Sunshine Supermen

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Melissa the concierge gives me a lift back to Miami International Airport in a Chrysler PT Cruiser painted black with wild red and orange flames. As bystanders stare in the glorious Florida spring sunshine, she professes to wonder sometimes what they are looking at. Her naivete seems a perfect metaphor for Crispin Porter + Bogusky.

Right now the agency is probably the hottest in the United States, certainly in the smaller, independent sector. Successive wins of coveted new business like BMW's Mini Cooper S, Ikea and Molson beer, on top of the ongoing seen-everywhere efforts for the "Truth" anti-smoking campaign, and now the much talked about mixed-media Mini launch have caused CP+B to buck the consensus that the recession has turned the screws on the smaller indies. With Ikea estimated to be a $40 million account, the Mini at about $32 million and Molson at $10 million, the agency's projected billings are around $215 million, up from last year's $165 million. CP+B even opened a new office in Los Angeles at a time when many other agencies are closing offices. L.A. has its first client too: the Fine Living Network.

What's refreshing about this current success is that it's based squarely on "the work". What's more, not only has success left the agency unchanged but it doesn't quite seem to know how it happened. When creative partner Alex Bogusky describes being named Creativity's 2000 Agency of the Year as "like being hit in the face with a sledgehammer," he is not dissembling with false modesty. Rather, Bogusky is merely revealing just a little of the insularity that is part and parcel of being an ad agency from Miami.

Of course, there is method in his mellowness. Both Bogusky and the agency's chairman, the mischievous, wily, gravelly-voiced Chuck Porter, confirm that a joint decision some five years ago to abandon the traditional local-regional-national growth route in favor of seeking a national reputation was the key to where CP+B finds itself today. Bogusky, like Porter, remains in the same office overlooking the lazy sailboats on Biscayne Bay that he first occupied a decade ago. It is well documented (Creativity, Dec. 2000) how Porter, a Minnesota copywriter, arrived at Crispin Porter in 1988 determined to make it hot. He hired the 26-year-old Bogusky months later, and bought out founder Sam Crispin in 1991. Bogusky became creative director in 1993. His name went above the door in 1997.

The Miami Herald, the Lipton Tennis Tournament and the Florida Marlins were the logical early clients. Soon they were succeeded by the California-based Shimano, maker of bicycle accessories, and a whole series of sporting goods brands: And1 (since departed), GT, Schwinn and Giro Sport Design among them. It was a niche that reflected the lifestyle passions of many of the staffers. To this day there are all manner of bikes and other accessories littered throughout CP+B's democratically anarchic offices. But the agency hasn't pitched a Florida-based account in two years.

More important perhaps is how that niche represents one of the agency's philosophies as expressed by Porter: "Unless at least one of the partners is very passionate about a client's business, we won't take on the account." It accounts for growth with "zero whore factor," as described so delicately by Sally Hogshead, the CD/managing director of the new Los Angeles office. The point is that the agency does have beliefs that color its culture and its output. Sometimes too strongly, perhaps. Although Bogusky in particular bristles at the notion of a house style, he accepts that CP+B was associated with a particular style of hand-held, jerky filming - perhaps because that was how the most famous of the "Truth" ads (in turn the agency's best-known work) was shot. In truth, it was also a function of smaller budgets out of Miami. But Hogshead says, with utter conviction: "The consistent quality of the work is amazing. The work you see as a consumer is just the tip of the iceberg. Everything that comes out of the agency is amazingly conceptual. There's a piercing insight in every case. It has a very strong foundation in thinking."

By way of explanation, Porter outlines some core beliefs: a very firm embrace of nontraditional methods of marketing; the idea that brands can be "thought leaders," even if they cannot outspend their larger rivals; and an absolute belief that the consumer is smart. He refers to Richard Kirshenbaum's aphorism, "Advertising doesn't work, word-of-mouth works," arguing that everyone surely strives to create a campaign that in turn creates buzz, but that "it's a bitch to do. You can never promise a marketer that you're going to create a buzz phrase that's going to become part of the culture," acknowledges Porter wistfully. "You just don't know what people will pick up on." He is ardently opposed to focus groups, arguing "they'll never tell you where the magic is." He points to Hollywood, which "focus-groups to shit, and they still don't know." There is a huge difference, he says, between focus-grouping the work itself and the enormous amount of strategic work the agency develops ahead of a campaign. To this end, media director Jim Poh and planning director Tom Birk are key players.

"We research the hell out of strategies, but there is no better way to take the edge off the work than by asking 40 people what they think of it," Porter continues. "People either don't know what they think, or they tell you what they think you want to hear. Frankly, I think it just doesn't work." Porter points to the Mini launch campaign as a good example of the agency's philosophies meshing. From day one, he says, the client signed off on the idea that the work was not about ads, but about making the brand an icon. "Let's motor" is about fun, personality and an emotional attachment to a different way of thinking about a car. Bogusky says the thought is encapsulated best not in the powerful posters or even the new "Let's get acquainted" web commercial, in which a bulldog is sexually intrigued by a Mini, but by the "unofficial drivers manual." This direct-mail piece, which owners will receive after purchase, tells them all the things they really want to know about a car - like where you can wedge CDs, or store another coffee cup. It also encourages them not to worry about scratches and the car getting dirty, or putting miles on the clock, and exhorts owners to be kind to cyclists. "Let's have fun" is how Bogusky sums it up. Still, BMW is planning to sell a maximum of only 25,000 Minis in the U.S. in the first three years (it can't make more globally), so in truth it is only for CP+B to mess up. The real task, Porter says, is to prevent the Mini from being a fad.

