mark putnam democrats political ads orig_00001817.jpg
He's made some of the most viral political ads
03:12 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Mark Putnam wanted the fighter jet.

It was July 2017 and the Democratic ad maker was tasked with introducing voters to Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who was set to announce her campaign for Congress in Kentucky. Putnam knew the arresting visual of a fighter jet would underscore her military service.

There was just one problem: The Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame, which owns the jet Putnam hoped to use, had some concerns. They said it would cost thousands of dollars and require a team of volunteers to move it. When Putnam wouldn’t be swayed, however, they relented and gave Putnam’s team a few hours to shoot the jet with McGrath in the foreground.

“Just getting that fighter jet into that position was a four-day ordeal,” Putnam said, as he rewatched the ad recently from his firm’s offices in downtown Washington, DC. “Without that jet, this ad would be entirely different. It really creates the drama.”

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    Putnam knows a thing or two about creating drama in political advertising, having established himself over three decades in Washington as an essential ad maker for Democratic upstarts and incumbents alike.

    This election year, it is as challenging as ever to cut through the noise, but Putnam’s ads have done it again and again.

    How does he do it? A successful political ad, he says, “can’t look like a political commercial. It has to be compelling. You’re just hoping you can break through that den of noise and do something special, that is special for your candidate and that is special for that viewer, that they’ll want to pay attention to.”

    With McGrath, Putnam knew he had a story that could resonate. The finished spot, “Told Me,” ran two minutes and featured McGrath, clad in a leather jacket, recounting her fight to be able to serve in combat, including letters she wrote as a young teenager appealing to her representatives in Congress.

    The ad struck a nerve, racking up more than 1.8 million views on YouTube and launching McGrath to national attention. In one month, the campaign raised more than $1 million; and in May, she won the Democratic nomination in her district without support from the national party. McGrath will now face off against Republican Rep. Andy Barr in the fall.

    Putnam “is without question one of the best admakers and storytellers from either party working today,” said Todd Harris, a partner at Something Else Strategies, who has worked in the same space as Putnam but on the opposite side, for Republican campaigns — producing memorable ads like “Squeal,” which helped launch Iowa Republican Joni Ernst’s successful 2014 US Senate bid.

    “I don’t know that he does anything different than everyone else, he’s just better at it than most everyone else,” Harris added. “I am always super bummed to find out that I am in a race against Mark Putnam.”

    McGrath’s viral moment was not a one-off phenomenon for Putnam. This summer, his firm dreamed up a long-form video for Texas Democrat MJ Hegar, who faced steep odds in a solidly Republican congressional district. “Doors,” shot in a continuous style that recalls the movie “Birdman,” rocketed to more than 2.6 million views on YouTube. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda called it “the best political ad anyone’s ever seen.”

    Although Putnam was not directly involved in conceptualizing that ad, which was produced by his colleague Cayce McCabe, it closely hewed to Putnam’s style of creative spots that have rewritten the script on overly cautious, stale political messaging.

    “If it hadn’t taken off, the candidate would have been left with the world’s most expensive web video,” said Harris. But Putnam “clearly had enough confidence in the concept to convince the people who had to pay for it, and it turns out he was right.”

    Although Putnam majored in molecular biology at Brown University, he describes a lifelong interest in political advertising that began as a child in Anchorage, Alaska, when he watched one memorably “ridiculous” commercial in which a candidate gave children balloons.

    In Washington, Putnam got his start under the renowned Democratic media consultant Bob Squier, a transformational admaker in his time who helped establish the value of storytelling and capturing a candidate’s personality in political advertising.

    “Putting out the same candidate biography pablum, that’s not going to do it,” said Mark Longabaugh, another Squier alum who is now a partner at Devine Mulvey Longabaugh, the firm behind the iconic “America” ad for Bernie Sanders. “It’s got to be a good story.”

    For Putnam, the admaking process begins by embedding himself with a candidate — meeting their family and friends and learning as much as he can about them. During a long drive across Missouri with Democrat Jason Kander, who challenged Sen. Roy Blunt in 2016, Putnam learned about Kander’s military background and hatched an idea for an ad that would come to define the race, in which Kander would assemble a rifle blindfolded.

    “His first response was, “Well, never done that before, but we used to have to assemble it in a dark tent at night, so maybe I could do it,’” Putnam said. “Then I would get iPhone videos of him practicing in his living room, and then ultimately standing at his kitchen counter, with a blindfold on, assembling the rifle.”

    It was hardly the quirkiest thing Putnam has asked of his candidates. For one ad in his 2010 governor’s race, John Hickenlooper hopped in a shower fully clothed — and the hot water ran out halfway through filming. When Bill Richardson ran for president, Putnam persuaded him to dress up like a sheriff in an old Western film. For a 2012 ad, Sen. Ben Cardin loaded luggage onto a Southwest Airlines plane.

    Putnam also has a penchant for going big, whether with a fighter jet or, in the case of a 30-minute ad he produced for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, a dramatic live ending at a rally.

    In this election cycle, Putnam has made the judgment that ads invoking President Trump aren’t the answer. Instead, he’s focused on his own candidates’ stories, including a historic crop of women candidates, like McGrath and Hegar.

    “You’re having this entire group of women who served in these wars are now retiring from the military, are suddenly available for other public service,” said Putnam. “I think that that’s an element that’s new this time around, but ultimately, the storytelling is the same. We’ve got to figure out who the person is and tell their story.”