What Alex Bogusky's Departure Means for MDC, Ad Industry

Creative's Decision Comes at a Time When His Personal Beliefs Seem to Clash With Agency Business

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Call it the end of an era. Alex Bogusky, the oft-long-haired ad man who has won piles of industry awards, graced many a publication's cover, raced motorcycles and, like any real celebrity, boasted legions of fans, haters and Twitter impersonators, is leaving MDC Partners.

And he's not only leaving the Toronto-based holding company, to which he sold Crispin Porter & Bogusky, the agency he joined as an art director in 1989 and helped build and export from Miami to Boulder, Co. He's leaving the industry altogether.

That his interests have strayed from the ad world is far from shocking. Over the past two years Mr. Bogusky, who turns 47 this month, has spent less and less time with clients in favor of writing books, advocating green transportation such as bike-sharing programs and hosting an online talk show from a new headquarters he refers to as the "cottage."

Outspoken beliefs
What is curious is the timing of his departure. It comes at a time when Mr. Bogusky has been increasingly airing his outspoken personal beliefs, which could be viewed as a liability. It's not clear whether the holding company felt it was time for him to speak on behalf of himself -- and only himself -- or if he determined those beliefs no longer jibed with his profession.

In November 2009 he published "9-Inch Diet," a book which, coming from someone who'd crafted advertising campaigns for Domino's Pizza and Burger King, would seem inflammatory enough. People magazine plugged the book -- but failed to note Crispin's client list included a few famous fast-feeders.

More recently, Mr. Bogusky posted a lengthy essay decrying children's advertising that mentioned current Crispin client Burger King.

Among the excerpts:

  • "My old client at Burger King used to talk about pulling all the kids' advertising as a way to garner some positive press and put pressure on McDonald's to do the same, knowing that it was a much, much bigger part of McDonald's business."

  • "As we took on the BK account, we politely offered that we could not work on that part of their marketing. And in subsequent years we declined multiple invitations to work on the kids' business. Once one of our adult spots for 'SpongeBob SquarePants' (hard to believe, but young adults love Sponge Bob) was repurposed and re-edited by another agency to add toy footage and aired on Nick. I was livid and we got it pulled."

  • "It's not a matter of the rightness or wrongness of the products being advertised. That is a grey area. But there are children and there are adults. And the duty of adults in society is to protect its children. And that is black and white."

The essay dropped at a time when Crispin is running TV commercials featuring children for its new Kraft Mac & Cheese client, and key client Burger King is clearly examining its agency roster under new global chief marketing officer Natalia Franco. It's easy to surmise Mr. Bogusky's ramblings are becoming a sore spot for Crispin and its clients.

MDC Chairman-CEO Miles Nadal declined to elaborate on the company's written statement provided earlier this morning, which thanked Mr. Bogusky for his service; Mr. Bogusky, meanwhile, did not return requests for comment.

In order for him to exit, MDC had to break its contract with Mr. Bogusky -- whose face as of this story's publication was still emblazoned on the company's website. His Crispin contract wasn't set to end till December 2010 thanks to a contract extension he signed in November 2007, when MDC upped its incremental investment in Crispin. (MDC now owns Crispin outright.)

Creativity

Deutsche Bank analyst Matthew Chesler in a note to clients today shrugged off the exit. "What does all this mean for CPB?" Mr. Chesler wrote. "It means that we are all looking in the rear-view mirror at a transition that has already happened. If there's any disruption in account activity or loss of talent, it certainly won't be because of Bogusky's resignation."

Ad industry effect
And indeed, Mr. Bogusky for the better part of two years hasn't touched client business at the agency, having trained a new band of creatives that are winning accolades such as its Interactive Agency of the Year award last week at Cannes. But his departure does mean he won't be influencing the creative at other agencies under the MDC umbrella, as he was set to do in his new holding-company-wide role. It also raises the question of whether the ad business will be affected by one of its most visible creative leaders leaving it altogether.

Industry recruiters are torn.

"It's always sad when the person whose name is on the door leaves," said Sharon Speilman, managing director at Howard Sloan Koller Group. Clients tend to look at an agency and assume that the man whose name is on the door is actively involved with every aspect of their business, but it's really about how they influence everything about the agency's culture and mission. And I think Alex has always done that. He brought in the kind of people that believe in his mission."

She added: "The disappointment to MDC is the influence he would have had on other agencies. Would he himself have attracted people that MDC might not have? That's possible."

"It's not like he was sitting playing a meaningful role in the day-to-day execution of all those agencies," said Pat Mastandrea, partner at the Cheyenne Group. "People don't get into one career industry and stay for the rest of their lives anymore. As a trend, we have an opportunity today to have multiple careers in a lifetime. It's time for him to be moving on and doing something ... he represents a great role model for creative people."

Susan Friedman, head of New York and California-based search firm and recruitment firm Susan Friedman Ltd., believes "it will have an interesting impact on MDC. Many agencies are changing their creative leadership as the business is changing. People get tired and want to reinvent themselves, and this is a time for agencies to be reinventing themselves, so why not the top people?"

Next up?
Indeed, 2010 has been a year for many of the industry's most prominent players to explore new horizons. A long list including the likes of Gerry Graf, Colleen Decourcy, Ty Montague and Rosemarie Ryan have all left their jobs at big agencies to try new ventures.

As for what Mr. Bogusky will do next, it wouldn't be a surprise if he gave directing a try. After all, at one time he was shopping a movie to Hollywood and, as recently as last year, was rumored to have been working on a documentary-slash-reality show about the agency. Meanwhile Ad Age readers are torn between having him lead the government's anti-childhood-obesity task force and starting a TV talk show.

What he won't be doing? Working with Crispin clients or earning some $2 million a year.

Mr. Bogusky is subject to a multiyear noncompete agreement -- a "non-solicitation/non-servicing agreement" -- that he originally signed in January 2001, when MDC bought its initial 49% stake in Crispin (as of October 2009 it owns 100%). Deutsche Bank in its note estimated that the company would save $2 million or more annually with him off the payroll.

Contributing: Brad Johnson

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