Meet Fred Davis: The GOP's Hottest Mad Man
Fred Davis at his dining-room table in his home in Hollywood. On the wall are his Republican clients, and on the table are his numerous Pollie and Telly awards
Gregg Segal for TIME
Fred N. Davis III will do just about anything to get your attention, even when you are already in his office. On a late-September morning, Davis sits in his $2 million canary yellow mansion perched a few hundred yards downhill from the famed Hollywood sign. The place looks like an A-list actor's bachelor pad, as if it were decorated to mess with your mind after the after party. A stuffed two-headed calf overlooks the living room. A fox stares down on those who dare to use the toilet. Next to his desk, Davis has a custom-made Robert Duvall bobblehead that will start cussing at the touch of a button.
"You are either going to love us or hate us," the Oklahoma-raised Davis says with a twang, after apologizing for not sleeping much over the last several days. (See TIME's video "Inside the Mind of Political-Ad Guru Fred Davis.")
These are, after all, busy times for Davis and his singular brand of irreverent marketing. In what is shaping up to be the GOP's best year since 2004, Davis has become the go-to adman for Republicans who are unknown or in deep trouble or simply want to break every rule on their way to elected office. (See 10 elections that changed America.)
Already this year Davis has digitally inflated California Senator Barbara Boxer's head into a chattering hot-air balloon for one online spot; created a surprisingly successful "One Tough Nerd" campaign for Michigan gubernatorial contender Rick Snyder; and portrayed a rival California Senate primary candidate, Tom Campbell, as a sheep with demon eyes, an image so odd and amateurish that it became an instant online sensation. (See the best viral campaign ads of 2010.)
When one client, Arizona's Ben Quayle, faced ruin after revelations that he had helped out a soft-porn website, Davis put Quayle in front of the camera with a jarring script: "Barack Obama is the worst President in history," said the cherub-faced Quayle, 33, who is former Vice President Dan Quayle's son. For days, national cable networks ran the clip incessantly, all but erasing the soft-porn story line. Quayle won his primary.
And on Oct. 4, Davis struck again, this time in Delaware. when Christine O'Donnell shocked the nation by winning that state's Republican Senate primary, Davis was among the first calls her campaign aides made. The Davis solution for O'Donnell, who has been beset by a long history of zany utterances as a television pundit: put her in front of a camera, light her like a movie star, and have her say, "I'm not a witch. I'm nothing you've heard. I'm you." that sparked an instant viral wave giving O'Donnell millions of dollars in free national media time. "He doesn't just push the envelope," mark McKinnon, George W. Bush's former adman, says of Davis. "He blows it up." (See the top 10 witches.)
Risk taking like that is old hat in the realm of corporate advertising, where animated geckos sell insurance, time machines push diet soda, and Walt Whitman hawks Levi's jeans. but risk is still something of a taboo in politics, a profession dominated by data-driven pollsters and famously insular consultants. "If you innovate and lose, it's because you innovated," explains Evan Tracey, president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group. "If you do the same old thing and lose, you had a lousy candidate."
Davis has worked with his share of lousy candidates, but he has never shied away from innovation. He was forced into the business at age 19, when his father died unexpectedly, leaving the family's Tulsa public relations business in the lurch. "I took it over as this kid with a goatee and long hair, right out of drama school in college," says Davis, who never graduated or looked back. "I wore a coat and tie, every day, for seven days a week, for 20 years. It was like Forrest Gump, honestly. I was in the right place at the right time a lot of times, and one thing led to another."
His first political client was his uncle, James Inhofe, a conservative Oklahoma Congressman running for Senate in 1994. "We basically made a deal where I wasn't going to charge him much, but he didn't get a lot to say about the ads," says Davis. "I said, 'You know, I'm in the real ad biz. In the political ad biz, you are years behind what the real ad biz is like.' " The first spot dressed prisoners as pink-clad ballerinas to dramatize a Democratic crime bill's support for federally funded dance classes. "Everybody starts with message," Davis explains. "I don't. I start with what will stand out and be remembered."