind a spot. Now, you run 800 points, and it’s like no one saw the spot. That’s why I say it’s getting harder and harder with the clutter out there because you do have to run more points behind the same ad today than you used to. The other thing is that this industry just isn’t where it needs to be creatively, and I think part of that is the “stand by your ad” disclaimer. That hurts creativity tremendously.

I had the joy this cycle of being able to complain about that to John McCain, whose name is on that law.

Brabender: And that seemed to have gone real far.

Davis: Yeah, it was a big hit. (laughter)

Joe Trippi: You know, one of the most interesting things we did on the Edwards for president campaign was after that big speech he did on poverty. Somebody had put up a response to his speech on YouTube saying, “You keep talking about all this work to solve poverty. Well, what have you done today?” It turned out that Edwards was working on a Habitat for Humanity house that day in New Orleans, so we went out and shot that, and at the end of the day he responded and said, “You asked what I did? Well, today I built this house for Habitat for Humanity, so tag you’re it.” And what that did was suddenly spawn a bunch of people on YouTube to respond and say, “This is what I did today, now tag you’re it.” It was remarkable that just that simple phrase at the end of his video created videos of other people doing the same.

Brabender: There’s so many dynamics out there. For the first time ever the 18- to-29-year-old spent more time online than in front of the TV, so just getting them is tougher. And I don’t think you can really move numbers with ads like you could 10 years ago. I run some ads and I think, “This is a really powerful ad.” And the numbers will move a little bit, but not a lot. It’s much tougher to move numbers with a good 30-second spot than it was 10 years ago.

And yet spending on web ads was still such a small percentage of overall budgets this year.

Brabender: There’s so many dynamics out there. But the percent of dollars spent was actually significant compared to four years ago. And look at Facebook earlier this year saying they were signing people up at 260,000 people a day. What other medium can do that right now?

Think about if we had these tools when John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” How many millions of Americans would have gone and signed up to help him pass his agenda?

One study this cycle found people who view a candidate’s online ads are already supporters. Do you guys think that online ads are just preaching to the converted?

We’re in an age now where if five people send you the link to the Obama video and say “You have to watch this,” that has a lot more authority than the campaign saying that. And that’s going to start trickling down now to House and mayoral and other races.

Brabender: But the short-term problem is that you get some candidate running for supervisor that says, “I want to reproduce the Dean model. We’re going to raise all this money online and we’re going to have all this content online because people are going to care about my race.” The bottom line is people just aren’t there on that race. I know a couple of congressional candidates that spent ridiculous amounts of money online. Then they did post-election analysis and found nobody visited their websites.

Brabender: How often do you run into a candidate who saw a great ad and all they want to do is reproduce it?

Davis: That happened to me on an ad I did in the Schwarzenegger campaign. We did this ad against [Phil] Angelides where all of the visuals associated with him moved backwards , planes flew backwards, birds walked backwards. Then, when we talked about Schwarzenegger, everything moved forward. After that, every client would say, “Well, let’s do that forward and backward thing.” So I know exactly what you’re talking about, John. Never mind that I want to do something different, it’s “No, we don’t care about your creativity or doing something new and fresh, we want to do the same thing because it worked.”

Brabender: I did a pop-up video ad in 2000. Then in 2002, every candidate wanted to do the pop-up video ad. And it’s like, “I don’t want to do that ad again.”

Davis: Have you ever seen one of your ads on another media consultant’s reel?

Brabender: That I can’t say I ever have.

Davis: I have. It was in the 90’s. I won’t tell because he’s still in business, but I was a little shocked.

It wasn’t even something you worked together on?

No it wasn’t, and when confronted with it by my attorney his response was “Well, we could do an ad just like that.” (laughter) I swear. And this is a substantial media consultant.

Isn’t there this whole development now where you have the completely fabricated man on the street ad? I’m thinking of the anti-Harold Ford “Call Me” ad . But it seems to me that once upon a time you couldn’t have had a completely fictitious man on the street ad.

Davis: Oh yeah, and that ad almost killed us. It’s a very good point, Julian, because I was doing the Corker campaign, and we went to incredible lengths to make him very credible, which he is. And then all of a sudden the RNC put that ad out. After that ad, we dropped like a rock again. I just think that was so over the top and so unbelievable. Have you ever had one where the guy you’re running against had done something so horrific that you couldn’t use it?

