The concept, even on paper, was something of a gamble.
In 2006, Bill Richardson was running for a second term as New Mexico governor and had enlisted the creative talents of Democratic media consultant Mark Putnam, known for his offbeat approach to political advertising.
Told that the governor was comfortable on horseback, Putnam wanted to make a mock Western embodying every over-the-top cliché of the genre while also reminding voters of the millions of dollars that Richardson had brought to the state by luring Hollywood studios there. The governor would spend the 30-second spot in full cowboy regalia, rocking a 10-gallon hat and a bolo tie, galloping around on horseback, and ultimately putting away the bad guys. (“Next time, let’s make a space movie!” Richardson says at the end.) Putnam believed that the governor had the personality to poke fun at himself and come out appearing both likable and commanding.
There was just one small problem.
“That’s not my horse,” Richardson announced when he arrived on the set.
And the gallop—well, it was more of a plod.
Nonetheless, Richardson and Putnam persevered. A few more takes and they had it in the can.
“Nobody gets off easy when I’m directing them,” Putnam says. “We work at it and we work at it until we get the best performance possible. If that means doing something for 20 takes, we’ll do it for 20 or 30 takes.”
Richardson won reelection in 2006 and called on Putnam’s skills again when he ran for president in 2008. His encore performance—a series of advertisements in which the governor sat for mock job interviews and touted his résumé in the same playful manner as the Western ad—wasn’t enough to make Richardson competitive, but his poll numbers did register a bounce after they aired.
Becoming one of the most talked-about names in political advertising wasn’t always on Putnam’s list of life goals. The Anchorage, Alaska, native graduated from college with a degree in molecular biology and thought a brief stint in advertising would be a fun career detour. Moreover, Putnam, 47, believed that he had something else to offer than what he calls the “Village People” approach to political media that dominated the airwaves in the 1980s—candidates sporting soldier’s helmets and firefighter’s hats in an ill-conceived ploy for authenticity. (Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis riding around in a tank during the 1988 campaign was a particularly cringe-worthy moment, Putnam recalls.)
“I wanted to make advertising that I thought could move people in an emotional way,” Putnam says. “I wanted to immerse myself in the strategy but also the creativity.”
So he has, producing some of the more memorable advertising in recent years for eight governors, seven senators, and dozens of House members. The secret is really getting underneath the candidate’s skin and being able to convey that essence to voters, Putnam says—within the constraints of a 30-second TV spot. Humor also doesn’t hurt. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, have all utilized his services.
Further along in the 2008 cycle, Putnam’s prowess earned him the chance to produce South Side Girl, the video that introduced Michelle Obama to the country at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. That led to what is undoubtedly the crown jewel in his body of work: the 30-minute special that Putnam directed and produced for the Obama campaign that aired on seven different stations just days before the election—a project that was miraculously completed in two weeks after frantically combing through two terabytes of footage.
You would think that someone with Putnam’s résumé would have been able to sit back and relax as clients eyeing the 2012 elections lined up outside his door. But such is the constantly shifting landscape of political consulting and advertising that no one can afford to rely on past successes or work in just one medium. In late 2010, Putnam left the company he had built over the course of the past decade with fellow Democratic consultant Steve Murphy to launch his own venture.
Putnam Partners doesn’t build websites or do online organizing or Internet fundraising per se, as many other new digital firms do. Rather, it focuses on producing quality television advertising, advising candidates on Internet strategy, and producing online media that create interest in a campaign. Putnam Partners is already doing work for a few statehouse and mayoral races, while lining up a roster of clients for 2012 that will likely include the Obama reelection operation, according to Putnam.
He has brought along some heavy hitters to assist with the new endeavor, including Philip de Vellis, creator of the Hillary Rodham Clinton/Apple 1984 Internet mash-up advertisement purported to be one of the first viral videos on YouTube, and Jim Duffy, a 20-year veteran of media strategy. But don’t expect Putnam to cede his ground on television advertising anytime soon.
“The tool that we use that still reaches the most voters with the most frequency is still television advertising. That hasn’t changed,” Putnam says. “What has changed [is] that nowadays you have so many more competing forms of information trying to grab that mind-share of voters. You have to stick out on television—it has to be the best that it’s ever been.”
This article appears in the April 23, 2011, edition of National Journal Magazine.