In Spite of Losses, Campaign Media Consultants Still Win Big


Voters drawn to insurgent presidential candidates John McCain and Bill Bradley may still be mourning their losses at the polls. But no one should cry for their media consultants.

Buried in recent financial reports is a point often overlooked in the business of politics: Media advisors always win.

Each of the media firms that worked on television commercials for the presidential candidates made more than $500,000, the bulk of it paid from October through February, interviews and records show. The records were analyzed by the Campaign Study Group, which studies campaign finance reports for The Times.


“You can make more money doing media in politics than you can in investment banking,” said Pat Caddell, a former pollster and media consultant who quit the game in disgust in the 1980s. Media advisors “are the ones telling the candidate what to do . . . and they’re the ones taking the money.”

TV Advertising Advisors Earn Most

In today’s made-for-TV political campaigns, media consultants occupy a key seat at the strategy table, along with managers, pollsters, communications and financial advisors. But no one is paid better than the media advisor responsible for television advertising.

That’s because the consultants take a cut of each dollar their client spends on television air time. Critics say that practice taints the advice they dish out, because each time a consultant pushes a candidate to buy more air time, they’re also enriching themselves.

Some consultants contend the portrayals of their business are unfair and note the fees for political media work are usually lower than those charged to corporate clients. Media firms that typically work with several campaigns at a time also say presidential campaigns can actually cost them money by scaring off other clients who fear they’ll be forgotten.

Still, a White House campaign boosts any resume. And when the candidates are spending a total of $113 million or so, as Bill Clinton and Bob Dole did in 1996, it still results in a potential bonanza.

“Political consultants have been portrayed in the movies and in the media as the last of the cowboys. We’re hired killers,” said Darry Sragow, a veteran California consultant. “The fact is consultants get a bad rap. Anyone in this business learns to live with it.”

Others say there are too many who flock to politics with dollar signs in their eyes.

“Don’t let anyone give you the impression this is altruism we’re doing here,” said David Bienstock, owner of Target Enterprises in Hollywood, a Republican media firm. “I haven’t seen any media buyers flying coach lately.”

The media consulting job in a campaign is composed of three tasks--providing advice on the political message, producing the candidate’s commercials and buying the time on television stations. Some firms handle it all. Some campaigns hire separately for different functions.

Full-service consultants who offer strategic advice, produce spots and buy air time typically receive fees and commissions that range from 4% to 15% of the dollars spent on television in White House races, plus production expenses.

Campaign finance reports reveal only lump sum payments to media firms that include not just consulting fees, but also production costs and payments to television stations. And the firms refuse to detail their finances, making it difficult to estimate their revenue.

Their contracts can be complex, and can include sliding scales with higher commissions at the start of a campaign, markups on production costs and even bonuses for winning.

In Bradley’s case, despite departing the race in March without winning a state, his Democratic campaign paid two media firms a total of more than $1.2 million, according to records and interviews.

Bradley paid about $500,000 in a five-month stretch to the Washington-based firm MacWilliams Cosgrove Smith Robinson, which created the ads and bought the air time, campaign sources said. That is equal to about 4% of Bradley’s television buy.

Another firm, New York-based Kaplan Thaler Group, produced the spots and was paid $742,397, of which about two-thirds went to production expenses, sources said.

“We were trying to help Bradley win, and because of that we came in as low as we possibly could and still make something,” said Will Robinson, who coordinated Bradley’s media team and is a partner in MacWilliams Cosgrove Smith Robinson.

Robinson is a former labor organizer and Democratic National Committee campaign director who served as a top aide to former Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis.

In the case of McCain, who quickly raised millions when he won the New Hampshire primary and poured it into television commercials, campaign sources said his media firm earned a commission of about 5%. That would mean the company, Stevens Reed Curcio & Co. of Alexandria, Va., received an estimated $630,000 in compensation, plus an additional sum for production expenses.

McCain’s media advisor, Greg Stevens, is a former New Jersey statehouse correspondent who worked on the staffs of several federal lawmakers before becoming a consultant. He has a client list that has included some of the GOP’s top national officeholders, including former President Bush. Stevens also produced spots for Jack Kemp’s 1988 presidential bid, and served on Dole’s media team in 1996.

Stevens declined to discuss his fees but said he turned his firm of two dozen people “inside out” to handle the McCain campaign.

Vice President Al Gore’s effort has so far reported paying the least amount of compensation to his media firms.

As Clinton’s team did in 1996, Gore’s media advisors formed a new company, Century Media Group, composed of three different firms. If they drew the estimated 7% rate charged by Clinton’s ad team, Gore’s consultants would have $558,564 to split so far.

But the media team will receive “significantly less” than Clinton’s did four years ago, said one Gore media aide.

The Gore media team includes Squier Knapp Dunn, led until early this year by the late Robert Squier, which is planning advertising strategy and buying air time; Shrum, Devine & Donilon, which is providing consulting services and overseeing production; and media advisor Carter Eskew, who is contributing to the commercial scripts and advising Gore on shaping his message.

“When it comes to Gore, [campaign manager] Donna Brazile runs a tight ship, and you can bet any compensation for the team is going to be ratcheted way back,” said Bill Knapp, a partner at Squier Knapp Dunn. “There’s no outrageous compensation here.”

Bush Is Biggest Advertising Spender

Texas Gov. George W. Bush has spent by far the most on advertising, including an estimated $1.4 million on media consulting, production and time-buying commissions. Campaign sources said his media buying firm, National Media, earns a commission of about 3%, which would mean it made about $537,000 through the primary season. National Media chief Robin Roberts didn’t return calls seeking comment.

Bush’s lead media firm, Maverick Media, is headed by Mark McKinnon, a former songwriter who made his name over the last 15 years primarily as a consultant to Texas Democrats. He learned the advertising business in a short stint at New York firm Sawyer Miller. In 1990, he was hired to run the media office of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who was ousted from the governor’s office in 1994 by Bush.

Maverick was set up just to work on the Bush presidential campaign and has so far been paid $899,327, a sum that includes production costs. The Austin firm, which is creating Bush’s ads, is estimated to be earning about 4% of Bush’s ad dollars plus production expenses.

“This consumes 100% of your existence while it’s going on,” said Matthew Dowd, a Maverick strategist. “My feeling is, everybody’s got to decide [for themselves] what’s fair compensation.”