Crispin ups ante

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It's the end of the biggest year for the advertising industry's hottest agency and Alex Bogusky, its chief creative force, seems glum. Why? Because Crispin Porter & Bogusky no longer has to scrap for business. "I don't think people look at us as the underdog anymore," says the exec creative

director of the MDC Partners-backed agency. "It's sad because I always liked that underdog thing. You can wind up in a position where you play not to lose, but as the underdog you can play very loose."

It would be easy to misread Mr. Bogusky's wistfulness for a less complicated time, before the Miami agency was expected to succeed-and before some rivals were just waiting for its hot streak to end. But, the new weight of expectation aside, Crispin's leaders wouldn't change too much about the position in which the agency finds itself.

In 2004 Crispin, which had already established its credentials as an award-winning creative agency and one of the very few genuinely media-agnostic shops, proved it could also handle a big, notoriously fickle and conservative client. That transition to the big league-combined with a strong new business story-made it a lock for Advertising Age's Agency of the Year.

Crispin had come close before. The shop was runner-up in 2002 on the strength of its launch work for Mini Cooper that by and large eschewed TV spending for magazine and billboard ads and public relations stunts that generated millions of dollars worth of buzz and cost BMW precious little. That effort enshrined Mr. Bogusky, already known for compelling work on a Florida anti-smoking effort, as an ad industry savior performing media miracles in the approaching industry-specific apocalypse-the expected death of the 30-second spot.

Still, prior to 2004, the agency bore its share of criticisms, chief among them a complaint that for all the solid buzz-making work for a number of interesting challenger brands or quirky companies like Ikea, Crispin hadn't proved itself a partner for a major mass marketer. The guerrilla and PR-heavy work for Mini, for instance, was to some degree necessitated by the automaker's relatively slim budget. When it took up Burger King , naysayers wondered whether Crispin's culture of innovation would hold up if forced to produce for a marketer that traditionally communicated with TV spots.

ad agency as PR agency

It took less than two months for Mr. Bogusky and company to answer. The Subservient Chicken campaign, which seeped into popular consciousness with a viral online campaign hyping Burger King's TenderCrisp chicken sandwich, demonstrated that Crispin would stay true to its media-neutral approach. But it was also proof that an ad campaign could beat the devil of audience segmentation. Crispin created an idea that could explode out of its online origins and translate across major media as well as in other marketing disciplines like direct and in-store, all the while drumming up that precious earned media.

The body of Crispin's work over the past few years suggest a new hybrid position for a company that wants to service a marketer. It's something like ad agency as PR agency or maybe a PR firm that can make ads. Whatever the nomenclature, what Crispin has made clear over and over is the importance of smearing disciplinary lines and making that media-neutral approach present at the origin of an idea, as opposed to tagging on other elements to ads after the fact. While it seems blazingly new, it harks back to an older way of doing business. "It's almost retro," says Russ Klein, Burger King's chief marketing officer. "There was a period of time in which agencies operated as full stewards and partners across the whole broad array of marketing functions. Crispin contributes on that level as thought leaders. "

It wasn't the reputation for media experimentation that drew Burger King. "Remember," says agency Chairman Chuck Porter, "Burger King came to us with a much more traditional media approach in mind, and they were looking for just creative solutions."

In reality, the fast-feeder was looking for a lot more than that. The perennial No. 2 to McDonald's, Burger King in early 2004 had a particularly bad outlook. Customer traffic had declined about 22% over the previous six years, a trend many blamed on shoddy food quality and unpleasant in-store experiences. Others, however, blamed the less than memorable ad efforts created by the ever-changing cast of agencies-four in as many years.

But the longtime underdog's new relationship with a notoriously fickle marketer, resented by many prominent figures at rival agencies, led to another reaction. Crispin principals received e-mails and phone calls from one-time well-wishers now telling them they'd make a major mistake to work for the fast-food giant. Donny Deutsch, CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Deutsch publicly railed to The Wall Street Journal: "I literally would not take [Burger King's] call. Other agencies have got to start thinking that way."

Crispin feared tide of opinion turning against the agency. "The whole industry was rooting against us," says Jeff Steinhour, partner-director of client services. Adds Mr. Bogusky: "It was concerning and terrifying."

