"WE'RE AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD HERE," SAYS ALEX Bogusky, from his office at Miami's Crispin & Porter. The view from the 31-year-old creative director's window, overlooking Biscayne Bay, seems to bear him out. On the horizon, the scattered sailboats on the bay gradually give way to the sheer oblivion of the Atlantic.
If Crispin & Porter were any further southeast it would be off the map. It's a great location if you like windsurfing; less so if you're looking to make a mark on the national advertising landscape. In the past, the former probably mattered more than the latter at Crispin & Porter, a surfing, hard-partying, carefree little agency that just happened to produce some of the most striking ads seen south of Richmond. But even surfer dudes have to grow up sometime: These days, Bogusky, a Miami-bred designer who has recently taken some of the creative reins from freewheeling founder Chuck Porter, seems anxious to shed the agency's anonymity. Under Bogusky, Crispin & Porter may be ready to turn north and face the world.
And the world may be surprised when it finally gets a look at the creative work of this agency, which has been, arguably, the best creative shop in the Southeast over the last five years. In the 1990s Crispin & Porter has dominated Miami's creative scene, winning more than 200 local Addys, including Best of Show in the South Florida Addys three of the last four years.
Shawn Wood of New York's Burkhardt & Christy, an alumnus of the Miami agency, says: "They're head and shoulders above any of the agencies in that market." Perhaps so-but on the other hand, that's faint praise. Whether it's the heat, the lack of a strong local client base, the fragmented culture or the fact that there are so damn many old people, Florida has so far been an advertising wasteland-and creative carpetbaggers from the north (Ed McCabe belly-flopped into Miami's Beber Silverstein five years ago for a short but sweaty visit, and, more recently, Mike Tesch joined Fort Lauderdale's Harris Drury Cohen) have not, so far, been able to change that. All of which may explain why Crispin & Porter's local success has gone largely unnoticed outside Florida.
It hasn't helped that the agency's roster of mostly small, regional accounts produces very little national advertising-after AvMed, a health care company whose account bills about $8 million and has seen a smattering of national TV, C&P's clients play in the under $5 million ballpark: Cellular One, which they handle on a regional basis; the Florida Panthers hockey team; Gametek, a Florida-based maker of videogames; Interim Services, a temporary employment agency for which they're doing a national TV campaign; Lipton, for which they handle their local sponsorships of sporting events; The Miami Herald; Palm Beach County's tourism account; Sunglass Hut, a local retail chain; and the Golf Channel, a little-known cable entrant. The Florida Marlins baseball team, alas, for which they've done some very droll TV, went to Harris Drury Cohen earlier this year after a change of client management.
And though Crispin & Porter has thrice been ranked as one of the country's top 15 creative agencies by the Four A's, there have been few national awards-in part because the footloose agency hasn't always bothered to enter the big shows.
To see C&P's work, it seems, you must venture south to the Sunshine State. Fallon McElligott's Luke Sullivan made the trip recently, to judge a Florida awards show, and observed that "Crispin & Porter is probably the best game going in Miami, a real rising star." Dean Hacohen of New York's Goldsmith/Jeffrey had a similar reaction after judging a Florida show; of everything he saw, it was a C&P ad for Gametek that stayed with him. Designed by Bogusky for a demented game called Quarantine, in which players race through a fantasy quarantined city in a taxicab trying to run down diseased mutants, it featured a delightfully gruesome image of a blood-covered windshield. "I've been doing a lot of judging around the country, and that's one of the most memorable ads I've seen," says Hacohen. (The agency also did a marvelous parody of Lexus in another print execution for this sicko diversion.)
The agency does have a few admirers from afar, such as Harry Jacobs of The Martin Agency in Richmond. "They're doing strong, contemporary creative work in what is otherwise an unsophisticated market," he says. "I think they're doing the kind of creative work that could break through on a national level. Nobody in Florida has done that; they have the potential to do it."
But whether Crispin & Porter will fulfill that potential and join the elite corps of nationally known regional creative agencies from Richmond, Minneapolis, Portland and San Francisco is far from certain. "In the past, the agency has been poised to jump to the next level-but so far they haven't been able to do it," says Michael Bettendorf, who left C&P a year ago to join J. Walter Thompson/San Francisco. Bettendorf notes that the agency has been unable to land one of the few "big fish" accounts available in the local market (Blockbuster Video, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and Burger King are based there, but none of these accounts have Florida agencies handling significant portions of their work), and has rarely been considered by clients outside Florida. "Let's face it," he adds, "nobody cruises the Southeast looking for a hot agency."
