No shop since has shaken up the industry with such vigor. And
it's unlikely another agency will enjoy such a hot streak for so
long again. Even its CEO concedes that the CP&B of the previous
decade possessed a certain lightning-in-a-bottle quality.
Back then, CP&B reveled in its identity as a sweatshop, a
place where a cultish band of close-knit staffers would day and
night conjure up multiplatform ideas the industry salivated over.
The mind-set permeating the agency was Boguskian: "I was out of my
mind," recalled Mr. Bogusky. "For me it's not work-aholic -- it's
almost like playaholic."
CP&B veterans describe it as the golden age. The agency
started the decade as a 100-person regional shop that had gained
notice for an anti-smoking campaign and some clever work for Ikea.
By 2010, CP&B was the most-admired agency in America,
100%-owned by MDC Partners, and had $175 million in revenue from
big clients including Microsoft, Nike, Coca-Cola and
By then, Crispin boasted more than 900 employees and had pumped
out a stream of provocative work.
Again and again, it had persuaded clients to jump off a bridge
-- resulting in risky campaigns, from a "topless" BMW Mini in a
Playboy centerfold to a garter-clad giant
chicken for Burger King. Back then, the agency famously refused to
pitch business; it didn't need to. Clients stormed CP&B. It was
so hot that fast-food rivals Domino's and Burger King agreed to
coexist at the shop, conflict be damned.
Today it's a much different agency.
The staff has shrunk to fewer than 700; about 10% were laid off
last month after Microsoft called a review. Many of its best-known
creatives and senior execs from that golden era have left. Creative
guru Mr. Bogusky departed in 2010. Jeff Hicks, regarded by many
close to the agency as the real unsung hero of the shop's success,
departed that year, too. Of its original 13 partners, four remain.
Several clients for which it did the most groundbreaking creative,
such as Volkswagen, Old Navy and Bolthouse Farms, have moved
It's easy to assume that the exit of Mr. Bogusky, a
Svengali-like figure at the shop, catalyzed the changes. It was
certainly a factor. But interviews with at least a dozen current
and former employees and industry watchers reveal a more complex
answer. Crispin was the precocious teen rebel that got its own way
until reality caught up.
It wasn't so much that Crispin changed, but the ad world shifted
in a way that forced it to grow up. And that makes it all but
impossible for today's hot startups, like Barton F. Graf 9000 or VaynerMedia, to achieve a Crispin-like
Burned by the recession, clients are loath to greenlight risky
work and bottom-line pressures are driving them to wring costs from
their shops. To grow, independents are selling to public holding
companies and succumbing to the balance-sheet demands that can dull
a free-spirited culture. Often, the result is chasing business they
might once have scorned while private.
CP&B also happened to be in the right place at the right
time. Its dazzle was tied to digital innovation and integrated
campaigns so far ahead of the industry that others rushed to catch
up. It was twice named digital agency of the year at Cannes. But
during the past 10 years, rivals have developed their own digital
expertise, allowing them to play on a field CP&B once had to
"They brought you huge great digital, experiential ideas and a
great core campaign. That was unique in the mid-2000s," said one
former client. "Crispin was really so agnostic and so ahead of
everyone else. Now everyone comes in with digital ideas. …
They lost that advantage."
And it's difficult to imagine someone enjoying that kind of edge
again in any medium. At least not for long.
No longer darlings
The Crispin of today is eager to participate in new-business
pitches; last year it won Turkish Airlines, Hotels.com and the
sizable Charles Schwab account. The shop picked up Vitaminwater's
digital business without a review. It counts among clients Domino's
-- which just renewed its contract until 2016 -- Grey Poupon,
Kraft's Mac and Cheese (for which the shop has produced
particularly clever campaigns) and Applebee's. CP&B generated
worldwide revenue of $162.1 million in 2012, according to the Ad
Age DataCenter. By all accounts, it's a financially healthy agency
that churns out good work, even if MetLife's Peanuts gang is a far
cry from the "Subservient Chickens" and "Whopper Freakouts" that
defined CP&B during the century's first decade.
"The reality is that as far as [clients] coming to us, we were
definitely hotter than we are now," conceded CP&B CEO Andrew
Keller, a longtime creative executive who took the helm in 2010
after Mr. Bogusky left and Mr. Hicks became vice chairman. "There's
no getting around that. We're not hot like a 72andSunny or a Wieden is, but we've been
that darling, and I get that we're not now. But at the same time,
we're creating great relationships."
The agency said 2013 was its second best year financially,
though the shop and MDC declined to detail by which measures. Its
best year was 2009, they said.
