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K Street Confidenial Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

Returning to the Genre He Started

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, November 29, 2004; Page E01

Almost any time you turn on the tube, one group or another is pushing a cause. The Baby Bells want updated telecom laws. Abortion rights advocates plead for medical privacy. Air traffic controllers seek respect.

But not long ago, lobbying never appeared on TV. Commercials were considered too expensive and too ephemeral to be a legitimate weapon in an issue campaign.

Louise Clark and harry Johnson starred in the "Harry and Louise" campaign. (Goodard Claussen Strategic Advocacy)

_____K Street Archive_____
Political Pollsters Don't Live on Elections Alone (The Washington Post, Nov 15, 2004)
For Recruiters, Election Day Is Just the Start (The Washington Post, Nov 1, 2004)
Liberal Praise Drawn From Unlikely Source (The Washington Post, Oct 18, 2004)
More Past Birnbaum Columns

Then came Ben Goddard. In 1993, several chief executives of health insurance companies approached Goddard and his partner in media consulting, Rick Claussen. President Bill Clinton had just proposed a sweeping health care program. If he got his way, one of the executives told Goddard, "I'm out of business."

Goddard suggested a radical solution -- an advertisement nicknamed "Harry and Louise" after the fictional couple that did all the talking. To the shock of many insiders, it killed the president's initiative and launched a lobbying-by-television wave.

It also snagged Goddard a wife. A few years later he married Louise (her real name: Louise Clark), whom he met on the set of the revolutionary commercial.

Now, at age 61, Goddard is at it again, this time building a new business in Washington and trying to expand the borders of the industry that he created a decade ago.

In an interview in his art-filled office across the street from The Washington Post, Goddard said he foresees rapid growth in the already widely used method. He also expects an increasing use of innovative formats, especially via the Internet. Unfortunately, he said, a lot of folks who make commercials for pressure groups don't do a very good job.

His opinion matters. Goddard is recognized as the godfather of TV lobbying and remains a master writer and director of the technique. "He opened the door," said Carter Eskew of the Glover Park Group, which produces so-called issue ads. " 'Harry and Louise' was a breakthrough campaign."

Goddard is a tall, bright-eyed, soft-spoken man who has come a long way from his days growing up on a farm in tiny Payette, Idaho. The latest in electronic gizmos dot his orderly desk. His clients are a Who's Who of corporate America -- including life insurers and utility giants.

During his long career, he created the first political advertising in the former Soviet Union to preserve Boris Yeltsin's free-market reforms. In the United States, he's worked for politicians including President Jimmy Carter, Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), former interior secretary Bruce Babbitt and Jesse Jackson. His commercials are part of the Smithsonian's permanent collection.

He also is both a pioneer and a victim of lobbying's largest trend: consolidation. He cashed in on his fame with "Harry and Louise" (and also his success in defeating anti-business referendums in states) by selling his company to the communications conglomerate Omnicom Group Inc. in 1999. That was the height of a buying frenzy for public affairs shops and, as a result, he made a pretty penny.

But it wasn't a happy union. He and Claussen felt claustrophobic as corporate cogs. "Ben and I are very entrepreneurial; we aren't very good bureaucrats," said Claussen, 51, who like Goddard is a native Idahoan. "We ended up not feeling we had the control that we were used to having [and didn't enjoy] having to report up the ladder."

The duo also handed off a lot of their work to a cadre of underlings at the merged firm, Goddard Claussen Porter Novelli. One major client, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, claims never to have met Goddard. "I thought he was a mythical figure," said Stanton D. Anderson, the chamber's chief legal officer.

That's the last thing the still-active Goddard and Claussen wanted. They hungered to get their hands dirty again: Goddard on the creative end and Claussen as the super-efficient campaign manager. So they negotiated an early exit from their contracts with Omnicom and started a new firm, Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy. Its Web site boasts: "Goddard. Claussen. Back on their own. Independent. Focused. Charged with new energy."

Goddard extracted himself from what he called the "velvet trap" of Malibu, Calif., and moved with his wife to the District last year because that's where the action is in the genre he started. Not that he's suffering. The Goddards live during the week in a five-story Victorian row house off Logan Circle and escape on weekends to a farm near Washington, Va.

And they aren't the only ones in the business who are prospering. Goddard's old firm, now called Porter Novelli Public Relations, is "doing just great and the business has continued to expand," said Carolyn Tieger, who directs it and had been Goddard Claussen's partner in the District. Several other companies provide similar services.

Goddard's new firm also is doing well. "He's a very creative guy with a very creative firm," said Jack Dolan, spokesman for the American Council of Life Insurers, a GS Strategic Advocacy client. "They come to us with excellent ideas, lots of experience. We've been real satisfied with them."

But Goddard isn't too pleased with the state of the industry overall. "A lot of money is wasted" on interest group ads, he said, because the commercials' messages aren't adequately researched, focused or coordinated with lobbying at the grass roots. The secret to Goddard Claussen's victories, he said, is message discipline: Its ads are tested with voters down to their minute details and are considered just one part of a much larger lobbying exercise, which invariably repeats an identical point-of-view.

Such was the case with "Harry and Louise." Health insurers spent well over $20 million (a gargantuan amount at the time) not just on advertisements but on parallel lobbying efforts as well. Pollsters carefully calibrated its message. For instance, "Harry and Louise" favored better health care in general though not Clinton's big-government alternative.

As for the future of televised lobbying, Goddard says that it won't all be on TV. A lot of issue-related commercials will be produced not for air but for e-mail, to be played on computers rather than broadcast. Goddard also likes the idea of longer-form video efforts, at least some of which can be distributed through the press, on Web sites and, he hopes, on cable TV. He is working on examples of all of these.

The thinking behind all of this, Goddard said, is a truism first spoken by former senator Everett Dirksen, an Illinois Republican. "When politicians feel the heat," Dirksen said, "they begin to see the light."

That's why Goddard is busy stoking the fires of public opinion, camera in hand.

In the Giving Spirit . . . Again

As I mentioned in my previous column, I'd like to write a Christmas article about pro bono work by public affairs shops. Please e-mail me examples of good-deed lobbying done for free this year by PR folks and lobbyists. Deadline, Dec. 10.

Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address is kstreetconfidential@washpost.com.

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