For the 2008/2009 Year in Advertising Review (if there were such a thing), most of the pages would be filled with stories on Social Media Marketing, lay-offs, the automotive industry's effect on the ad industry, and the economy. With much of the hard news skewing negative, now is not the best time to face a scandal, albeit a small one.
Based on a story released in The St. Petersburg Times (Florida), as well as their website TampaBay.com, it is been reported that a scandal is nearing hurricane force in the Sunshine State. Worse yet, it's a political scandal. Finally, to top it all off, it involves a prominent Tampa Bay ad agency, a federal inquiry, and the FBI.
Buddy Johnson was the Hillsborough (County) Elections Supervisor. Reportedly, prior to re-election he hired Schifino Lee to launch a "Voter Education Campaign" to the tune of $40,000. In February of 2008, Mr. Johnson found out that he would be facing "tough competition" on what was purported to be an easy re-election. The Voter Education campaign, scheduled to end in March 2008, was extended.
Schifino Lee Advertising and Branding, founded in 1993, has a well-rounded client list: Jaguar, AT&T, Mobley, Seminole Hard Rock Casino, Gunn Allen Financial, The Reproductive Medicine Group, and WellCare Health Plans. Absent, however, is political experience; yet, it's often the best creative who wins, regardless of the competition's experience. In this case, the agency was awarded the account.
Buddy Johnson realized that he was in the fight of his political life; in February 2008, the former County Commissioner, Phyllis Busansky, filed to run for the same position and had surpassed Johnson in campaign contributions by March. Schifino Lee was retained to keep voter education at a premium. The campaign, paid for by county taxpayers, originally started to "educate voters" about an optical voting system that was idiot-proof. The debut of the system provided Johnson's office the excuse to hire Schifino Lee.
But getting Johnson's name and image in front of voters was a main goal from the outset, said the owner of a marketing firm who was hired by the elections office to conduct an outreach campaign for Hispanics.
The $40,000 educational campaign turned into a $640,000 re-election campaign, sixteen times the original amount, and ads began to focus on Buddy Johnson, rather than education. The campaign ran the media gamut, from campaign buttons and stickers to television spots and online ads. Few of the ads had anything to do with voter education. The agency claims they simply followed their client's requests and handed files over to investigators. The agency also provided copies to The St. Petersburg Times. While all information at this point is speculation, The Times mentions the following:
• Schifino Lee won the contract in a no-bid process
• Many of the ads were political in nature, but about Johnson
• Several pieces were identical (but charged individually)
• Some of the pieces were never used, and had little or no value
An article by Johnson that was ghost-written by the firm was never published. A two-page flier cost $1,854, but there is no indication it was ever used. Another flier told voters how to fill the oval on the ballot. "Completely," it advised, a tip that cost taxpayers $765.
The Federal investigation was launched to review various aspects of Mr. Johnson's management of the county's elections office, and there are estimates that he overspent by $2.35 million before losing the race.
Rather than heaping insult on top of injury, it's quiet possible that Buddy Johnson will receive insult on top of felony.
Please remember that all parties are presumed to be innocent until jailed.