Agency of the Year

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Looking back at the history of the agency, there's a nice symmetry to the circumstances of Crispin Porter + Bogusky's latest giant leap to creative superstardom. After all, Miami's CP+B was built on Florida business before the partners vowed to take it national. That a locally based client, and a seemingly problematic one, would propel CP+B into virtually its own category seems kind of fitting (OK, it's a Florida client only in the headquarters sense, but still).

And Burger King did put CP+B over the top for our agency of the year purposes and for most everyone in the business who will readily point to the agency as perhaps the leading creative force in advertising now. After effectively being made with the American Legacy Truth work - the campaign that most would identify as the agency's national recognition tipping point - and changing the game with its work for Mini, Ikea and Molson, naysayers still questioned the agency's wherewithal in the wider world of big ticket national advertisers. The $335 million Burger King win and the resulting work went way above the call of duty in silencing the doubtful. And the agency still managed to crank out innovative work for American Legacy, Molson, Borders, Method, Virgin Atlantic, Mini, Giro and Ikea (the latter's departure from the agency just before press time, marked the year's significant account loss).

The shop produced its share of fantastic commercials, certainly. For Burger King alone, CP+B turned out several of the year's highlights, with the Subservient Chicken spots "Vest" and Pencil"; "Blingo," for the new 99 cent menu; the stylish salad shiller "Ugoff"; and, of course, the brilliant "Wake Up with the King," which demonstrated both classic product sell and post modern culture groove in a delightfully weird, yet gastric juice-stirring sensation. But when it came to assessing the work, the spots-and the traditional print ads-were truly just a portion of the notable, agency of the year-winning work, an exceptionally rare (arguably unique) claim. Much of CP+B's creative footprint this year was defined by innovative and integrated campaigns like "Subservient Chicken," "Chicken Fight," and Mini's "Men of Metal," which enticed a particular set of potential fast food and car consumers to go further than giggle at a 30-second commercial and to spend quality time with the brand. The latter foray into interactive fiction featured one Dr. Colin Mayhew and an experiment with Mini-derived robots and included elaborate websites supporting the myth and a book distributed through stores, magazines, car shows and dealerships. Other work for Mini was spread across innovative print, print-related and outdoor executions, like a fake milk carton/excuse for motoring insert and filling station-top posters. The BK "Ugoff" campaign included not only the Roman Coppola-directed TV spots, but also a web component and live appearances, and the launch of a new Angus Beef burger saw the introduction of the character, Dr. Angus complete with website and actual diet and lifestyle book. BK work also extended into packaging design. For Molson, the agency introduced "fake back covers," whereby a male consumer's meathead titles like FHM can be flipped when the occasion demands to display archly female-appeasing titles like Groom and Animal Rescuer.

Rarely did the agency put a foot wrong in terms of integrity of voice, relevance, or straight up fun (If it did, it was the Virgin Atlantic Jetrosexual magazine, a bafflingly off-key first effort). Most recently, the agency created a nifty viral effort for Borders (previously handled out of the agency's L.A. outpost), the Giftmixer 3000. An array of challenging new work is in progress, including a TV show, a feature film, and a doll (see Creativity, November, 2004). The year's work demonstrated nicely why CP+B has become synonymous with the idea-first, targeted, channel-promiscuous marketing approach that's being touted with various degrees of sincerity far and wide, and why "Give me a Crispin" must surely be the monotonous chorus ringing in review consultants' ears from coast to coast.

There was, of course, other standout work from stalwarts like Wieden + Kennedy and TBWA. W+K continued its pioneering ways with Nike "Battlegrounds" and innovative work like the Sharp "More to See" effort out of the now Ty-less New York office, in addition to the typically strong Nike commercials. TBWA anted up with great work for Fox Sports and adidas ("Plastic Ball" and the recent "Unstoppable" are highlights), with New York kicking in some notable campaigns, including new Skittles efforts (and, of course, Nextel "Dance Party" is one of the year's gems).

