In memory of Ben Goddard

A handwritten note from Ben that I kept from my first year as an intern

A handwritten note from Ben that I kept from my first year as an intern

You never know the many paths your life can take. And you only sometimes know when a choice will change your life forever. For me, meeting and working for Ben Goddard is the choice – that choice – that has defined the last fifteen years of my life and my entire career in public affairs.

I never knew that issue advocacy advertising existed growing up in the Midwest. And why would I? Making advertising to influence public opinion on policy is a relatively new field. And it’s definitely a Washington, D.C. anomaly.

In 2004, studying for my master’s degree in public policy, I began hearing about a little couple named Harry and Louise. In textbook after textbook, the 1993-94 “Harry and Louise” television campaign was credited with having an outsized impact on the Hillarycare debate. It was also the first time a trade association had spent paid advertising dollars to speak to the public about an issue being debated in Congress. This is how the genre of issue advocacy advertising was born.

In my mind, something clicked. This is what I want to do. The truth is that I was a year into my graduate study with no idea what I wanted to do next. I just knew that I wanted to work in policy but not politics. I was predisposed to doing something analytical (I used to be a math teacher and I was the teaching assistant for Advanced Macroeconomics.) But a side of me has always wanted to do something creative. Not being an artist myself, I wasn’t sure how that was going to work out exactly. Issue advertising was the marriage of the two – the right and left brain as Ben would refer to the art and science of it all.

I looked up Ben’s firm online, saw that he had just re-opened a shop in DC, and wrote him an email. At the age of 28, I asked to be an intern. I told him I was struck by the Harry and Louise case study. I wanted to learn the rest of the business from the best. He agreed.

As others would tell the story later, Ben received lots of letters and many requests for jobs. He rarely, if ever, responded. But for some reason, he picked out mine and said, “Let’s give her a shot.” I will never really know why but I have to believe it was my Harry and Louise fandom.

Some of you may remember Louise’s famous sigh. “There’s got to be a better way,” she breathed at the end of the commercial called, “Yes, But.” What you may not know is that this was only one in a series of fourteen commercials. The media buy, then a whopping $14 million, bought enough points to be seen by roughly 20 percent of the public. Yet nearly 80 percent claims to have seen the commercial on air. That is because news outlets, in a pre-social media time, gave it free airtime almost continuously.

Hillary Clinton herself famously mocked the commercials, and was caught on camera in a speech, lambasting Louise, “You’ve all heard that woman.” Hillary and Bill Clinton went as far as to perform a skit mocking the commercials. Harry and Louise became public policy pop culture icons, “Harry and Louise’d” became a verb on K Street, and the commercial ended up in the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

Because of the way I came to the firm, Ben let me act as the “defacto” watchdog of the Harry and Louise brand. I went with him to college lectures. I carefully tended to first the plastic sleeves of transparencies and then the PowerPoint slides we used to give the history lesson. When organization after organization came to the firm asking to use the characters Harry and Louise in their own revival, we said no. Until 2009, when Ben made two new commercials during the 2009-10 Obamacare debate, “Harry and Louise Returns.”

As I stood in the background of the shot as Ben directed the 2009 commercials, I couldn’t help but think – my life has come full circle. I was so proud to be there, watching Ben work his magic. He is the most talented creative director and campaign strategist I have ever met. I know dozens of us who feel we learned everything we ever needed to succeed in our respective careers from him and still carry on his legacy in the work we do today.

As an intern, I was sitting in a cubicle outside of Ben’s office when he was interviewed by Jeffrey H. Birbaum for this 2004 Washington Post piece that dubbed him, “the godfather of TV lobbying.” I answered the phones and ordered office supplies in between classes, while attending meetings, editing memos, and trying to absorb as much as I could. A lovely lady named Louise would call several times a day for Ben; she was his wife. It wasn’t until she walked into the office three months after I started that I realized Ben’s wife Louise was the same Louise from the commercials. They had met on set and fell in love. Apparently, Ben had been choosing between casting Louise and a red-head, but decided a red-head wasn’t as relatable as an everyday suburban housewife.

“You should have married the red-head!” was a common exclaim I heard lovingly hurled at Ben many times over the years. I may have learned about running a public affairs firm from Ben, but I also learned about love. His and Louise’s love for each other was like none I had ever seen. With this, I dedicate this memory to Louise. Ben passed away but he will never be forgotten.

I kept the note he wrote to me with the end of year bonus my first year. I hadn’t thought that I would earn a bonus being the intern. But I did. I knew then that this place, this career, was meant to be. I framed the note, knowing that it would mean so much to me over the years. It did and does.

With love, your forever intern,


You can watch an archive of the Harry and Louise commercials here

Sue Zoldak