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A Tale of Two Crispins: Why There Won't Be Another Agency of the Decade

The Story of How CP&B's 10-Year Hot Streak Cooled Off Is a Cautionary Tale for the Ad Industry

By Published on . 14

There are 11 in the picture, slumped over sewing machines and laptops, dirty, disheveled and looking utterly exhausted. Amid them stands an equally filthy Alex Bogusky, a baseball bat slung over his shoulder.

This was the cover of Ad Age's Creativity magazine in December 2005, when Crispin, Porter & Bogusky was at its creative height. It was the agency that couldn't lose. CP&B snagged Ad Age's Agency of the Year award in 2004 and 2008 and was crowned Agency of the Decade. It had won Creativity's Agency of the Year four times in six years by the time that cover photo was shot.

Credit: Pete Barrett

No shop since has shaken up the industry with such vigor. And it's unlikely another agency will enjoy such a hot streak for so long again. Even its CEO concedes that the CP&B of the previous decade possessed a certain lightning-in-a-bottle quality.

Back then, CP&B reveled in its identity as a sweatshop, a place where a cultish band of close-knit staffers would day and night conjure up multiplatform ideas the industry salivated over. The mind-set permeating the agency was Boguskian: "I was out of my mind," recalled Mr. Bogusky. "For me it's not work-aholic -- it's almost like playaholic."

CP&B veterans describe it as the golden age. The agency started the decade as a 100-person regional shop that had gained notice for an anti-smoking campaign and some clever work for Ikea. By 2010, CP&B was the most-admired agency in America, 100%-owned by MDC Partners, and had $175 million in revenue from big clients including Microsoft, Nike, Coca-Cola and Volkswagen.

By then, Crispin boasted more than 900 employees and had pumped out a stream of provocative work.

Again and again, it had persuaded clients to jump off a bridge -- resulting in risky campaigns, from a "topless" BMW Mini in a Playboy centerfold to a garter-clad giant chicken for Burger King. Back then, the agency famously refused to pitch business; it didn't need to. Clients stormed CP&B. It was so hot that fast-food rivals Domino's and Burger King agreed to coexist at the shop, conflict be damned.

Digital dazzle
Today it's a much different agency.

The staff has shrunk to fewer than 700; about 10% were laid off last month after Microsoft called a review. Many of its best-known creatives and senior execs from that golden era have left. Creative guru Mr. Bogusky departed in 2010. Jeff Hicks, regarded by many close to the agency as the real unsung hero of the shop's success, departed that year, too. Of its original 13 partners, four remain. Several clients for which it did the most groundbreaking creative, such as Volkswagen, Old Navy and Bolthouse Farms, have moved on.

It's easy to assume that the exit of Mr. Bogusky, a Svengali-like figure at the shop, catalyzed the changes. It was certainly a factor. But interviews with at least a dozen current and former employees and industry watchers reveal a more complex answer. Crispin was the precocious teen rebel that got its own way until reality caught up.

It wasn't so much that Crispin changed, but the ad world shifted in a way that forced it to grow up. And that makes it all but impossible for today's hot startups, like Barton F. Graf 9000 or VaynerMedia, to achieve a Crispin-like renown.

Burned by the recession, clients are loath to greenlight risky work and bottom-line pressures are driving them to wring costs from their shops. To grow, independents are selling to public holding companies and succumbing to the balance-sheet demands that can dull a free-spirited culture. Often, the result is chasing business they might once have scorned while private.

CP&B also happened to be in the right place at the right time. Its dazzle was tied to digital innovation and integrated campaigns so far ahead of the industry that others rushed to catch up. It was twice named digital agency of the year at Cannes. But during the past 10 years, rivals have developed their own digital expertise, allowing them to play on a field CP&B once had to itself.

"They brought you huge great digital, experiential ideas and a great core campaign. That was unique in the mid-2000s," said one former client. "Crispin was really so agnostic and so ahead of everyone else. Now everyone comes in with digital ideas. … They lost that advantage."

And it's difficult to imagine someone enjoying that kind of edge again in any medium. At least not for long.

No longer darlings
The Crispin of today is eager to participate in new-business pitches; last year it won Turkish Airlines, Hotels.com and the sizable Charles Schwab account. The shop picked up Vitaminwater's digital business without a review. It counts among clients Domino's -- which just renewed its contract until 2016 -- Grey Poupon, Kraft's Mac and Cheese (for which the shop has produced particularly clever campaigns) and Applebee's. CP&B generated worldwide revenue of $162.1 million in 2012, according to the Ad Age DataCenter. By all accounts, it's a financially healthy agency that churns out good work, even if MetLife's Peanuts gang is a far cry from the "Subservient Chickens" and "Whopper Freakouts" that defined CP&B during the century's first decade.

