Martin Puris' Toughest Pitch

Call them the muttering mavens of Madison Avenue. They're the critics and ad gurus who pick apart political commercials in each campaign. Just as the nattering nabobs plagued Spiro T. Agnew, the critics are making life hard for Martin Puris as he creates ads for George Bush's reelection bid. On September 15, two days after Puris unveiled his latest Bush spot, Advertising Age critic Bob Garfield went on CBS This Morning to liken the ad to "historical footage from the Reichstag."

It's enough to make Puris yearn for his day job. After all, this affable, elegantly tailored copywriter has been on a roll in the world of advertising. In just 10 months, his agency, Ammirati & Puris Inc., has won an astonishing $120 million in new business, including the coveted MasterCard International Inc. account. The victories have boosted the agency's annual billings to 400 million.

But while his stylish work for clients such as BMW and United Parcel Service of America Inc. has made Puris the busiest man on Madison Avenue, he has been taking his lumps on Pennsylvania Avenue. Puris' trademark mixture of sound strategy and creative panache cuts little ice in Washington, where budgets are tight, time is short, and every ad is mercilessly dissected in the news media. "People who go into this thinking it's just advertising are in for a shock," he says.

About the only thing the two worlds have in common are clients under a lot of pressure (table). In Washington, Puris must figure out how to restore the luster to President Bush's faded image. Puris has purposely struck an urgent chord: His latest commercial shows Bush hammering on themes of economic renewal and military strength in his acceptance speech at the Republican Convention. Mixed in are images of jets taking off from an aircraft carrier and a cargo ship hauling American exports. "Voters want to know that the President has a plan," says Puris, "and that he has the commitment to stick to it.

HURLY-BURLY. Puris is certainly committed to Bush. He advised GOP media strategist Roger Ailes during the 1988 campaign. And he has been working for free since May, when campaign Chairman Robert M. Teeter announced his appointment. But unlike some ad execs who sign on to political campaigns, Puris hasn't taken a leave of absence from his agency, which he co-founded with partner Ralph Ammirati in 1974.

That has made for a frenetic schedule, as Puris shuttles between the White House and his Manhattan office every few days. The 53-year old executive got married on July 8, for example, and flew to Washington the next morning for a campaign meeting. At the same time that he was readying Bush's postconvention ads, his shop was in the crucial stages of the MasterCard review.

Puris' two latest commercial clients need as much image-buffing as Bush. In new ads for Compaq Computer Corp., which awarded its $60 million account to Ammirati last December, Puris is trying to reposition the troubled pc maker as a low-price competitor that still offers high-quality machines. MasterCard's new advertising won't appear until early next year. Puris says he'll try to sharpen the card's appeal as a good value, which has been effectively challenged by the upstart Discover Card.

But Puris has found that long-term strategy has little place in the hurly-burly of a political campaign. For one thing, marketers have the luxury of time that campaigns do not. The agency has four months to produce its first ads for Master-Card. By contrast, Puris cobbled together the lastest Bush spot in six days. The MasterCard campaign could run for two years. The Bush ad will air for two weeks - even less if the rush of events or the Clinton camp forces the campaign to change its strategy.

To respond quickly to such challenges, Puris has assembled other prominent advertising execs in a team called the November Company. In addition to Puris, it includes Clayton E. Wilhite, president of D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, and Gordon Bowen, chief creative officer of McCann-Erickson New York. Puris also draws on GOP consultants Alex Castellanos and Mike Murphy, who specialize in tactical ads that make specific charges or respond to the opposition.

BARE BUDGET. Despite such high-powered help, Puris must produce his political ads on a shoestring. MasterCard is spending $60 million on its advertising. Political strategists say the total budget for the Bush/Quayle advertising campaign is roughly $40 million, almost all of it to buy media time. Philip B. Dusenberry, an ad executive who has worked on several political campaigns, figures the new Bush spot cost no more than $40,000. Run-of-the-mill tv commercials can cost $250,000, while lavishly produced spots cost as much as $1 million. "I'll bet Marty Puris hasn't made a spot for under $300,000 in the last 15 years," says Mark Mellman, a Democratic polltaker.

Less money also means less research. To develop its new campaign, for example, MasterCard has conducted tracking studies of more that 6,500 people and is doing in-depth interviews with 400 consumers. In developing its ads, the Bush campaign has relied mainly on focus groups of 10 to 12 people. The campaign just doesn't have the resources to conduct the more sophisticated research used by most marketers.

Of all the adjustments Puris has had to make, this may be the toughest. Sources close to Puris say he has clashed bitterly with Bush campaign officials over their tendency to select ad themes based on focus-group reactions. This led to a previous Bush ad that featured choppy editing and a tight close-up of the President talking about the need for change. Puris argued against the ad, which was later condemned by ad experts, but he was overruled.

Puris won't discuss internal politics. But he agrees that campaigns often draw broad conclusions from the sometimes errant reactions of focus groups. "They should be used as a tool to detect mine fields," he says, "But they should be used with the knowledge that 12 people in a room in Milwaukee do not reflect everybody in Milwaukee, let alone the rest of the country." The latest commercial relies less on focus-group data, says Puris, which may explain why he likes it more than the first one.

SHORT SHRIFT? Crude marketing methods may have slowed puris' efforts, but the Bush campaign's disorganization has been another big hurdle. While MasterCard has had its share of setbacks in the tussle for market share, the disarray at the White House makes the credit-card marketer look like a Swiss watchmaker. Several November Company executives say their ideas have gotten short shrift from campaign officials. They say some White House aides with no media experience have interfered with proposals. Charles Black, a senior Bush/Quayle adviser, acknowledges that the process has been tumultuous. "It's hard marrying political hacks like us with top Madison Avenue types," he says.

Some of this stems from a deep-seated resentment of ad executives by their less well-heeled political counterparts. "Some guy wearing a 3,000 (dollar) suit gets off a plane and says, 'This is how we're going to elect the candidate,'" says the Democrats' Mellman, "and suddenly some guy who's gotten half the Senate elected but wears Hush Puppies is taking orders." Dusenberry, who helped create Ronald Reagan's successful "Morning in America" campaign, says advertising execs can avoid this wrangling only if they have a direct line to the President, as he did in 1984 through Reagan aide Michael Deaver.

Puris says the arrival of James A. Baker III has uncrossed some of the wires. And he thinks the appointment of Sig Rogich, a Las Vegas adman and GOP insider, as a senior adviser to the media effort will help, too. Rogich helped mastermind Bush's effective media campaign in 1988. But Rogich has such a high profile in political circles that he could end up eclipsing Puris, who insists Rogich is only an adviser.

Despite all the grief, Puris relishes his supporting role in the high drama of a Presidential campaign. "You're writing commercials for the single most powerful man on earth," says Puris. For the copywriter who coined BMW's durable slogan, "the Ultimate Driving Machine," it's quite a kick to pen ads for what he considers the ultimate political campaign. Now if only candidates were as easy to sell as cars.

      Some key clients of ad exec Martin Puris - and the challenges they present
      In a new TV spot, Puris uses tight editing and a fast pace to portray Bush as 
      energetic and focused.  Key phrases are flashed on a computer screen.  Budget: 
      $40 million*
      Its card is stalled as Visa woos upscale customers and Discover goes after 
      low-end users. Puris has to convince consumers MasterCard is an exceptional 
      value. Budget: $60 million
      To accelerate its comeback, Puris is pushing its new low prices and blue-chip 
      image.  One ad says a low-cost notebook computer looks like a `million bucks.' 
      Budget: $60 million
      *Estimated media budget for the entire campaign
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