Mr. Keller said the agency is pitching more than before due to
the state of the industry. Fees have gotten smaller and once-huge
accounts have become projects doled out to multiple agencies. "Now
accounts are half the size they used to be. [Agencies have to]
pitch more, because there's more project work, fewer AOR
opportunities and even those are half as much as they used to
One consultant said that after MDC Partners took full ownership
CP&B "started pitching things for financial reasons rather than
quality-of-work reasons. It's not a bad business decision for them
to be doing it [but it] compromised the quality of the work. It
still isn't bad, it's just not near the level it once was. They're
willing to pitch to marketers that are less willing to break the
mold creatively, but they still do good work -- better than
"It's fair to say the quality of the work has dropped off," said
Mr. Bogusky, adding that clients are as big of a factor in the
process. "Unless the organization can sell the best work [to
clients], it doesn't matter how good the creatives are."
Miles Nadal, founder and CEO of MDC, said it's a natural
evolution. "Everything they do can't be brilliant because they're
doing a magnitude of work that's up 100-fold from where they were.
Their inventions, technology and approach to communications are
brilliant, but it's hard to satisfy all the critics. For the
mission we've invested in, we won the lottery."
But it looks as if even MDC is having trouble letting go of the
old Crispin. In a November investor conference the holding
company's Chief Financial Officer David Doft was still talking
about the CP&B of 2004. He said: "The sea change happened in
2004, where one of our agencies -- it's our largest agency,
Crispin Porter & Bogusky -- won the
Burger King account. And overnight, it doubled the size of that
The next phase
Others cling to the CP&B legend. Executives who left the agency
reminisce about everything from a flag-football league to the
receptionist in Miami (she's still there) nicknamed Honey Bunny for
the term of endearment she used to greet employees. They recall
with fondness the long hours and weekend crunch times, because many
were transplants to Miami and formed bonds.
"It was a sweatshop, but you were going to do the best work of
your career, and Alex pushed you to be better," said one former
After Mr. Bogusky left, a slew of executives followed. In the
last couple years, departures included Jeff Benjamin, former chief
creative officer and digital lead; David Rolfe, former director of
integrated production; Tiffany Rolfe, exec creative director;
Winston Binch, managing director; and Ari Merkin, exec creative
director. Most recently, Global Chief Creative Officer Rob Reilly
and his wife, Laura Bowles, the agency's managing director, left in
December, and then Chief Operating Officer Eric Lear departed.
Executives close to the business said some mid- and senior-level
executives left because they weren't getting the opportunities
they'd hoped for, and others, while generally happy, left because
it was time to move on. Some decided the sweatshop hours weren't
worth the family-time tradeoff.
"We had this group of people that we collected over the years
and they were mutts -- people who had been rejected by the
traditional agencies," said Mr. Bogusky. "And all these people
wanted to be there to be a part of our vision. As the leadership
changes, sometimes that passion for the mission goes missing. But
it's not just the change in leadership. It's also the changes in
ownership and changing times. ... It's a different time for the
industry. We had this insane run together, and they had big
reputations and so they went on to run big agencies."
And while much of Crispin's heyday names have left, industry
observers note that the shop's talent pool is still superior to
most. "It's true there's been a talent drain, but they began with a
very deep talent bench compared to the rest of the industry," said
Brian Martin, a former search consultant who now runs Project
Worldwide. "I suspect there's still a disproportionate talent bench
compared to the rest of the industry, even now."
CP&B has reorganized. After the departure of Mr. Reilly, it
eliminated the position and gave more autonomy to managing
directors and executive creative directors running each office. Mr.
Keller said the goal is to let them get entrepreneurial with less
upper-management oversight. "We just tried to simplify that and put
power into the hands of people working with clients. I believe
that's what clients want."
Global expansion is atop its agenda for 2014. The shop is
prepping to open an office in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with AlmapBBDO creative veterans Andre Kassu and
Marcos Medeiros and Vinicius Reis, said Chairman Chuck Porter,
noting that Asia is likely next.
President Steve Erich is practical about new-business prospects.
He understands the shop will need to win multiple pieces of
business to replace Microsoft, which some estimate accounted for
20% of CP&B's business. But he said the slimmed-down agency is
ready to move on. "It's a big hit, but we're doing what needs to be
done to get the business in a strong place and to be a good partner
with MDC. It's definitely a challenge, but very manageable."
And so CP&B moves on to its next phase as a more mature
global agency. "I'm excited about Crispin for the first time in
five years," said one former executive. "In a way, shrinking in
size seems to be a huge benefit, because they can get back to their
roots. What they have left are people who want to be there
together. They're not trying to be the old Crispin, they're trying
to invent the new one, and that's freeing."