American Jerry Cronin has won eleven Emmys for original ad campaigns but he never encountered anything like the recent Irish presidential race when he became a top advisor to candidate Peter Casey. Here is his story.
You never know what the next job will be.
Cell phones. Mutual funds. A domestic beer. A supermarket chain. An ESPN project. Condos starting at $1.4 million. A “midsize” bank. A golf course that needs 500 members before construction can commence. Ford trucks. Or maybe another technology company that will require three or four weeks to understand what they actually do, if they stay in business that long.
When working in advertising, you never know what you’ll work on next. Or for how long.
It was a late night phone call from a headhunter:
“Hey, you want to work on a presidential campaign?”
The initial thought that seeped through my foggy brain was that the presidential election is two years away, so maybe I can collect a nice paycheck for a couple of years. I am definitely up for that, absolutely.
Having worked on three presidential campaigns I know this: no matter how hard or lazily I work, it won’t make a difference. No difference whatsoever. Way too many people will be involved, the campaign will be crippled with self-doubt and second-guessing, and the only time I’ll see the overwhelmed candidate is when I turn on the news.
Act enthusiastic, I tell myself, and I say: “I’d love to work on it.”
“Good to hear, because the election is three weeks away.”
The phone call had woken me from a good snore on the couch, but I didn’t think I had been asleep for two years. Had I, Rod Serling?
“Three weeks away?”
“Yeah, pack your bags and get over to Dublin ASAP.”
“Yeah, and not the Ohio one. First, tell me all that you know about Irish politics.”
“Aaaahhhh? Does someone wear a crown? And the one with the most votes usually wins?”
“Brilliant” and “grand”, I will soon learn, are the two most overused words in Ireland. Actually, they are the four most overused words, because, with the right sarcastic inflection, both words can be used to mean the exact opposite too.
Before booking my flight, I’m told that the candidate is Peter Casey; he’s a successful businessman and a celebrity - he was a regular on the Irish version of Shark Tank called The Dragon’s Den. In fact, I find out that two of his fellow “Dragons” are also running for president: Sean Gallagher and Gavin Duffy.
“So,” I ask, “how are his chances?”
“What are they saying?”
“He’ll come in sixth.”
“And how many candidates?”
“And how many votes are they predicting?”
“But everyone thinks it’ll be less.”
“And who is the campaign manager?”
“He just quit.”
“Might have something to do with the last place prediction, and 1% of the votes.”
A couple weeks later I would have responded with “brilliant,” the sarcastic version.
So we agree on a fee, which basically consists of flights, a room at the Clayton Hotel, and all the Guinness and shepherd’s pie I can order. Years ago I attended a funeral at a Greek Orthodox Church and the priest announced: “One’s life can be measured in how many good memories they amassed.” Admittedly, you shouldn’t seek life lessons from funerals, especially one as tragic as that funeral, but that concept always stuck with me, and I had to believe a presidential campaign, in Ireland, with a last-place candidate, and the world’s freshest Guinness at every pub, could result in some decent memories, so I accepted the job.
The next day I depart for Ireland.
I land in Dublin at 7 a.m. I retrieve my luggage and head for a cab. With every ounce of moisture sucked out of me in the six-hour flight, I notice the airport bar is open, and the bar is packed. Actually, there is one person at the bar, but it is “packed” by the usual 7 a.m. standards. Besides, it is “last call” back home.
Approaching the lounge, I hear my name called; it sounds like someone else’s name, because of the accent.
It’s a “Derry accent” I will discover, but even after three weeks in Ireland all the regional accents sound similar to my untrained ears.
“Jerry,” someone shouts again.
It’s the candidate, Peter Casey.
He has come to the airport to give me a ride. In the United States the candidates never know your name, but in Ireland, they apparently wake up extra early to escort you to your hotel. I haven’t done all the research, but I believe Harry Truman and Rutherford B. Hayes never did this for anyone working on their campaigns.
Ireland, what a splendid country.
Why, I ask myself, did all my grandparents leave this place?
Oh, I remember - famine, poverty, pestilence, discrimination, a hatred for the English, and too many sausages at breakfast, but still, the people here are so nice, couldn’t my ancestors have put up with a little more famine, pestilence and the rest?
Peter says, it’s grand to see me, I hope your flight was okay, and do I want to stroll over to the “wee café” behind us for a sausage roll. Yes, it has just been confirmed, I am in a nation of sausage-addicts.
