By Philip Rucker The Washington Post
BOSTON — Now that Mitt Romney has amassed a couple hundred million dollars, it’s largely up to an eclectic crew of self-described “Mad Men” to make good use of it.
A colorful team of advertising gurus — including a one-time “Wheel of Fortune” contestant, a guy nicknamed for a “Super Mario World” character and a burly Texan who came up with the “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” slogan — have converged on the campaign’s drab headquarters here to dream up the ads they hope will propel Romney to the White House.
Together, they clock 12-to-14-hour days in their shared offices and try to apply what they’ve learned in careers marketing Colgate toothpaste, Big Macs, BMWs and Nationwide Insurance to help pitch to the American masses a product that lacks a dominant market share: Mitt Romney.
“It’s like a foxhole,” said Vinny Minchillo, the game-show contestant who made ads for brands such as JC Penney and Subaru before going into politics 10 years ago. “Normally these two worlds just don’t see eye to eye. But in this case, people who believe in the cause have come up here to Boston and said, ‘You know what? We’re going to try to do some great creative work here.’”
Much of the money that Romney raises falls into the hands of the Mad Men, who already have cut spots and laid plans to blanket the airwaves in battleground states throughout the final 10-week sprint. Romney can raise all the millions there are to raise, but if his ad wizards don’t make compelling and persuasive ads, it won’t do him much good.
“We can keep throwing ads up there all day long, but is there an idea that’s really going to touch people? It’s going to get them to pull that handle, and we’re going to win,” said Jim “Fergie” Ferguson, the burly Texan.
The creative team is trying to create an emotional bond between a candidate who reveals little emotion and a still-unsure body politic. And they are trying to tell the story of “the Obama economy” — searching what one of them dubbed “the trail of tears” for powerful voices among the roughly 23 million Americans who are unemployed, underemployed or have stopped looking for work.
One day last winter, Ferguson came across a news story about an Iowan who lost his job at a grain elevator and became a part-time grave digger. Ferguson drove around for days in a snowstorm until a mortician in Waterloo connected him with Troy Knapp.
After filming Knapp talking about the shame of being on unemployment, Ferguson recalled, “I cried.” Ferguson made Knapp and two other struggling Iowans the focus of a Romney video, “A Few of the 23 Million.”
“A lot of people around here, when Barack, you know, was running and all that, everyone believed, everyone had hope,” Knapp says in the video. “They all thought, ‘Man, this guy’s going to get something done.’ When he is in office now, it just seems like nothing’s getting done.”
Steering the massive ad campaign are Stuart Stevens and Russ Schriefer, Romney’s top strategists, as well as Ashley O’Connor, the campaign’s director of advertising. They’re hoping that the handful of corporate advertising stars can do for Romney what they do so well for consumer products: shape, sharpen and simplify the pitch.
“All the political advertising I look at, it’s trying to shove 10 pounds of ⅛junk€ in a two-pound bag. They shove it in there. They say, ‘Hey, we’ve got two more seconds, we can breathe another fact into it.’ ” Ferguson said. Instead, he said, he wants Romney’s ads to “get that one simple idea out there — and it is what Stuart says, ‘It’s the economy, and we’re not stupid.’ “
Past presidential campaigns have tried fusing Madison Avenue and Beltway talent with mixed results. President Ronald Reagan had success in 1984 with his “Tuesday Team,” but Michael Dukakis’s group struggled in 1988. In 2000, George W. Bush had the “Park Avenue Posse,” but there were divisions between the Austin and New York cliques.
Romney hopes that by bringing most of his team to Boston, with four high-quality video production rooms and a massive internal archive of Romney footage, he can find a synergy that eluded earlier campaigns – including his own 2008 bid.
What exactly goes on in those rooms remains something of a mystery — the Mad Men weren’t interested in letting a reporter in to watch their creative process unfold, and they were unwilling to preview upcoming ads.
O’Connor contributes many ideas and serves as the no-nonsense disciplinarian for the growing team of healthy egos and eclectic personalities.
“There are different styles to manage, different egos to manage, and hats off to Ashley and Stuart for getting us to work together so smoothly,” said Minchillo, who left his family behind in Dallas.
Among O’Connor’s disciples is Ferguson, who earlier in his career came up with a novel, and now famous, way to market beef — “It’s what’s for dinner.”
Ferguson cuts a conspicuous figure at Romney headquarters, with straggly white hair, a pack of Parliament cigarettes and several decidedly un-Romney tattoos: a cyclone on his wedding ring finger (as a reminder, after his divorce, never to marry again), a dollar sign on a wrist and the words “to do” on an ankle, so when he crosses his legs he can write on his ankle what he needs to do that day.
There’s also Minchillo, who boasts on his resume that he races lawn mowers; Keith Salmon, regarded as a master storyteller who left behind a career in Los Angles; and Bruce Van Dusen, a Madison Avenue director whose calming yet authoritative voice narrates most of Romney’s general election ads.
There’s also James Dalthorp, the son of an FBI agent, who made a name for himself marketing such luxury automakers as Lexus and BMW (“The ultimate driving machine”). And Tom Messner, a onetime letter carrier who, before going corporate, was a core member of Reagan’s “Tuesday Team” and helped create the memorable “Morning in America” ad.
There are other campaign veterans, too, including Bob Wickers, who oversaw Mike Huckabee’s ads in his 2008 presidential campaign, and Harold Kaplan, who has been on Romney’s ad team for years. Romney also has a handful of talented young filmmakers on board, including Tim O’Toole, Matthew Taylor, Dain Valverde and Clare Burns. President George W. Bush nicknamed Taylor “Yoshi” during the 2004 campaign because he was like Nintendo’s “Super Mario” character shuttling between the White House, a studio on K Street and campaign headquarters.
For the Madison Avenue set, used to devising and then executing long-range plans, the campaign has been an adjustment.
“It’s not like rolling out a car,” O’Connor said. “You’re rolling out a car, and somebody’s commenting on your features and somebody else is talking about how your tires aren’t right.”
So far, some political observers have criticized Romney’s ads for being too muddled. He entered the general election phase this summer not with biographical spots introducing himself, but instead with a series of “Day One” ads. They offered a straight-forward look at what a President Romney would do at the start of his term: Repeal “Obamacare,” build the Keystone XL pipeline, get tough on China and create jobs.
The web videos that Romney’s campaign blasts out almost daily are a hodgepodge of heart-racing attacks on Obama and homespun trips down memory lane with Romney’s wife and sons. Many of the latter were filmed with a floating camera in Burns’s office, where she has pinned scores of Romney family photos on a bulletin board — some staffers playfully dubbed it her “stalker board.”
Then there are emotional documentaries about entrepreneurs who built small businesses or everyday Americans struggling to make ends meet. Romney’s advisers said stories from the “trail of tears” will remain a common thread through the November election.
Americans have been digesting economic data since the financial collapse of 2008, and the Romney team thinks they can make those numbers resonate with independent voters by putting stories behind the statistics.
“You just listen and weave stories together,” O’Connor said. “If I were Obama, I’d be terrified of these people telling their stories.”