Publicis, under the stewardship of David Droga is already starting to reflect the huge creative changes the determined Worldwide CCO has affected across that network. New work for Heineken, TBS and T-mobile has augured well and meant that this agency's progress over the next year will be hotly anticipated. The same can be said for BBDO/New York, which put its metaphorical balls out with the industry's biggest creative shift. With the formidable leadership team of Andrew Robertson and Dave Lubars and content written into the job mandate of new hires like ECD Jimmy Smith, it should be a breeding ground for interesting new work. The question is, how long will it take to get that work off the ground.

Our very special runner-up citation this year though, is reserved for Fallon. Again, 2005 will be a crunch year for the shop as new CD Paul Silburn makes the gigantic London- Minneapolis leap to fill Lubars' position. But the past year's work has been cause for recognition. From Minneapolis, new iterations of Citi "Identity Theft," a beautiful United campaign and work for Lee, including a nice piece of Buddy Lee branded entertainment stood out. But perhaps most notable was the showing from Fallon New York, an agency that has gone from virtually shut a few years back, to producing some of the smartest work in the industry now - from Starbucks "Glen" (see spots of the year) to several series of Virgin Mobile work, each better than the last, to the election-themed Time "Pendulum" outdoor blockbuster. We look forward to where Merkin, Silburn et al go from here.

CP+B according to B

Alex Bogusky talks branding, Burger King and briefcases full of cash.

C: There have been so many arguments about either the importance or the irrelevance of brand positioning, USPs, etc. What's your take? What is most important to furthering the cause of a brand now?

AB: For us I think being strategic and having a clear sense of brand position and brand voice are very important. I wouldn't want to have to manage the process without those tools and filters to put ideas through. It does seem that people look at stuff like Subservientchicken.com and the Chicken Fight and they just don't see how it could work and then when they do they try to reverse engineer some reason. And that reason is usually quite revolutionary but the reality is much more mundane. Those same people for some reason understand how a 30-second commercial where guys say "Wasssuuup" can work but they can't see how it's the exact same thing with the Subservient Chicken. It's easy to get confused I guess by the newness of the wrapper but it's pretty much the same old message when you unwrap it. Subservientchicken.com is simply saying "have chicken your way" and "Chicken Fight" is a simple claim of "the best chicken sandwich". So strategically we think the way we always have. But all this does center on relevance being the currency that messages will ride on. So as mass media ceases to exist in delivering mass audiences, brands will have to find a more relevant message in terms of their place in pop culture if they want people to seek out and opt into their story. And relevance can be a scary place for the average brand. Relevance is where a real conversation and or a debate is going on between the forces that are trying to take pop culture one way or another. It's real. And there are at least two sides and usually more. Marketers have long been fond of saying that the brand belongs to the consumer but I doubt many of them are ready for the future and how true this is about to become. As marketing becomes more and more interactive it will take tremendous courage to turn over more control to an audience that will demand it. You won't be successful if you don't do it but at the same time I think a lot of brands will chose not to participate.

C: Are brands generally declining in relevance?

AB: I can't say I've seen that. You can make a good argument that it should be inevitable with the rise of instant information on all purchases at your fingertips and such, but you would also have to have human evolution advance to the point where we really made a lot of rational decisions. We just don't. We make emotional decisions and we make rationalizations to justify those decisions. Brands came about because it is a more human way to process information. So the tendency to like and be attached to brands will continue for another half million years or so. But at the same time all that information will make it very tough to sell a bad product. So a great product and a great brand will become the cost of entry in any category.

C: What does CP+B's work do best, besides entertaining us all?

AB: Well what we get excited about is an idea we know will work. And we've been really successful at moving our clients' business. The creative work is just us using the tools at our disposal to solve business problems. So to do that we try to make our work visible and that tends to make it entertaining, I guess. But if creative work gets killed along the way we don't care at all. It happens all the time and we do more. We're professionals which to us means we better be able to think of more than one idea. But what makes us miserable is to work on a strategy that we just don't think will actually work. At that point it doesn't matter how "creative" the work is, we feel like shit because we know eventually we're going to be judged by how well it worked. That sucks.