All eyes are on this account because of the iconic potential of the brand. The same goes for the highly coveted Swedish retailer Ikea, whose new work will break this summer, and, to a lesser degree, the Canadian lager Molson. Ikea, says Porter, has much of the egalitarian culture of the agency. It is a Philadelphia-based client ("One of the coolest companies on Earth" says Bogusky) that really did not care the agency was in Miami (BMW is New Jersey-based) - although it was happy when the L.A. office opened. No one in the agency has ever jumped in the car and driven to an Ikea - currently, there are no stores in Florida.

Molson is a more typical CP+B client. With only a fraction of its rivals' budgets, it will have to outsmart, not outspend them. It will also have to rediscover its personality. Curiously, it is the one account both founders are - on client orders - reluctant to discuss. Porter notes that the agency does not generally "have clients who are scared of losing their jobs with every campaign" - a huge plus-point in today's nervous environment. He says that the agency's client list is to some degree self-selecting, and it is clearly not for everyone - something about which he is sanguine. "Listen, Alex and I, we like money, but it's never been about the money," he argues. "It's about the brands." Bogusky is quick to take up the point: "It's really important to determine what success means to different people. For some people it's going to be about dollars. But I would be totally happy to just be in that GT, Schwinn niche. The really important thing here is just hanging out."

Perhaps, but again there is method in this nonchalance. Bogusky has just as strong views on hiring staff as Porter and he seem to hold on every other subject. In this case the difference is that it's not just about what he calls "the great book. People may laugh at this," Bogusky explains, "but 'the great book' doesn't weigh so heavily on my hiring decision. In general, we hire people who we think will work well and fit in here. Sometimes they've been people without the greatest books who have gone on to create great books here." He now has the bit between his teeth: "Many talented people in this business lack both opportunity and organizations that allow them the chance to do great work. In most agencies you could do great work without changing all the people, but there's a whole industry in advertising based on the turnaround principle. You know, hire a new ECD, fire a few creatives, and . . ." The sentence is deliberately unfinished. But the two are not prone to bragging. I force them to answer questions about their current success, and those questions make them both a little uneasy because they know how transient success is. What's more, Bogusky admits, "I don't want to sound like an asshole."

But they must be doing something right just now; it has to be more than simply providing the smaller, independent alternative. There are plenty of smaller, independent agencies - many more famous than CP+B - that are struggling for their very lives in the current ultraconservative climate. Restating his points about self-selecting clients who are not in fear of their jobs, Porter puzzles over the recent success: "People call and say, 'You guys are so hot right now.' It's a surprise to me, because we're not doing anything radically different. We're smarter, we have more of a point of view. But basically we've just gone out and got better people."

Both Porter and Bogusky now accept that perhaps Miami is beginning to be a positive factor, having for years held them back. There is no sophisticated ad community in the sense that there is in New York, Chicago or San Francisco, but there are also precious few national clients. Porter complains that Florida clients believe the agency can't be any good because it is in Miami. He notes that even The Miami Herald doesn't cover the agency.

Hogshead, a relative newcomer, says the 125-strong Miami agency's culture (it will have to move to larger premises this year) is tangibly different. It's why she joined last September - that and Chuck Porter. "What a doll! There's an intensity in the Miami office that you wouldn't find in San Francisco or Los Angeles," she adds. "It has created an atmosphere very organically. It's like when a French chef makes a reduction sauce; all the flavors are very intense. I love the insanity and the adrenaline there. Crispin Porter has a buzz factor that you usually only find associated with pop culture trends. Clients are very curious about it. It's really refreshing." Bogusky has a more internalized view: "We've somehow created a culture and an atmosphere that's really unselfish in a selfish business," he says. "Creatives here are constantly helping each other. And that really is rare. For our size, it really helps us to do more." It should be noted that CP+B is also helped by being 49 percent owned by Maxxcom, a benign investor that helped facilitate opening in L.A., for example. The agency made a conscious decision not to make layoffs early last year, and it has paid off through being more able to handle all the new business.

Porter claims - rather disingenuously - that there is no formal training as such, and that staffers are given great responsibility from day one. "Everyone who comes to work here is at least as smart as us," he concludes. "We give people support, but other than that we sort of make it up as we go along. I've never really worked in any other agency. Is that good or bad? I believe in chaos theory." Perhaps. And perhaps the structure of the agency is a little looser than some. Maybe it has a more democratic vibe, but listen to the principals for any length of time and you soon learn that there is a great deal of discipline of thought. There is even a philosophy. How many agencies now try to differentiate themselves that way? They have principles that really have cost them money. As Bogusky says, trying to be a creative ad agency is perhaps not the most sensible economic model for a business. In the early days, they often spent their own money to make campaigns the way they wanted them to be.

It was the "Truth" work that brought the agency to national attention, and then for a while threatened to overshadow everything else it did. Wonderful work - in particular, the body bags dumped at Philip Morris - with a fresh, guerrilla-like feel that was quite unlike anything else around. It succeeded, as Bogusky vowed it would in 1999, in causing a lot of trouble. That work has moved on, and become still more ambitious. Meanwhile, CP+B has successfully emerged from that period and is now entering a new era when it will be in the national public eye as never before. There is nothing in its past to suggest that it will not cope - although it will be hard to stay exactly the same, especially when the agency physically moves its location. But one senses there is a lot of goodwill riding with Chuck and Alex. They are doing what many others would love to be doing right now: making a local independent succeed nationally.

And at the same time, it's all clearly about "the work." We will see a hell of a lot of that work in the next few months. It may or may not all succeed - the chances are most of it will. The sure thing is that they will have had a hell of a lot of fun trying.

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