On the ride to the hotel, I glance at the speedometer. We are hurtling forward at 140 miles an hour; Peter is trying to outrace the morning traffic.
I quickly remember, as quickly as you can remember anything after a sleepless overseas flight, distances in Ireland are measured in kilometers and not miles. Doing a quick conversion, I believe we are traveling at 85-miles an hour through the congealing cars. (If Peter had been born in the American South, I am certain he would’ve been a NASCAR champion and not the founder of a global recruitment firm.)
I am considering suggesting Peter should slow down a bit because it’ll be very easy for someone to report him speeding. On the sides of his car, it says PETER CASEY for PRESIDENT in large block letters, and there is a prominent headshot of Peter on the driver and passenger doors. (Other candidates running for the president of Ireland will have buses with huge names and huge faces on them, and that pretty much sums up the Casey campaign. We will always try to find smarter, different, and more economical ways to stand out.)
Before we go to the hotel, Peter asks me to sit in on a training session. A media expert is instructing him how to respond to the press, and behave in front of a camera. I am asked to type up insights from the session, the things Peter should remember.
The expert talks to Peter and I transcribe what could be useful.
Back in the car, I ask Peter what he thought of the session. He has a one-word response: “Bollocks.”
“Bollocks,” I discover, might be the third most popular word in Ireland, right behind “grand” and “brilliant.” According to the Urban Dictionary, bollocks has numerous definitions, but the way Peter uses the term it means: “unfathomable rubbish.”
I ask Peter why the session was “bollocks” and he replies: “If I do what she advises, I’ll be just like the other wankers. When you’re in the last place, you must do things differently, don’t you?”
Despite being awake nearly an entire day and my brain operating at a low capacity, I realize I could be working with one of the most intuitive marketers I’ve worked for. Forget the CMOs from Stanford and the Harvard Business School, who have never possessed a unique thought, Peter Casey gets it. To stand out, he knows, you can’t blend in; to succeed, the dumbest thing is to do what everyone else is doing.
I realize this gig won’t pay well but thank God I accepted the challenge. This will be fun, and, like many in the advertising industry, I haven’t had “fun” in years.
Forget sleeping anytime soon, we’re going to O’Brien’s, just off Leeson Street in Dublin. The other members of the campaign are waiting there.
O’Brien’s is the type of pub that should be featured in every article on why Ireland is such an inviting country. O’Brien’s has stained glass windows, lots of dark wood, bartenders who will remember your name forever, and four taps serving fresh Guinness. One sip and I know I’ve just experienced exactly how a Guinness should taste. Yes, I’ve had decent pints in Boston, especially at the Erie Pub in Adams Village and J.J. Foley’s in the South End, but the Guinness at O’Brien’s is creamier, smoother, and way more wonderful Another thing, I have an immediate and unreasonable fondness for the pub; O’Brien was my grandfather’s surname, he emigrated from Cork in the 1920s.
I start talking with the folks from the campaign and they all inform me - if you want a “perfect Guinness,” visit a pub nearer the brewery. The closer the pub is to the Guinness Brewery, the fresher and better the stout. It’s an undeniable fact. I ask how far is O’Brien’s from the brewery and someone shakes his head regretfully and says, probably four miles away. Maybe a little less. And to think I’ve enjoyed Guinness shipped across the Atlantic, 4,800 miles away? What a clueless, uninformed ignoramus.
We, the members of the Casey Campaign, sit around a small round table and order lunch. I repeat: the members of a presidential campaign sit around a small round table.
In the United States, you’d need an airplane hangar or a Convention Center to accommodate everyone on a presidential campaign. And the tragic thing is, the more people working on the campaign, the less that gets done. Presidential campaigns in the states are grotesquely overstaffed, and additional people keep joining the campaign until Election Day. People are simply drawn to political races. It looks impressive on a resume, you are dealing with important issues, and if the candidate should win, you always think it’ll lead to something bigger and better. Usually, it leads to you working on another campaign, hoping that campaign will somehow, miraculously, lead to something bigger and better.
As we discuss the campaign’s next steps, I am amazed by this: we are talking. Just talking. We are not sharing the latest polls, the most recent data, and consumer trends, and the focus group reports that each and every campaign are dependent on. We are just talking about what we should do.
Peter Casey has an idea. He wants to be videotaped, whacking a golf ball into the Lough Foyle.
The candidate wants a video of him, driving a golf ball into the water, joining the North Atlantic to Derry?
More amazing, everyone thinks it’s a fine idea.