Geography may not be the only thing working against C&P; there's also the matter of genetics. Though the agency's roots go back a couple of decades (it was previously known as Crispin Advertising), Crispin & Porter was born seven years ago, and its true father, Porter, was a dyed in the wool freelancer. The agency was reared without much attention to structure and order, and insubordination to clients was not uncommon. "It was run the way you would expect an agency to be run by freelancers," says Bettendorf. "In some ways, that made it a truly creative place. But it's possible that is one of the things that has held it back, too."
Chuck Porter blew into Miami 20 years ago, a law school dropout from Minneapolis who thought he might like to try his hand at advertising. There are rumors at Crispin & Porter that Porter was independently wealthy and that advertising was something he did for kicks, not money; Porter denies this. In any case, he had no interest in working 9 to 5 for an agency. Instead, he joined forces with another talented freelancer, Rick Breen, to form Porter & Breen. They became sought-after hired guns in the travel and tourism categories, doing special-project work on the sly for agencies like Young & Rubicam and Ogilvy & Mather. "My philosophy was keep your head down and get the money," Porter says.
Porter lived well and traveled widely. When home in Miami, he liked to windsurf in the afternoons and write copy by the side of the pool. And he wouldn't work with clients "if they pissed me off," he says. For 15 years, Porter was never tempted to join an agency. Then he began talking with Charles Crispin of Crispin Advertising, an unremarkable, 20-year-old local shop. Porter was asked to help transform the agency into a creative-driven boutique; he saw an opportunity to mine a new niche, bringing a touch of Minneapolis to Miami. Still, it wasn't an easy decision. "Giving up freelancing was the hardest thing I ever did," he says.
Porter-who is described by a number of people who have worked with him as not just a good but a great writer, "a guy who would've been a star in New York," says Wood-immediately hired Alex Bogusky, a young freelancer who had honed his skills in his father's design shop.
The other creatives at that time were a handful of inexperienced, mostly homegrown writers and art directors. "We were forced to make everything up as we went along," says Porter. "Nobody who worked here had ever worked at a serious agency."
There were no titles or even creative teams; the staff attacked whatever was next on the work pile, and the main objective, says one C&P veteran, was to see who could come up with the best headlines. The agency had little use for deliberation; "When you're a freelancer, you don't have time to f--k around," says Porter. "You focus fast, and get the work done quickly, because that's how you make more money. But it has to be good or you don't get called back." As for clients, if they balked, then they didn't get called back: Porter simply walked away from one of C&P's first major accounts, Del Monte, because he disagreed with them on creative direction. "If a client changes a headline, Chuck will just drop them," says Pat Harris, an art director at the agency.
Bettendorf adds: "Chuck always did things in an ad hoc fashion. For instance, there was no system of rewards or discipline-if you did a good job, he'd take you out for drinks." Indeed, the agency was known for partying with gusto. "We'd take over the bars at awards shows and run up $3,000 bills," says Bogusky.
The agency had good reason to celebrate; they were invariably the toast of the show. Crispin & Porter's work, fueled by Porter's writing skills and Bogusky's keen art director's eye, had a style and sophistication that stood out in Miami. With a nod to Porter's hometown of Minneapolis, the work tended toward irony, matching powerful headlines with simple, strong images. For a local acupuncture shop, Crispin & Porter showed a hunched-over rice farmer, with the headline: "Not surprisingly, the country that invented rice also invented a way to relieve back pain." For the Miami Herald's Spanish-language edition, Porter showed a picture of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, with the head: "In half the households in Miami, she's the one with the funny accent."
Porter's TV work, too, was full of surprises; in a spot for a local clothing store, he put a dog in a man's suit and the results were, believe it or not, quite entertaining. The agency achieved modest, if unspectacular, growth in its first five years, with about $20 million in billings. Then, in 1993, C&P went through an internal shakeup. Saying he had tired of the business, Charles Crispin-who had overseen the business side of the creative shop-pulled out. Bogusky became a part-owner, with Porter. At the same time, Porter shifted much of his own responsibilities to the account side, and Bogusky was named creative director.
"That was a tense period at the agency," says Shawn Wood, who ended up leaving for New York shortly thereafter. Others left, too, including Steve Horowitz and Dave Brokaw, who joined Miami's Beber Silverstein & Partners. Horowitz says the agency changed after Bogusky was named CD, becoming "less fun, more political."
Bogusky acknowledges that he had some trouble adjusting to his new role. "For one thing, I'm not good at dealing with conflict," he says. "It's hard to reject the work of people you used to work alongside-but I felt like I had to push people."
