The consulting community is mourning the passing of Joe Slade White who helped revolutionize television advertising for campaigns.
White was synonymous with the Bidens, having worked for both the president and his late son Beau over more than two decades. But he’s remembered by Democratic practitioners for the unique style of his spots and helping launch the careers of a host of practitioners, many of whom went on to found their own media shops.
“He was constantly plumbing people for information, stories, that kind of thing. When you’re a young political operative, and he spends 15 minutes asking you what you think, it really makes an impression on you. That’s how Joe moved through life,” said Will Robinson, who met White while working on Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Edgar’s (D) 1980 reelection campaign in Philadelphia. “What was really unique about Joe, it wasn’t the writing, it was the listening.”
Robinson would go on to work for White’s firm. He recalled a spot the shop produced for then-Colorado Rep. Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s Senate run in the early 1990s. They were at Campbell’s ranch and a rain storm curtailed production plans. Inside a stable on the property, “Joe filmed Ben saddling up a horse, and used that as a metaphor for hard work and commitment to excellence,” said Robinson, now a partner at The New Media Firm. “It was a real authentic process.
“Joe would produce stuff, narrative, that would connect to people emotionally and move them to take action, move them to be inspired. For Joe, it wasn’t just words, it was visual images, it was music, it was anything he could do to connect with people.”
White, who was 71 when he passed on May 5, grew up in Carroll, Iowa, raised by Republican parents. He majored in English at Georgetown University before joining the McGovern presidential in 1972 at age 21. He managed the secondary press plane, called the zoo plane, for the campaign, crossing paths with legendary reporters including Hunter S. Thompson and Timothy Crouse. It was a role that landed him on President Nixon’s enemies list, but also taught White valuable skills. For instance, his job included recording McGovern’s speeches and sending the tape to radio stations — an early form of the soundbite called “radio actualities.”
That led to the eventual launch of his own firm, which started out producing radio spots first for John Culver Iowa’s Senate run in 1975.
“I was either the youngest member of the old generation or the oldest member of the next generation because I got in so early — I got in when I was 21,” White said in a recent interview on the Now More Than Ever podcast.
Many practitioners who followed White credited his start in radio for helping develop his writing style.
“He had a profound influence on how I think about and make political advertising. It started with his incredible gift for writing,” said Mark Putnam, a Democratic ad maker who, according to a colleague, White would often refer if he was unavailable for a job. “Joe’s work showed how you can bring a smile to a voter’s face or a lump in their throat, and how that was the most powerful connection you can make when you are trying to share a candidate’s humanity.”
As he moved into television, White’s style was influenced by his connection with another famed ad maker, Tony Schwartz, who helped create the infamous “Daisy ad” for President Lyndon Johnson. White said it was Ralph Murphine who arranged his first meeting with the reclusive Schwartz at his converted church house in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen. That started a long apprenticeship and led to White adopting Schwartz’s “responsive cord” methodology.
“It was an association, a simple concept — whether it was a small town, or the feeling you have about a parent or teacher, or even an animal. What responds with regular people, how do you meet them where they are?” said David Dixon, who met White on an 1988 race and soon afterward was hired to be a VP and open the firm’s DC office.
“I remember we made an ad after the Exxon Valdez spill, and the responsive cord was connecting the viewer with the horror and sadness of that moment by doing a slow push into an image of one bird, coated in oil, helpless on the coastline. That’s what Joe brought to his advertising — very simple story telling and stark images,” said Dixon, who left White’s firm in the mid 1990s to co-found his own shop, Dixon Davis Media Group.
White himself described his methodology as, say in a race where corruption was an issue, the ad wouldn’t state the candidate was honest. Instead, the ad would tell the story of a sacrifice he or she had made by being honest.
White also said he was influenced more by art and film than television, which he claimed he didn’t watch.
“Most ad agencies start with a visual and then write scripts to them. We write scripts and then go into the edit suites — having no idea what we’re going to do,” White said about his creative process in the recent podcast interview. “If you go into an edit suite with a storyboard … there’s not going to be any accidents, there’s not going to be any, ‘oh my God, let’s try this,’ because you’re slavishly following a storyboard.”
Andi Johnson, now a partner and ad maker at New York-based GPS Impact, started out as White’s producer in 1986. She routinely stuck with her boss through editing sessions that would go until 3 a.m. When they’d leave the studio at the corner of W. 42nd Street and 10th Avenue in New York, they’d run into crowds spilling out from the bars. “It felt a little rock and rock. It was very fun.”
