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Hico native is top ad man for presidential campaign

After a long and remarkable rise to the top of American advertising, Jim Ferguson was back home in Texas in 2011, running a boutique agency in Dallas and making weekend jaunts to his boyhood home, Hico, population 1,300. His brother and parents were there, and so was the six-man-football festival he helped create, as well as the memories of collecting eggs, working on a turkey farm and hanging out with friends at the Koffee Kup Family Restaurant.

But that summer, a man named Stuart Stevens came calling. A senior strategist for presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Stevens had a slightly less bucolic vision in mind for Ferguson. He wanted him to serve as creative director and chief image maker for the Republican's 2012 campaign.

"I threw three pairs of jeans and some T-shirts in a bag," Ferguson said in a recent telephone interview, "and I've been here for about a year."

That day, here was Romney's national headquarters in Boston, where Ferguson "cuts a conspicuous figure," according to a recent story in The Washington Post . Leading a "small group of self-described Mad Men," Ferguson is a burly Texan "with straggly white hair, a pack of Parliament cigarettes and several decidedly un-Romney-like tattoos: a cyclone on his ring finger (a reminder, after his divorce, never to marry again), a dollar sign on a wrist and the words 'to-do' on an ankle, so when he crosses his legs he can write on his ankle what he needs to do that day."

At the top of that list, is helping Romney pry the White House away from President Barack Obama, a challenge unlike any the 59-year-old has faced over a long and stellar career that includes creating iconic ads ("Beef: It's What's for Dinner," "Nothing But Net"), co-writing a screenplay ( Little Giants) and heading up the nation's largest advertising agency.

Ferguson spends every waking hour these days waging an advertising war in a campaign that grows more volatile by the hour. He estimates that he has finished more than 70 spots, ranging from attacks on Obama to sepia-toned, flag-draped tributes to his boss. A typical day begins at 8 and stretches late into the night, seven days a week in Boston or Ohio or the swing state du jour. His team has three editors and is ready to respond to any new twist. "Things change by the hour," Ferguson said.

With three more debates, beginning with today's vice presidential contest, there is still a lot of work to be done. But Ferguson said Romney's performance last week in Denver in the first debate "made our job a lot easier."

"We go over things," Ferguson said. "We'll look at the debate. But we have a strategy in place. Mainly we were looking for mistakes by our opponent, the president. It's not that he [Obama] said anything good. He didn't say anything bad, either. He just wasn't on top of his game. We know he's going to come back strong."

But for all the historic drama and challenges ahead, Ferguson said a big part of him remained in Texas. In the recent interview, the weariness, even homesickness, in his voice was palpable.

"I used to go back there every weekend to be with my brother and my dad," Ferguson said of Hico, a 90-minute drive southwest of Fort Worth. "We've got a little place out there that we've managed to make very comfortable and I'd go back there a lot. I've been here alone for a year. I'm 59 years old. These hours are long and hard. The night after the debate the adrenaline starts to pump again. We have four hard weeks in front of us, you know. Yeah, I'm ready to come home."

'We weren't liberals'

Given the focus on the battleground states, few people in Hico, or Texas for that matter, have seen any of Ferguson's recent creations, and back home he hasn't flaunted his current gig. In fact, Lynn Allen, longtime owner of the Koffee Kup, said he wasn't aware of Ferguson's ties to Romney until a reporter mentioned it last week.

"Usually we get the gossip around our coffee table," Allen said. "I'm surprised that no one has mentioned anything about it. I knew he was in public relations and had done some very good things."

Allen said Ferguson was better known locally for helping his brother, Hico resident Mike Ferguson, create an annual six-man-football festival and for getting a few Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders to show up for the occasion.

"I don't know what brought in more fans -- the six-man teams or the cheerleaders," Allen said. "That's Jim for you."

Ferguson says the town was responsible for his political leanings, "the conservative roots that are part of me."

"I mean we went to church on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings," he said. "It was just a good solid upbringing. We weren't liberals down there. I didn't know what a liberal was until I got out of college. I had never met one."

Ferguson's Hico seems lifted directly from a Norman Rockwell painting -- going to Friday night football games (he and his brother, a year older, both played), swimming in the river, hanging out with friends at the Koffee Kup.

Ferguson said his father instilled a strong work ethic in him, leading from one menial job in Hico to the next.

But early on, Ferguson's long-term ambitions involved something more creative.

"He always had a very vivid imagination as far as storytelling went," Mike Ferguson said.

"I used to read ads as a kid and I liked them," Jim Ferguson said. "I can't say why. I mean, my dad wasn't in advertising. I just thought, 'You know, I can do that.'"

He graduated from Texas Tech with an advertising degree, spent a few years as a sportswriter in Lubbock, then submitted his pencil sketches and ideas to a creative director in Dallas, who promptly hired him. Ferguson would eventually move to a major firm in Chicago and become president of Young and Rubicam in New York, the nation's largest agency. He would produce some of TV's most memorable campaigns, such as "Beef: It's What's for Dinner" and "Nothing But Net," a Super Bowl commercial for McDonald's featuring Michael Jordan and Larry Bird.

Another Super Bowl spot for McDonald's, about peewee football, inspired a phone call from director Steven Spielberg.

"If you can do that in 90 seconds, I'd like to see what you could do in 90 minutes," Spielberg said.

The result was the 1994 movie Little Giants, which Ferguson co-wrote.

Getting political again

But for all his success selling products, selling candidates never really crossed Ferguson's mind, at least until a visit to New York from three key advisers to George W. Bush. For the 2000 presidential campaign, Karl Rove, Mark McKinnon and Stuart Stevens said they were hoping to form a creative group similar to President Ronald Reagan's so-called Tuesday Team, a group of Madison Avenue types who worked for his campaign.

"They approached me with it and asked if I could put together a few high-profile creative guys in New York City," Ferguson said. "I didn't realize it at the time, but I thought everybody in New York was conservative. It wasn't very easy to find creative guys in New York who were conservative. But I stitched together a good group of guys. I got a taste of politics and I liked it."

That could have been the extent of it. Ferguson was in Dallas at his small firm called Fire in the Hole, or back and forth from Hico. But Stevens called last summer, and before long Ferguson was back into the political fray.

Ferguson "is one of the great characters in the business. Big spirit, big creative, big boy. And a ton of Texas attitude," said McKinnon, a media consultant and senior campaign strategist for Bush. "And he's been a key player on the Romney ad team."

In the last year, Ferguson has sat in on about 20 meetings with the candidate, and he says: "If I didn't believe in Mitt Romney, I wouldn't be here right now. I'm not going to say, 'I'm a Republican and I'm going to support whoever you've got.' I'm a Republican and I've been lucky that I've got to work for two who I consider to be great men, George Bush and Mitt Romney.

"[Romney] is a kind man, a friendly man," Ferguson said. "When I see this stuff about RoboMitt. ... Is he your best friend? Probably not, but I've got a best friend. I need a great president."

Ferguson said the stakes can seem daunting at times. "The magnitude of what we do and how it's viewed under a microscope, it's pretty overwhelming," he said.

And if Romney wins? Will Ferguson go with him to the White House?

"First of all, I haven't been invited," he said. "Second, I doubt it. What I really enjoy is marketing, working on retail advertising."

And he wants to come back to Hico.

He wants to come home.

Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544

Twitter: @tsmadigan