For those of you not well versed in the machinations of Hollywood, you may have missed that on Tuesday, dozens of giant posters popped up in LA that spelled out "CAAN'T", appropriating the logo for Creative Artists Agency (CAA). Within less than three hours of the prank hitting the Hollywood trades, CAA's chief rival, William Morris Endeavor (WME) sheepishly admitted to orchestrating the whole thing, and cancelled a planned "Phase 2" of the campaign. Amazingly, CAA has garnered widespread sympathy in a city that universally despises CAA and its Number One perch in the Hollywood pecking order. It was a negative campaign that backfired. But here's what WME should have done:
- Ask Your Brother
WME chief Ari Emanuel, who's been fingered as the mastermind behind the failed campaign, is uniquely positioned to ask one of the sharpest political minds in the country for help. If anyone in America knows how to run a successful negative campaign, it's Chicago Mayor (and former Obama chief of staff) Rahm Emanuel. More subtly, with just a phone call, he could have recruited the top political consultants in D.C. to help his brother, and they would have been happy to do it. It's axiomatic that people in Washington will bend over backwards for their better-looking brethren in Hollywood.
Posters. Seriously? Doesn't WME have any cutting-edge directors or actors who could whip up some cool viral videos? But forgetting about the medium for a moment, WME has no shortage of politically savvy clients. Among them is MSNBC host, former The West Wing producer and Clinton adviser Lawrence O'Donnell, not to mention The West Wing's own Aaron Sorkin, both of whom are Ari's personal clients.
Most relevant (to me, anyway), WME should have asked their clients Eitan Gorlin and myself for help. In 2009, we co-authored the definitive guide to negative campaigning in the critically-acclaimed satirical novel I Am Martin Eisenstadt: One Man's (Wildly Successful) Adventures with the Last Republicans for Farrar, Straus, Giroux -- a deal negotiated by WME's top book agent at the time. Our main character, pundit and political consultant Martin Eisenstadt, was schooled in negative campaigning from an early age, involved with everything from Nixon's dirty tricks, to the Willie Horton ad campaign, to the Swift Boat ads, to a popular series of negative Giuliani ads that in reality, we ourselves had produced. Remember Sarah Palin not knowing Africa was a continent? That was Marty Eisenstadt.
Both Ari and Rahm Emanuel are even mentioned in the book as characters. Like most people in Hollywood, we have no great love for CAA. Trust me, Ari, we would have cut you a deal on our consulting fee, and still given you ten percent of what you paid us.
How did word leak that WME was behind the campaign? Because one of their own agents admitted it to Nikki Finke at Deadline.com. Now, Nikki's a notoriously aggressive interviewer who wields her own brand of power in Hollywood, but she didn't exactly waterboard the agent, either. No agents have complete loyalty to their bosses, and they all have their own agendas. Ari should have known this better than most.
Finke also figured out that WME was the only agency that didn't categorically deny their involvement with the prank. Lying to the press about a silly ad campaign is not exactly breaking the law. So, if anyone asks, follow Nancy Reagan's advice and just say no. Waffling is for amateurs.
When we did our negative Giuliani campaign, we made sure the consulting company that had done the Swift Boat ads against John Kerry took the blame. The more they denied their involvement, the more people assumed that they really were behind it. Conversely, in a move strikingly reminiscent of WME's blunder, when Mitt Romney's campaign operatives set up the "PhoneyFred.com" website to attack Fred Thompson during the 2008 primaries, it was uncovered within a day. The episode tarnished Romney's squeaky-clean reputation, and arguably cost him the presidency twice.
We always suspected that Giuliani's operatives set up the PhoneyFred site as a ruse to blame Romney: The smart play is always to damage two rivals at once. For WME, that would have been as simple as securing the CAANT.com website under the name of a United Talent Agency employee (UTA being the No. 3 player in town). Probably not a senior agent -- that would have been too obvious. Better to pin it on an up-and-coming assistant who brags about her new Hollywood job on the Brown University alumni Facebook group.
Then if savvy journalists had done a search to see who registered the domain site, instead of seeing an anonymous GoDaddy registration (as WME set up), they would have followed breadcrumbs to WME's second rival, UTA. Naturally, UTA would deny the allegations, thus making them seem even more guilty. As for the poor patsy assistant at UTA? If she were smart, she'd take credit for the whole scheme and jump ship to CAA to be hired as a junior agent. Not too shabby for a Brown grad!
Ideally, WME, you should have created a tasteless negative campaign against yourselves and then blamed CAA for it. Why give their logo more brand identity, when you could have had posters with your own logo saying something like "screW ME" or "bloW ME"? Create a paper trail back to CAA, claim victimhood, bask in sympathy.
One reason the CAAN'T campaign backfired is because nobody knows who to root for when one bully beats up another bully. But if the campaign had been traced back to some cool, underdog management company or boutique agency with a legitimate beef with CAA, then Hollywood would have rallied around them in a heartbeat, no matter how fast they were exposed. WME should have partnered with a shill company (in exchange, say, for equity in the smaller firm), and then stayed out of the limelight, while quietly siphoning off CAA clients for years to come.
So to my dear friends at WME, I'm truly sorry I've been busy getting ready for the release of my new film (Between Us, starring Julia Stiles and Taye Diggs, which comes out June 21). To paraphrase the negative ads about former Rep. Harold Ford, Ari next time you're thinking of doing a stunt like this, "call me" (wink)!
(Note: a version of this article also appeared in The Wrap.)