Trippi: Oh yeah, I had one of those.

Davis: I had one. He killed somebody in a car crash, it was almost Teddy Kennedyesque and we just couldn’t use it.

Mulvey: Because it was completely accidental, or was he drunk?

He was drunk. And it got worse. I’ll get in trouble, but he got off of the charges in a very mysterious way, he pulled some strings and things like that. I still have that ad and we just never could run it.

Trippi: I had one where an opposing candidate had, in his private business, hired a 14- or 15-year-old kid for a job that OSHA requires a 10-year apprenticeship for because it’s so dangerous. Two days after the kid was on the job, he fell and was killed. So we tested the ad and it was, pardon the pun, deadly.

About a week before that ad was going up, I come into my office one day and there’s a script that’s been slipped under my door. It’s the script of the opposition candidate with the mother of the child who was killed talking straight to camera, saying how dare my guy use her son’s death for his own political gain. So then we go test that out. And if we put our ad up and they come back with that, we’re dead because the mom trumps our message.

So we decide no way in hell, we’re not using it, we kill the spot. About two weeks before Election Day, an ad goes up that says our opponent killed this kid. It’s an IE thinking they’re doing us a big favor. We had a 9-point lead and ended up winning the seat by half a point.

Davis: They meant well. IE’s, I think, are 50-50.

Brabender: I love doing them, though. (laughter) Have you guys run into a situation where the candidate gets obsessed about some piece of info they’ve heard on their opponent that you can’t prove?

Davis: I had this one particular case involving drug addiction. The client kept saying, “Fred, it’s true.” He tells me, “I’m getting a letter from the guy’s doctor. He’s out of town, we’re going to have it on Thursday but we have to run the ad today.” Eventually, against my better judgment, we ran it and it was not true, and it was horrific. My guy lost and probably deserved to lose.

That was the thing in 2000 where the Democrats really couldn’t prove that George Bush had used cocaine, but in testing it, they saw that it devastated Bush’s numbers. There was just no way to quite get there, from what I understand, though.

I think that’s the first candidate we’ve actually named. I just want to point that out. (laughter)

Politics: Fred, you were saying you have some history with this private room at Charlie Palmer.

Yes, this was where we had our first media dinner for W in ’04, and we pretty much planned the entire media operation that night. That was one of the easiest races I’ve ever worked on. Everything was methodical.

Trippi: That year was just a very dysfunctional campaign on our side, so it should’ve been easy for you guys. The real campaigns where you see that kind of seamless organization at the top is when there really is somebody in charge. On the Democratic side we usually have the five cheeses, and it’s always been the Republicans, at least through the Bush era, who knew who the cheese was: Karl Rove.

It was the opposite way this time. We knew who was in charge of the Democratic campaign. It may have been two guys, Axelrod and Plouffe, but they were seamless. On the Republican side you had, for the first time in a long time, a question of who was really in charge.

Davis: Well, we looked at it and said, “There’s no reason John McCain wins.” And that’s when Steve Schmidt came in, Steve being a very good day-to-day tactition. That campaign became about winning every single day. What can we do today to win? I live on the West Coast, so at 4:30 in the morning I would hear what we wanted on the air that afternoon. Every day. That was a grueling process.

Brabender: What do you guys do if you’re stuck and don’t have an idea?

Davis: I toss it out to my other folks. Seems like somebody always has something. Nobody’s ever stuck at the same time.

Trippi: Sometimes it’s just sitting around with folks like you guys and all of a sudden you start kicking an idea around and it just keeps getting better and better. Or I go for a long drive. Every really good spot I’ve ever done was literally a lightening bolt that just hit me. Then I’ll immediately pull over and write it, and it’s 30 seconds. It fits perfectly and it’s like, “How the hell did that happen?”

Davis: I wake up with those crazy flashes every now and then.

Brabender: The only downside is when something hits you in the middle of the night and you say, “I have to remember this in the morning.” And then in the morning you remember and it really isn’t all that good. (laughter) It’s totally brilliant at 3 in the morning, though.