The next day we drive to Greencastle in County Donegal. Peter tees up a Callaway, he holds up his driver, and states, “When I am elected president, this is the only driver I’ll be taking with me to Europe.”
Then Peter smiles and whacks the ball 240-yards into the cold, deep water. I didn’t capture the ball entering the river, but Peter says: “Good enough.”
(A little backstory about the video: people were questioning why the current Irish president, Michael D. Higgins, took his personal driver to Europe with him as he wouldn’t be driving the plane.)
I expected the video to get upwards of six hits and that was if everyone in the campaign downloads it. Within 24-hours, the video has over 100,000 hits and the number keeps rising. People are sharing the video with friends, columnists are writing about it, reporters are discussing the video on the radio, and soon the pundits are making a bold prediction. They no longer say Peter Casey will get 1% of the votes, they now predict 2% of the votes! We’ve boosted Peter’s chances by 100%, from no chance at all to, well, no chance at all.
Soon the video starts receiving negative feedback. Not because we were dealing in rumors but because Peter drove the ball into the ocean and the environmentalists do not like it. In response, we post a photo of a ball “recovered” from the Lough Foyle, with seaweed on it for added credibility. Later, we tweet about auctioning off the ball and Peter matching the highest bid and all the proceeds going to a local environmental group.
Once something gets a response on social media, do whatever you can to keep the conversation going.
As our cheap little video is getting all this response, Michael D. Higgins releases a gorgeous two-minute film with dancers and businessmen and students and panoramic shots of Ireland and Dublin. The epic film, set to stirring music, was obviously shot by a gifted cinematographer, and lots of money was spent on the production values, and all anyone is talking about is our one-take video shot on an iPhone 5.
The presidential debates roll around. And Peter Casey shines by refusing to answer the questions with robotic, over-rehearsed sound bites. He sounds like an actual human being, and, from what we’re hearing, people are responding to him. Even when Peter strays off-message and talks about what a mess the Catholic Church is, and how parents want their college-age children to quickly and permanently leave home.
To create more “noise”, I decide to create more cheap videos.
We agree to a next-to-nothing budget and the strategy is to challenge the frontrunner, Michael D. Higgins, however possible. Learning that Michael D’s public appearances have declined 42% since taking office, we do a video about that. We use a photo of Michael D. that gets smaller and smaller until it disappears and the announcer ends the message with, “so if things continue at this rate, Ireland will find itself in a tough position. Regardless of how much yoga we do.” (Michael D. Higgins, age 78, had just told voters not to worry about his health because he does yoga, which most of Ireland finds hilarious.)
Another thing about Michael D. Huggins, he is a lifelong socialist. Despite being a socialist, we believe that he apparently appreciates the finer, more expensive things in life. According to what our campaign uncovered, he spends $11,300 (€10,000) annually getting his dogs groomed, he recently took a Learjet from Dublin to nearby Belfast, and he is trading in his government car for two brand new Seven Series BMWs, with a price tag of $268,000 (€236,000.)
Taxpayers are not fans of free-spending politicians, and even less fond of free-spending, socialist-leaning politicians. So we do videos about the Learjets; and needing two new luxury sedans when someone his size, five-foot-three, could fit comfortably in a two-door Toyota; and we do a video about his beloved and well-groomed pooches, Bród and Síoda.
We have fun with the dog video.
We surmise, being President of Ireland, you would expect Michael D Higgins to have an Irish Setter, an Irish Wolfhound, an Irish Water Spaniel or maybe a Kerry Beagle. But no, he has two Bernese Mountain Dogs (originally from the Swiss Alps) and more surprising, he spends €10,000 annually getting the dogs groomed. Which the taxpayers pay for, so it’s “not only the dogs that are getting fleeced.”
The newspapers, TV shows and everyone starts talking about the $250 video. But being a nation of kind people, most Irish voters are more offended that someone would make fun of a man’s dogs than the €10,000 haircut bill. Lesson learned; we talk about removing the video, but Peter says: “Why? People are talking about the campaign thanks to it. Besides, I think it’s funny.”
Right now Peter is still in the last place, but people are starting to stop him on the street to shake his hand, they honk at his car with the PETER CASEY for PRESIDENT emblazoned on the sides, and people keep calling Sharon Bannerton, the PR whiz, to see if they can interview Peter or get him to appear on their shows.
Momentum is building. Quickly and forcefully. Maybe Peter can slip into fourth place, we hope, or maybe even third place, which sounds so much more impressive when you reframe it as runner-up to the runner-up.