"The reality is that as far as [clients] coming to us, we were definitely hotter than we are now," conceded CP&B CEO Andrew Keller, a longtime creative executive who took the helm in 2010 after Mr. Bogusky left and Mr. Hicks became vice chairman. "There's no getting around that. We're not hot like a 72andSunny or a Wieden is, but we've been that darling, and I get that we're not now. But at the same time, we're creating great relationships."

The agency said 2013 was its second best year financially, though the shop and MDC declined to detail by which measures. Its best year was 2009, they said.

Mr. Keller said the agency is pitching more than before due to the state of the industry. Fees have gotten smaller and once-huge accounts have become projects doled out to multiple agencies. "Now accounts are half the size they used to be. [Agencies have to] pitch more, because there's more project work, fewer AOR opportunities and even those are half as much as they used to be."

One consultant said that after MDC Partners took full ownership CP&B "started pitching things for financial reasons rather than quality-of-work reasons. It's not a bad business decision for them to be doing it [but it] compromised the quality of the work. It still isn't bad, it's just not near the level it once was. They're willing to pitch to marketers that are less willing to break the mold creatively, but they still do good work -- better than most."

"It's fair to say the quality of the work has dropped off," said Mr. Bogusky, adding that clients are as big of a factor in the process. "Unless the organization can sell the best work [to clients], it doesn't matter how good the creatives are."

Miles Nadal, founder and CEO of MDC, said it's a natural evolution. "Everything they do can't be brilliant because they're doing a magnitude of work that's up 100-fold from where they were. Their inventions, technology and approach to communications are brilliant, but it's hard to satisfy all the critics. For the mission we've invested in, we won the lottery."

But it looks as if even MDC is having trouble letting go of the old Crispin. In a November investor conference the holding company's Chief Financial Officer David Doft was still talking about the CP&B of 2004. He said: "The sea change happened in 2004, where one of our agencies -- it's our largest agency, Crispin Porter & Bogusky -- won the Burger King account. And overnight, it doubled the size of that agency."

The next phase
Others cling to the CP&B legend. Executives who left the agency reminisce about everything from a flag-football league to the receptionist in Miami (she's still there) nicknamed Honey Bunny for the term of endearment she used to greet employees. They recall with fondness the long hours and weekend crunch times, because many were transplants to Miami and formed bonds.

"It was a sweatshop, but you were going to do the best work of your career, and Alex pushed you to be better," said one former executive.

After Mr. Bogusky left, a slew of executives followed. In the last couple years, departures included Jeff Benjamin, former chief creative officer and digital lead; David Rolfe, former director of integrated production; Tiffany Rolfe, exec creative director; Winston Binch, managing director; and Ari Merkin, exec creative director. Most recently, Global Chief Creative Officer Rob Reilly and his wife, Laura Bowles, the agency's managing director, left in December, and then Chief Operating Officer Eric Lear departed.

Executives close to the business said some mid- and senior-level executives left because they weren't getting the opportunities they'd hoped for, and others, while generally happy, left because it was time to move on. Some decided the sweatshop hours weren't worth the family-time tradeoff.

"We had this group of people that we collected over the years and they were mutts -- people who had been rejected by the traditional agencies," said Mr. Bogusky. "And all these people wanted to be there to be a part of our vision. As the leadership changes, sometimes that passion for the mission goes missing. But it's not just the change in leadership. It's also the changes in ownership and changing times. ... It's a different time for the industry. We had this insane run together, and they had big reputations and so they went on to run big agencies."

And while much of Crispin's heyday names have left, industry observers note that the shop's talent pool is still superior to most. "It's true there's been a talent drain, but they began with a very deep talent bench compared to the rest of the industry," said Brian Martin, a former search consultant who now runs Project Worldwide. "I suspect there's still a disproportionate talent bench compared to the rest of the industry, even now."

CP&B has reorganized. After the departure of Mr. Reilly, it eliminated the position and gave more autonomy to managing directors and executive creative directors running each office. Mr. Keller said the goal is to let them get entrepreneurial with less upper-management oversight. "We just tried to simplify that and put power into the hands of people working with clients. I believe that's what clients want."

Global expansion is atop its agenda for 2014. The shop is prepping to open an office in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with AlmapBBDO creative veterans Andre Kassu and Marcos Medeiros and Vinicius Reis, said Chairman Chuck Porter, noting that Asia is likely next.

President Steve Erich is practical about new-business prospects. He understands the shop will need to win multiple pieces of business to replace Microsoft, which some estimate accounted for 20% of CP&B's business. But he said the slimmed-down agency is ready to move on. "It's a big hit, but we're doing what needs to be done to get the business in a strong place and to be a good partner with MDC. It's definitely a challenge, but very manageable."

And so CP&B moves on to its next phase as a more mature global agency. "I'm excited about Crispin for the first time in five years," said one former executive. "In a way, shrinking in size seems to be a huge benefit, because they can get back to their roots. What they have left are people who want to be there together. They're not trying to be the old Crispin, they're trying to invent the new one, and that's freeing."

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