The Strategist Who Tries to Make Netanyahu Cuddly
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he helps gruff leaders survive the get-a-beer test.
Nir Levy sits in front of a map in his home office, which he refers to as the “man cave”; it covers the entire wall, each continent shaded gray. The hue matches the 35-year-old’s prematurely peppered long-top mop. The Israeli political strategist laughs often, poking fun at his crisp blue shirt, hastily buttoned over a plain white tee that he hints is his regular uniform — a casual outfit more befitting the Silicon Valley coder canon than the cutthroat world of political kingmaking. Sure, riffing off expectations is his shtick. But there’s no ignoring the gravity of his position. Especially not in this seemingly casual office, actually situated in the bomb shelter that came equipped with his apartment in Tel Aviv. “In case of the missiles,” he explains — this is a standard feature in newer homes.
There are serious politicians (Vladimir Putin), goofy ones (think “Uncle” Joe Biden) and a spectrum in between. Levy operates in the third category. As the campaign creative director for the famously grim Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, he tries to make the man appear likable — and has achieved some success, helping propel the prime minister in a tough reelection bid just over a year ago. Levy, a kind of marketing mercenary, makes ads for his “clients,” those candidates willing to foot the bill, regardless of his political preference. In the process, he’s earned two gold medals in Campaigns and Elections Magazine’s 2016 Reed Awards, and best international TV ad from the American Association of Political Consultants. After a tough loss last fall in Montenegro — he declines to name the loser, although the results and regional reports suggest it was the Democratic Front, the nation’s major opposition party — Levy is gearing up for presidential and parliamentary elections in the Balkans, as well as two long-term, party-building projects in Ukraine and Southeast Asia. “He has this unbelievable talent in being able to translate complex ideas into very simple and very entertaining messages that really speak to voters,” says Aron Shaviv, who hired Levy as a senior consultant after the Netanyahu campaign.
Levy’s best work tackles harsh realities with a grin. In one award-winner, an Israeli couple finds the stern prime minister at their doorstep: their “Bibi-sitter” for the night. “Look, it’s either me, or Tzipi and Buji,” Netanyahu says. The ad hilariously hits one opponent for being unreliable, the other for being weak-willed. Former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan dubbed it “sheer political art.” Levy even excels at going on the defensive: After criticisms of Netanyahu’s lavish spending — on his personal home and, bizarrely, a $2,700 annual ice cream budget — Levy cast Netanyahu in a web short. In it, Bibi’s national security call is repeatedly interrupted by a series of faux “scandals”: dirty dishes in the sink, his hungry fish, even a rocky table. Then Netanyahu addresses the camera: “They’re hoping to distract your attention from the issues that really matter.”
The formerly apolitical Levy came to this world from a corporate background, after seven years at McCann Erickson in Israel. Briefly branching out on his own, Levy was then called in 2015 to Netanyahu’s side by Shaviv’s advertising director. Levy was attracted to the challenge, after feeling like he had mastered the world of Don Draper. When he describes his transition to politics, he compares it to branding in the auto industry. “When you buy a Volvo, you don’t buy a car; you buy safety,” he says, and he found himself selling a similar message about the Israeli PM. He took a unique ad schedule, releasing viral hits every Saturday. English versions of his most popular videos have garnered more than 100,000 hits on YouTube, although he claims Israeli sites have drawn even more eyeballs. Reporters, Levy says, began to clamor for the first look.
But Levy is no spotless artist of political Madison Avenue. There’s no denying that by its nature, Levy’s work is propaganda — not nefarious, but also far from nuanced, says David Greenberg, author of Republic of Spin. This is hardly unique, though; the Barack Obama White House often created similarly viral, funny hits. “You’ve seen the rise and popularity of social media, for which short videos are catnip,” Greenberg says. The election of Donald Trump provides another American comparison. “He didn’t need a campaign with a lot of viral videos, because every time he opened his mouth, everybody wanted to know what he said,” Levy notes.
Levy says his beliefs don’t always align with the candidates whose platforms he sells, although he claims to pick clients whose work he can believe in. It’s morally shaky ground, to say the least, the kind that favors professionalism above all else. Take Netanyahu, for example. Sure, some of Levy’s friends were shocked by his support. But Levy was encouraged after meeting the sometimes controversial leader. “When [Netanyahu] wakes up in the morning, he really believes in what he’s doing. And that’s more important for me in a prime minister than a lot of other qualities,” Levy says. “Listen, I have myself the things I believe in, in my own part of life, and my work — and these two never combine.”
And so Levy washes his hands of the high stakes surrounding his work. When starting his consulting firm in 2014, he told his lawyer to trademark it as “The Best Company in the Whole Wide World” (he claims it wasn’t taken). Now he’s in the business of helping craft that whole wide world — and, one day, be so good that he can “choose my own client,” as he puts it. One might say it’s the difference between making kings and simply playing jester.