C: Many assumed that a client like BK would change (read: ruin) CP+B's culture. How has BK changed things at the agency?

AB: When we decided we were going to take on this challenge we knew what the talk would be. And we weren't ignorant about the enormity of doing this thing but it was the risk that made it exciting. It did hurt to see some of the things that people said and it even felt at the time that people wanted to see us fail. Which I don't really understand. It seems to me that being able to turn around a brand not known for doing good work is something the whole industry should believe in. I worry sometimes that ad people have become too cynical for our own good. The only real risk was if we were forced to do bad work. And we have never believed anybody can force you to do anything. You have to agree. And since we knew we wouldn't, it seemed worth a shot. I think our culture is as strong as ever. There are lots of new people around and our culture is all about new blood. Because we want to change. We are a work in progress and new people see the agency's possibilities better than I can.

Every now and then we do something we call $100 Friday, where we just decide to give everybody a hundred bucks before the weekend. So not long ago we gathered everybody in the agency together on a Monday and did something we have never done before and may never do again called $1000 Monday. A security guard came in with a suitcase full of a little over 200 grand handcuffed to his wrist as I announced what we were doing. It was maybe the greatest day of my life to be in front of all those people giving away all that money. People were going nuts. BK seemed pretty good for the culture on that day too.

C: What have you been most proud of this year?

AB: Well I have to say I've been most proud of all the people in the agency that have stepped up to take on more responsibility and a bigger role. In my department so many people have been with us for a long time and they have created the success. So now I'm supposed to bring in some hotshot CD to manage the success? Doesn't feel right to me. I love that our growth has created a career path in the agency for people to continue growing and taking on bigger challenges. It's definitely the thing I'm most proud of.

What is the last frontier,the holy grail of the ad industry now - the agency revenue model?

AB:When everything we produce is so good consumers pay money for it.

You mentioned a while back CPB Productions. Has that been set up?

AB: It's being set up now. It's really just a toy at this point but it allows us to experiment with different revenue models with our clients.

What is your priority for the agency now? Growing? Maintaining the culture? Institutionalizing change?

AB: Change is always the priority but it isn't something we try to force. It has to be appropriate to what's happening in the agency and in the industry. There are a lot of futurists making predictions about what's coming. It's a fun exercise but the predictions aren't usually very accurate in my experience. Remember video magazines? They were supposed to do away with print as we know it. So I think we try to look a few seconds into the future and do things that are possible in the next 30 seconds or so and let the real future work itself out.

How DO you maintain the culture of what you might call outsider thinking when you're on top creative and business wise?

AB: Well it's nice when people say that you're at the top of the heap but it's not something we believe. Just being in Miami alone makes us outsiders and it limits our interactions with the rest of the industry. Which works because I think the culture is fueled less by being outside and more by being ignorant. If we have a strength it's that we sit down here simmering in our own ignorant/inbred juices and work just comes out a bit different. By inbred I mean we look for and try to keep people that don't come from a traditional creative agency background. We want the people that have been rejected at all the right places. I was just in Australia and I met and interviewed some people from New Zealand and I thought to myself what a goldmine this country is and at the same time I could tell they thought getting a job at our shop was a huge long shot. Cut back to me and I'm trying to remain calm because they are just so perfect for us.

On the subject of growth - why didn't the LA office work?

AB: The reality is it did work. We opened it as a marketing expense. To change the perception of the Miami office. And it worked to do that and actually was making money for us when we closed it. The problem was it just didn't gel with our current thinking about the future of the agency and specifically our strategy for offices. We had decided that the US needs just one office and yet here we had a contradiction before we even got started. So the decision was to close the office sooner rather than later and at a time we could afford to move and bring in anybody that wanted to work in Miami. Which turned out to be about 70 percent of the staff.

Will you consider geographical expansion in future?

AB: We are considering it and working hard to come up with a model that make sense for us. We want to be able to service half the globe from Miami which means that our goal will be to have one other creative office that can do the other half.

New talent - what qualities are you looking for? what's the creative recruit of 2010 look like?

AB: New Zealand baby.

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