|Illustration: Robin Eley|
As you read this, any number of curmudgeonly bloggers and envious creative types all over Adland are fuming. Once again, Crispin Porter & Bogusky -- no stranger to winning awards, new-business pitches, the adoration of the media -- has won. That it's once again being named agency of the year, and already has been tagged with the same honor by two other publications, Ad Age sibling Creativity and Nielsen Co.'s Adweek, is surely the subject of grumbling and grousing.
We hear you. But the simple fact is that any reasonable survey of today's agency landscape won't turn up a shop remotely as successful on all levels as Crispin has been in the past few years and, especially, in 2008. First, there's the growth story. Last year marked a return to actively pursuing new business, with the agency picking up work from Microsoft, Old Navy and a slew of smaller clients which, combined, helped Crispin swell 15% to some $140 million in revenue and nearly 900 staffers in Miami and Boulder, Colo.
But what might be most interesting is what just six of those staffers are working on: making Crispin a force in product design. The half-dozen-strong design unit in Boulder has hatched a public bike-rental program, created a portable, pen version of WD-40 and developed an eco-friendly sponge, among other things. The unit builds off a robust product-design sensibility in the agency, particularly manifested in its relationship with Burger King. Crispin creative Rob Reilly's hands were all over BK's popular Chicken Fries as well as its coffee and Burger Shots sliders, not to mention a (ew) meat-scented cologne called Flame.
Going light years further than other ad agencies on design makes Crispin much more valuable than your average maker of ad widgets simply because it's able to affect product before the marketing is done -- and even create brand-new revenue streams.
Then there's the work. The agency has more than a few boast-worthy case studies showing that its buzz breeds results, something not every creative hothouse has. Even in a harsh economic climate that has battered most marketers, Crispin's clients are holding up well. Sales of Coke Zero are seeing double-digit increases despite overall declines in the soda category, customer traffic in Burger King restaurants has hit a 10-year high, and even an automotive client, Volkswagen, eked out a 0.2% increase ahead of 2007 sales through the third quarter -- a minor miracle given the slump in total car sales last year.
'Amazing product' helped
One of its most compelling cases is Coca-Cola, which hired the agency for the launch of Coke Zero. When the brand was strategizing its entry into the beverage market, it had aggressive business goals and needed to get up and running in a time crunch. "We knew we had an amazing product on our hands in that our product does taste exactly like Coke, but without the calories," said Pio Shunker, senior VP-head of creative excellence for Coca-Cola North America.
What it lacked was buzz. "We knew we really needed an agency partner that was going to inject a cultural momentum," said Mr. Shunker, who from afar had admired Crispin's work for the BMW Mini and Truth antismoking campaign (both former clients). He describes his first meeting with the shop as being "like when you go on a date and you meet someone and you just click ... they say the right things at the right moment."
In honor of Coke Zero's appointment as lead sponsor of the Coke family of Nascar drivers last year, Crispin built a video game, Rooftop Racer, that places the soft drink front and center. It also struck a branded deal with "The Jimmy Kimmel Show," spurred out of the host and comedian's love for the beverage. "What Crispin does is take a simple proposition that we know we need from a product, and they somehow make it entertainment," said Mr. Shunker. "They don't mirror pop culture -- they help create it."
There's a significant distinction there that's at the center of Crispin's success. Any agency can hire trend-spotters who collect pop-culture insights that become the foundation of an ad, but Crispin's work is more culturally primal than that.
2006: The consumer
2003: Berlin Cameron
2001: Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide
1999: McCann Erickson
Crispin's trademark is creative that never ceases to spark a discussion, and often outrage, as in the case of "Whopper Virgins," a comparative taste test for the burger chain that stirred accusations of insensitivity to other cultures and their bowels. Loathed by many, it was much parodied too, even by the nation's most popular forum for satire, NBC's "Saturday Night Live."
'More provocative than pleasant'
"Almost half a decade ago, we sought to intentionally take more risks with our brand, and become more provocative than pleasant with our advertising," said Brian Gies, Burger King's VP-marketing impact. "It's easy to say now, 'Yes, that was the right thing to do,' but at the time it was a risky proposition."
"Our clients are really brave," noted Mr. Reilly, co-executive creative director. "There's a lot of guts out there, and in a bad economy to have this kind of bravery and the foresight to know that this is the kind of environment where it might help to scream a little louder." Andrew Keller, who is co-executive creative director with Mr. Reilly, said: "A lot of our clients realize that the greatest risk is potentially not taking any risk at all. People don't have to listen, they don't have to pay attention anymore."
It's not just big blue-chip marketers that flock to Crispin. Smaller, newer brands such as the Aliph Jawbone, Activision's Guitar Hero and Hulu also looked to the shop last year. For existing clients, Crispin continued to push the envelope, showing off its digital prowess by creating for clients digital applications that don't just look good in an agency presentation -- people actually use them. More than 150 staff of the agency's staff are now dedicated to digital, including the additions that came with Crispin's acquisition last year of Texturemedia, digital-marketing agency.
For Domino's, it made it possible for customers to order pizza via their TiVo boxes and create custom-designed pies with their online "BFD builder" application. The restaurant chain estimated it culled as much as an additional $100 million in online revenue as a direct result. For VW's launch of minivan Routan, it unfurled an integrated campaign targeting growing families that included a website where visitors could preview their next spawn. In the first 15 days babymaker3000.com was live, some 140,000 babies were made by consumers on that website, amazingly, not that far off the actual U.S. birth count in that same timeframe.
So, considering all of that, why will so many people be so pissed off that Crispin won? Well, partly, because there are a lot of jealous people out there, but also because being at the top of your game doesn't make you flawless. The agency's work thus far for new client Microsoft -- which called in Crispin last year to mount a big-budget offensive against Apple's much-loved Mac vs. PC campaign -- is far from its finest hour. That work so far has proved both erratic and lackluster, starting out with Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates chatting in shoe store, strangely replaced almost overnight by the "I'm a PC" spots featuring Deepak Chopra and Pharrell Williams, which later morphed into a slightly heavy-handed consumer-generated component and line of Microsoft T-shirts.
There was also its parting of ways with its Compass Bank client in 2008, and the darkest spot in its bright year: Crispin's loss of the Nike Running shoe business. Ad folks engaged in more than a little schadenfreude when Crispin's relationship with Nike blew out in a matter of 13 months and a single TV commercial. "I wish we had a little longer opportunity with Nike than we did ... that space is something that we love, and we have a lot of experience with enthusiast brands," said Jeff Steinhour, a partner who also serves as Crispin's director of content management.
There's a tendency, especially in America, to "root for the underdog until the underdog really starts to win," said Mr. Steinhour. "When people hate on us ... in some ways, we use it as a fuel." Said Mr. Reilly: "There's a knock on every agency ... and certainly the agencies that are a little more high profile, the Goodby's, the Wieden's. What really matters is that the companies we represent are doing better than when we started with them."
And for all the mud they sling, most critics would still kill for a chance to work with these guys. Felix, a blogger at the Denver Egoist, is a case in point. "Several of their recent 'big' ideas were recycled, either from themselves or other work," he recently wrote, adding. "But I'll still take a job at CP&B. I'm just mad ... not insane."