Others defend Bogusky, saying that he is attempting to bring a new level of professionalism to the agency. "Alex has developed a reputation for being a pain in the ass because he turns down work that isn't up to par," says Peter Blikslager, who came over from Tracy-Locke two years ago. "He's trying to push it to a national standard. I think maybe some of the old people continued to see it as a local shop, and resented that." Shawn Wood adds: "Chuck ran the agency like a freelance operation, whereas Alex seems to want to make it more like an agency."
To that end, Bogusky seems determined to bring more order to C&P's once chaotic creative department. Last year, he divided the group into creative teams for the first time; people now have designated clients and assignments. And Bogusky's been tougher on enforcing deadlines. "We had a problem with people missing deadlines, and nothing pisses off a client more than that," he says.
Bogusky also seems to be broadening C&P's scope; he's brought in a number of creatives from outside the Miami market, including Blikslager and Harris (who jumped from The Richards Group). And he has been more conscientious about entering C&P in national shows. This year C&P is a finalist in the One Show for the first time. "This place has become much more self-conscious about where it stands in the national community," says Blikslager.
The new seriousness at C&P has even put a bit of a damper on partying; Bogusky, for example, has given up drinking ("I felt I had mastered the craft," he says).
Finally, Bogusky's rise at C&P is having a significant impact on the work. It isn't necessarily better-the work was always strong-but it may be getting more contemporary, and more visually arresting. "The work was more copy-driven under Chuck," says Wood. "Alex seems to be pushing for concepts that are more visual."
A number of C&P's more recent ads rely on strong visuals more than headlines, as in the case of the Gametek bloody windshield. Another Gametek ad, with a "Before and After" headline, features a simple sketch that looks like a frowning face-but when turned upside-down it suggests ejaculation.
The agency's billboards for Sunglass Hut work wonders with the simple visual of a pair of sunglasses (typical headline: "Wipe that stupid look off your face"), while ads for the Florida Panthers hockey team use the image of a goalie's mask-a la Jason from the "Friday the 13th" movies-for purposes of shock value. Throughout the Panthers' campaign C&P plays up the menacing elements of hockey, a sport unfamiliar to Floridians; "Hockey is like baseball," one ad reads, "if all of the players carried bats at all times and had razor-sharp blades bolted to their feet and spent half the game slamming each other into the outfield wall." Then there's a cute billboard for the Heart Center at DelRay Community Hospital: "Last exit before by-pass."
C&P's recent TV reel is also filled with visual quirks-particularly in an otherworldly spot for the Golf Channel, in which iridescent golf balls are made to look like shooting stars. A Miami Herald spot is set in an idealized, pastel-colored suburbia, where the homeowners watch as live bodies of ballplayers are heaved onto their doorsteps from a moving truck ("Get the Marlins delivered" is the tagline). Funny Florida Marlins spots featured ordinary guys who try out for the team in lieu of buying season tickets. A new spot (shot in the C&P parking garage) for Sound Advice, an electronics retailer, has a talking car alarm announcing to a thief who's attempting to jimmy the door, "Warning, car stereo not bought at Sound Advice." He promptly walks away.
If Gametek ever makes it to TV, it could be C&P's low-budget version of Sega. Interestingly, most C&P commercials are to this day directed by Porter or Bogusky (and, like the print, often feature agency staffers as talent). Although the budgets are indeed invariably small, the spots are surprisingly polished. Why the do-it-yourself approach? "There aren't that many top-quality directors down here," explains a sensible Bogusky.
Nevertheless, there have been a few hopeful signs in the past year; C&P has been invited to a couple of national pitches in San Francisco and San Antonio, and the agency recently picked up a small account based in Michigan. Even though Porter continues to have "a low piss-off quotient" regarding client interference-in the past year alone, he resigned a clothing brand called Trends and also deep-sixed Daddy-O's, a fast-food account-billings have nevertheless climbed to over $40 million, and the staff has increased from 35 to 50. "And we got new carpeting in the lobby, which was a major goal," adds Porter, with more sincerity than one might suspect.
Still, while Bogusky and other young creatives seem to eagerly await national recognition, the 49-year-old Porter-a jocular fellow who, on a recent morning, could be found in his office laughing heartily at a battery-operated raccoon tail wiggling out of a brown paper bag-wonders whether the spotlight will ever find its way to Miami, and whether it matters all that much.
While he says he's received a few buyout overtures, he insists he's not interested in selling the shop, nor are there any plans to open another office-though he frequently jokes about starting up a branch in Minneapolis, where he still maintains close ties.
"Yeah, I guess it would be pretty cool to get that kind of recognition," he says. "But I'm not sure we'll ever be part of the club. We're stuck down here