If the Burger King account was at all intimidating, it didn't show up in the advertising. Crispin unleashed some of the year's most talked-about creative with an offbeat approach designed to tap into younger male demographics. For the fast-food chain's 99ยข menu, it created an over-the-top rapper, "Blingo," played by John Leguizamo. Riffing on Americans' proclivities for diet crazes, it hawked the Angus steak burger in mock direct-response TV spots. The agency also resurrected the one-time mascot The King as an eerie, silky-throated shill for Burger King's breakfast menu.

The center of the branding onslaught was probably the most buzz-inducing of the year. "Subservient Chicken" began as an online viral program drawing millions to a site where they could give commands to a guy dressed in a chicken suit, all in support of Burger King's new chicken sandwich. Later extended to other media including TV, print and a 10-minute film on DirectTV, it was freshening of the old "Have it your way" tagline-with S&M undertones.

hallway high-fives

"We weren't a brand that suffered from lack of awareness," says Burger King's Mr. Klein, "but we were a brand that suffered from a lack of emotional attachment." Mr. Klein speaks about Burger King's marketing woes in the past tense because he believes the company is in the midst of turnaround. He cites 10 consecutive months of same-store sales improvements.

Somewhat ironically, Crispin's approach offers a glimmer of the solid agency-client relationships of bygone days, albeit filtered through the prism of a radically fragmented media environment. That approach is known for getting inside a brand's relationship with the larger culture and embedding it in the zeitgeist, if not creating a zeitgeist of its own.

"We love when we effect change in pop culture," says Mr. Bogusky. "That's what makes people do high-fives in the halls."

Witness Crispin's recent campaign for Maxim, the Dennis Publishing magazine whose dominance in the men's publishing world has been challenged by comparatively few alternatives like men's shopping magazines. Crispin's answer to the business quandary was to declare war.

"They sensed before we did that the whole metrosexual craze was becoming ridiculous with those little shopping magazines for men and the whole politically correct backlash," says Rob Gregory, group publisher for Maxim. "More and more guys want to be guys."

Crispin created the notion of "mantropy"-a loss of manhood through excessive grooming-and declared man an endangered species. The concept was disseminated in a trade campaign and with stickers and brochures. This month will see the debut of animated films for Maxim, via its Web site, featuring "cartoon superheroes saving the world from mantropy."

Almost obscured by Crispin's potent creative philosophy is a strong business story. Just eight years ago, Crispin had about 40 employees and $40 million in billings. The agency is now well over 200 employees strong and in 2004 alone grabbed more than $300 million in new billings. Much of that was due to Burger King, but Crispin also reeled in Gate- way and EarthLink as well as work from Victoria's Secret and, more recently, Gap Inc. On the downside, it resigned Ikea after the business began to ebb away in some regions, and Sirius Satellite Radio.

While Crispin's principals were unwilling to talk about future targets, a couple did mention as a concern maintaining the Crispin culture as the shop grows in size and reputation.

So far, that effort has been successful, with the employee turnover rate around 10%. Mr. Steinhour credits that to competitive pay and benefits and unusual perks, like an agency concierge who runs employees' errands, as well as Crispin's affiliation with the Miami Ad School. Still, he admits, it's not easy combating existing clients' fears of losing favor when big new clients hit the scene.

"Clients are suspicious of it," Mr. Steinhour says. "It's kind of like double-dating. All clients like to think they have a monogamous relationship with their shop, and the reality is they know that's not the case."

Crispin is able to turn down projects and new accounts, but, at the same time, the agency stays active in new-business pitches. "Pitches are our R&D," says Jeff Hicks, president-CEO. "You can trace many of the innovations within the agency to different stages of reviews. We love the process."

The agency remains choosy in deciding which client it will work with, demanding that it have access to key decision-makers and that it have control over the creative. "There is no amount of money worth doing work we're not proud of," Mr. Hicks says.

The other challenge to the Crispin way is finding a raison d'etre beyond that underdog mantle that, most would agree, just doesn't work anymore. Though Crispin plans to remain in Miami, eschewing the notion that it needs to open offices in media centers like New York, that outsider or underdog personality no longer quite fits the Crispin brand.

"We're evolving to a different culture somehow, " says Mr. Bogusky, "and we're going to have to find our kicks in different ways."

contributing: kate macarthur

Recent winners

2003 Berlin Cameron/Red Cell

2002 Deutsch

2001 Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide

2000 Goodby, Silverstein & Partners

1999 McCann Erickson Worldwide