Johnson remembers White routinely using a 40-frame fade to black at 28:10 in his 30-second ads. Editors would tell him, he’d actually have 50 frames left, but White liked to give the viewer a chance to breathe. Kiss black, he called it.
“It’s sort of like a double space [after] the period — so that no one could clip your ad,” Johnson said. “That was his bible. He was sticking with it.”
Another practitioner who saw White’s process up close is Ben Nuckels, who was an SVP at Joe Slade White & Company before co-founding Strother Nuckels Strategies.
Nuckels said White was always looking to “break the code” of a campaign.
“He believed every election has a unique dynamic that must be unlocked or ‘broken,’” Nuckels said. “And, more so than anyone else, Joe was at his best when taking a candidate’s greatest weakness and turning it into a strength. Conversely, if you were on the other side of him, you’d better be prepared to have your greatest strength tuned into a weakness.”
Republican media consultant Tom Edmonds found himself on the opposite side of an ad duel with White back when Montana had its two-member House delegation cut in half in 1992.
“I had the Republican [Ron Marlenee], he had the Democrat — the two sitting congressman were competing for one seat,” Edmonds said. “He’s trying to win over the conservatives and the farmers in the east for Pat Williams, and I’m trying to find a way to relate to the western part of the state who are a little bit more sophisticated and contemporary.
“For the size of the campaign, the number of commercials we did was incredible. It was constantly changing. I would go to bed in the evenings, thinking I may have a gotten a little bit of air for our side, and would wake up and find it had slipped the other way.”
White, he said, was like a chess player who thought three moves ahead. “He was tough, and very competitive. But he always had a good nature about him. You never had a personal feeling that you were disliked competition. He was always good natured.”
One of the consultants who knew White best is Rick Ridder, who was the outgoing mail copy boy at the ’72 McGovern presidential headquarters in New Hampshire when he first crossed paths with White, who was volunteering ahead of the Granite State’s primary.
But it wasn’t until more than a decade later that they officially worked together on Edythe “Edie” Harrison’s Senate campaign in Virginia in 1984. “Harrison has the record for the worst Democratic defeat in Virginia since Reconstruction — that’s how we met,” said Ridder. “I was the manager, he was the media consultant, and I think we got 27 parent. That’s how the bond was formed.”
Ridder would go on to overlap with White on several high-profile races, perhaps the most memorable being Campbell’s 1986 House campaign. “He did unbelievable and we took out a sitting incumbent. One of four that year, and then we won the U.S. Senate race in 1992.”
Ridder often used White’s techniques as a benchmark for weighing whether to hire a media consultant for his campaigns. “He had, really, a theory of communication. When I talk to media consultants, I ask them, ‘What’s your theory of communication? They don’t have an answer. ‘I make really good TV spots.’ That’s not a theory.”
Later in his career, White became known as Biden’s media consultant because of his work on the president’s latter two White House runs. Still, at that point in his career White was gravitating more to corporate or issue work. Ridder’s theory: he didn’t like the modern campaign practice of getting notes from varied sources.
‘He’d been there, he’d seen it, and he’d get very frustrated,” said Ridder. “Joe at times was a little eccentric, like all great geniuses. He began to look for different things.
“The stuff he did with T. Boone Pickens, AT&T and the like, was because he felt like he could have real input and it was less the candidate or the manager or the spouse saying, ‘I don’t like that.’”
On candidate campaigns, Ridder said, “he would know what he wanted to do strategically and his suggestions would often not fit that strategic goal.”
Part of White’s frustration with varied notes may have come from the way he worked, parts of which remained unchanged by technology. Johnson, his longtime producer, and others recalled how White would use a legal pad to script, and keep a strict word count. White himself said he tried to keep scripts under 76 words out of respect for the audience. Otherwise, he said, “the audience will hate you and they won’t even know why.”
Still, Michigan-based consultant Jill Alper believes White’s “responsive chord” approach to advertising will live on “in the work of the scores of operatives and consultants he so generously mentored over the years.”
She added: “In some measure, we have stem cell research in Michigan, because of Joe. And in some measure, the promise of President Biden’s leadership was lifted up by Joe’s powerful imagery and storytelling. Campaign by campaign by campaign, theses victories that Joe contributed to, will live on forever.”
While practitioners on the right called White a “secret weapon” of the Democrats, he credited hard work for his victories, which were tallied at 75 percent of the some 400 campaigns he worked domestically and abroad.
“I was winning races not because I was super brilliant, [but] because we were just relentless about the need to win,” he said on the podcast shortly before his death.