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Over time, Davis found that while he loved being creative, he hated managing a large company, so instead of building a big firm, he took another route, trading the Ozarks for the Hollywood Hills, where, he says, the "really talented crews and people" all live. His firm, Strategic Perception Inc., doesn't work like other firms and has only seven full-time employees. "We never present three or four ideas, and you pick one. We present one," he says. "You have to accept that maybe the way everything has been done before is not always the best way. And you have to accept that we have never done the same campaign twice in 40 years."
The boy who had grown up staging neighborhood plays fell quickly for California's glitz and glamour, where he didn't have to wear a tie and his office address could be Mulholland Highway. He's hired Lauren Bacall, James Earl Jones and Orson Welles to do voice-overs for him, and he once knocked on Jimmy Stewart's front door to try to get him to do a corporate video. (Stewart's wife answered the door, but the answer was still no.) The Hollywood perch also allows Davis some distance from the cautionary ethos of Washington, which he still eyes warily. "There is a culture of sameness that does not allow for leaders to evolve," says Davis, who identifies himself as more fiscally than socially conservative. For a hobby, he is learning to fly a helicopter.
On this day, he is doing final edits on a spot for the Republican Governors Association. It's an economic attack on Neil Abercrombie, the Democratic candidate for Hawaii's governorship, that would be conventional if not for all the soothing music and the shot of a sunset and rolling Hawaiian surf Davis has added. The effect is jarring, like getting a Swedish massage while someone butchers a cow nearby. "People in Hawaii don't like nasty, negative politics," Davis explains. "They like calm, peaceful and reasonable analysis. So we sent a team over there, and they shot for three or four days every sunrise, every sunset and every wave they could find."
Before the Internet turned politics into an on-demand arcade, Davis tried to turn VHS tapes into viral media. In 2002, he filmed a 10-minute movie for Georgia gubernatorial candidate Sonny Perdue that depicted the sitting governor, Roy Barnes, as a giant rat with a gold chain stomping like Godzilla through downtown Atlanta. Davis screened the movie at a local theater and then sent VHS tapes in the mail to voters. When Barnes' allies denounced the attack, it became a viral hit. In addition to those who received it in the mail, thousands attempted to download the video on dial-up Internet connections, overloading the campaign's servers.
Sometimes the desire to break the box seems to take Davis too far. He will reluctantly admit today that he overdid one campaign he created for former Representative Bob Barr's ill-fated 2002 re-election campaign. "Barr is just gooder," ran the copy Davis wrote, spoken by a good-ol'-boy Georgia farmer amid unsettling closeup shots of horses. "It was a disaster," Davis admits now.
Others have criticized some of his more recent work as doing as much harm as good. Why, for example, did Davis decide to have O'Donnell deny her pagan past she admitted in a 1999 TV segment to having "dabbled into witchcraft" in her first campaign video? "When your client is the featured joke on the opening of Saturday Night Live, and every Friday night the country breathlessly awaits what new scandalous old tape Bill Maher will show about her, you have to draw a line in the sand," Davis says. "Say, 'From this moment forward, this race is about things that are important.'"
A recent spot he produced for John McCain showed the Senator walking the U.S.-Mexico border, announcing to a local sheriff that he wanted to "complete the danged fence," a dramatic reversal of McCain's earlier position that the barrier was a distraction. Then, to highlight his point, Davis cut in a closeup of McCain's rigid jaw. "You are selling tough," Davis explains. Bill Hillsman, a Democratic adman who makes similarly memorable spots, says Davis is one of the few in the business who really understand the value of surprise. "Fred and I would agree foursquare that it is still all about content and getting the attention of the audience," Hillsman says.
Davis oversaw all the convention videos for the GOP in 2008; when Sarah Palin asked him if her "brand" meant she should wear her hair up or down, Davis insisted on the former. The challenge of getting voters' attention in the next cycle worries Davis a bit, given the current crop of potential Republican presidential candidates for 2012. What exactly, he asks, would distinguish Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels? "I have trouble figuring out where he or Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty stand out."
In the meantime, Davis has no trouble standing out as a Republican admaker in Hollywood, willing to do what he must to win. Shortly after the 2008 election, he appeared at a local panel discussion attended by stars of stage and screen. "I got booed before I even said a word," Davis remembers, having been announced as a key strategist for McCain's presidential bid. Afterward, Jason Alexander, the actor who played George Costanza on Seinfeld, approached Davis. "As nice as humanly possible," Davis recalls, "he looked at me and he goes, 'Honestly, how do you sleep at night?' " The answer, with elections around the corner, is that Davis isn't sleeping much these days. Which is just fine with him, because the nation is paying attention.