In his first job in politics, Joe Slade White logged more miles with George McGovern than anyone else on the South Dakota Senator’s 1972 presidential campaign.
The Iowa native had barely stepped off Georgetown University’s campus before he was trekking across the country with McGovern, tape-recording his speeches and news conferences for electronic press releases sent to radio stations for broadcast in primary states, a new idea at the time.
Forty years later, White lives in a modern glass-walled house on 28 acres of land outside Buffalo, N.Y. He runs his own media-consulting firm out of a virtual office with a dozen staff members and can edit his ads from his living room.
The one-time Vietnam War protester has been Vice President Joseph Biden’s media consultant since 1995 and was responsible for Republican T. Boone Pickens’ television ads in 2008 promoting energy independence.
“One of the things that people don’t realize about the Pickens Plan advertisements is that not one of them was ever aired on broadcast television stations,” White said. “They wouldn’t have fired me if I’d said I need a few more million dollars to go on NBC, CBS and ABC. But we saved them money by not doing that.”
White prides himself on his unusual strategy, dubbing it the “Moneyball” approach to media consulting.
“It really is about wins,” White said. “And it is about getting people on base, finding the target audience, really doing your research. And once you figure that out, my job is to see how I can do it spending the least amount of money the most effective way.”
He hails from the school of electronic recording guru Tony Schwartz — White calls him “my Yoda” — and his ads aim to strike a “responsive chord” with viewers, a phrase he uttered several times over the course of an hourlong phone interview.
White credits Schwartz, who invented the portable tape recorder in 1945, with teaching him how to make a good radio ad. He transferred those tools to TV advertising with the rise of cable in the 1980s.
“He taught me a new way of thinking, and it was the responsive chord,” White said. “Research the audience, find out what’s important to them and then draw them into an ad. Make them respond to something.”
A look through White’s YouTube reel reveals that his ads have a distinct DNA with a focus on storytelling and captivating the audience during the first few seconds when it’s not yet clear that the ad is political.
When Biden was running for a fifth term as Senator in Delaware in 1996, his campaign decided to go in a new direction and hired White as a media consultant.
“What we were looking for was someone who did media that people would remember,” said former Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), a longtime Biden aide. “How do you cut through the clutter?”
Biden’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, who has managed each of Biden’s campaigns, watched reels sent in from 17 different firms but couldn’t get past the fifth one she saw — a two-minute biographical spot for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Colo.) that was produced by White.
“I thought, ‘Yeah, he’s going to be able to translate my brother emotionally on film,’” said Biden Owens, who calls herself “the demanding sister from hell” when it comes to Biden’s campaigns.
In late October 1996, with just more than a week to go, the team learned there would be a large independent expenditure ad against Biden on Philadelphia TV. Despite internal polling that showed Biden up 32 points, the campaign felt it needed to make one more media splash.
“So my brother and I called Slade White at midnight at my house — he’s on the living room phone, I’m on the kitchen phone,” Biden Owens said.
They told White they wanted an ad on Philly TV, a top-five media market, with 1,500 gross ratings points. Biden Owens said they would have agreed to 2,000 points if White wanted. Instead, he told them he could do it for 750 points and would have a script to them by morning.
“After we talked for a length of time, we hung up, and my brother and I are meeting back in the hall,” Biden Owens said. “He looked at me and said, ‘If I didn’t trust that son of a gun so much I’d be absolutely positive he was sabotaging us.’”
The ad, which Biden Owens called the “Star Wars spot,” featured only Biden’s photo at the end, and instead of narration, White used moving text set to dramatic music.
Biden went on to win with 60 percent of the vote, and a few years later, White hired Biden Owens to serve as executive vice president of his firm, a post she’s held for 12 years.
“You have 27 seconds in a 30-second commercial to get your point across, so every word has to count and every picture has to count,” Biden Owens said. “He takes all his information from facts, research and polling. His methodology is that you have to engage the voter or audience emotionally.”
White said he tends to work for “progressive” Democrats who are behind in money and polling, which was true last cycle of Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, who hired White in August 2010 and trailed in polls taken for the duration of the contest but ended up winning by less than a point.
“That campaign was fun because there was no way we were going to win. There was no possible way,” White said.
Other memorable clients include the late Speaker Tip O’Neill (Mass.); the late Rep. Peter Rodino (N.J.), who led the impeachment hearings of President Richard Nixon; former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who defeated then-House Minority Whip David Bonior in the Democrats’ 2002 gubernatorial primary; Wesley Clark’s 2004 presidential campaign; and the late Rep. Mo Udall (Ariz.), one of White’s first clients.
After the 1972 McGovern campaign, White joined McGovern’s Senate press office. The 23-year-old then left his stable job to start his own media consulting firm.
“If I had been five or 10 years older I would have never done it,” White said. “But at 23 you think you can do anything, and I did it. That was the start of my firm, and it went from there.”
White said he’s compiled a winning percentage of higher than 75 percent for candidates running at all levels. He’s produced ads for corporate clients such as AT&T’s public affairs campaign, and he also produces noncandidate-based ads for issues including stem-cell research and the Pickens Plan for energy independence.
Tom Synhorst of the DCI Group, who chose White to produce the campaign’s ads, was nervous when he first introduced White to Pickens. At a dinner with more than a dozen others, Pickens asked White if he had begun thinking about the first TV ad. White closed his eyes and described the ad — with burning oil fields and smoke — that would eventually kick off the campaign. White began reciting the script he had written from memory, and Pickens immediately seemed to like it.
“I’ve been doing this for 30 years now,” Synhorst said. “I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gotten an ad and thought, ‘This is it.’ Of the four I can remember, two of them are his.”