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."