Then the thing happens that happens in every campaign. The thing that innocuously occurs and can either end the campaign or propel the candidate to the next level(s).
Peter is doing yet another radio interview, repeating what he has been saying for the past month or so, and 25-minutes into the interview the discussion turns to the homeless in Dublin. Like other major cities, people are having trouble finding affordable housing in Dublin, and more and more Irish are sleeping in the parks and doorways. But, unlike other countries, if you cannot afford a place, the Irish government can at times give you a place to live.
Anyway, Peter starts talking about five new homes they just built for $1,470,000 (€1,300,000) in Tipperary, and how he had heard that the people offered the houses refused them because they didn’t have stables and pastures for their horses. Being homeless and owning horses, you don’t often hear those two things together, do you? Turns out the people involved were from the traveling community.
Peter says he thinks those involved should have accepted the homes, and been grateful. Reasonable enough, huh? The radio host reminds Peter that Travellers are recognized as a special ethnic group in Ireland and does he think that is a good idea? Peter says, no, and a few other things. The main reason Peter doesn’t believe the Travellers should be designated a special ethnic group is that he argues, they are already too marginalized, and if they were just accepted as 100% Irish, which they are, things would be better for them.
For those based outside of Ireland, a little background information: travelers suffer chronic unemployment and discrimination with children likely to leave school at a young age, a suicide rate at six times the national average, and though they are only 0.6% of the population, they comprise 10% of the prison population for men and 20% for women.
They do not have it easy.
Well, Peter Casey unintentionally hit the hottest of hot buttons.
Everyone starts writing in and talking about what he said, and some are calling him a racist, and others are applauding Peter for acknowledging an issue that needed to be addressed and saying finally, a straight-talking candidate.
The Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, weighs in on the subject, too, and tells the people of Ireland not to vote for Peter Casey.
Peter diplomatically responds, and tells Leo to “shut your trap”.
The election is just over a week away now. And with all the heated talk, Peter steps away from the campaign to reconsider if he wants to stay in the race.
While he drives to his home in rural Ireland, Peter Casey is the #1 trending story in the Republic; the #2 trending subject is a very distant #2 behind the Casey controversy.
Peter is so upset about being called racist, he is seriously considering calling it quits; the attacks are too personal, too vicious, and if this is what politics are all about, he tells us, he doesn’t want anything to do with it.
But more and more people are demanding he stay in the race; they feel Peter is the only candidate willing to say something resembling the truth, and say what so many are thinking.
To encourage Peter to continue his campaign, the Irish Independent offers Peter a full page in their Sunday edition to tell the voters just how he feels.
We stay up all night, helping Peter find the right words to express his indignation at the bigot label and his vision for a stronger Ireland. The piece begins with: ”To read articles that say I am a racist, hurts.”#
Peter’s message is well received; he remains in the race.
With only five days before the election, Peter no longer has a 500-1 chance of winning. The bookies now place his odds at 100-1, then 50-1, then 33-1, then 16-1, and the day before the polls open, the odds drop to 10-1 and later to 7-1.
Oh, boy, we got ourselves a race.
Things are changing so quickly, we think maybe Peter has a chance to be the next President and live in the palace in Phoenix Park. Maybe he can use the new luxury sedans of Michael D. Higgins, and, with Peter’s unruly mane, maybe the pricey dog groomer can give him a trim.
Friday night, as the ballots are being processed, the campaign members walk to Grafton Street for pints and to learn how the vote-count is proceeding. With every additional Guinness, we feel more certain Peter is about to make history.
And, lo and behold, Peter Casey does make history.
Start tossing the confetti. The last place candidate, who was predicted to receive less than 1% of the vote … is the … runner-up, with 23% of the votes. He received more votes than the four candidates behind him combined. And since Peter received over 12.5% of the votes, the government will reimburse his campaign expenses.
In the morning papers, instead of Michael D. Higgins smiling on the front pages, there are photos of Peter. And the Sunday Times front-page headline reads: Higgins Keeps Crown But Casey Rocks Establishment.”
A week later, Peter Casey is given a 50-1 chance of being the next Taoiseach. Take that, Leo Varadkar. And someone hearing about the divisive Traveller controversy starts following Peter on Twitter: Donald J. Trump.
Even in Dublin, I can’t get away from Trump. A couple of Guinness will make that problem go away.
Who did you vote for in the Irish Presidential election? Let us know in the comments section, below.