"CP&B is in my blood," Alex Bogusky stated in early August when he announced his surprise return to the agency he left in 2010. But while Bogusky remains linked to the Crispin of old, and its award-winning creative run, he is not interested in re-assembling the shop as it once was. "I don't have any interest in a reunion tour," he says, noting that "the second time around will be very different."
That is among the answers Bogusky provided to Ad Age in written responses in his first media interview since returning to CP&B.
Bogusky, who returns with the title of chief creative engineer, also reveals what role CP&B Chairman Chuck Porter played in luring him back (hint: it involves lots of coffee meetings), as well as how he views the AOR model and how he can reconcile a return to mainstream agency life after spending recent years as a consumer advocate railing against the kinds of big brands agencies covet.
Bogusky agreed to answer questions only by email, and there was no opportunity for follow ups. Below, a lightly edited transcript:
Why did you come back now? Why not just stay in Hawaii and bike and surf?
Why do anything? For me, it's always been about the fun and challenge. Same reason I like to bike and surf. Advertising might be slightly safer, and it can still get you stoked. But the challenge is the thing. My friends who are clients aren't as happy with the service and product that they get. They don't feel that their goals are truly aligned with their agencies'. I've been watching this all from the sidelines, and while it's a serious challenge, it doesn't strike me as one without solutions. I've got several in mind. Some new. Some old. And it feels like if the agency product is actually aligned to the current need, it will require a radically different model. What could be more fun?
What role did Chuck Porter play? What did he say to convince you to come back?
Chuck and I have always had a coffee about once a month or so, and usually he would ask me to come back at some point, and it was more of a running joke. Recently he asked, and I sort of surprised us both by saying that it might be fun.
Describe your new role. What are your top three priorities as you step into the new gig? How closely will you be involved in the day-to-day creative?
Without going into detail I'm focused on people, structure and process in service of a great creative product. I've always been closer to the creative than my title would suggest, and I'll continue that for a couple of reasons. First, it's the quickest way to have a positive impact (excellence is always a strategy), and second, if I don't jump in on the work and with the teams I won't have a real sense of how to improve the process.
During the time that you were at CP&B it was widely considered a hotspot but in recent years its creative reputation has moderated. How would you assess the current state of the agency?
I feel like there are great things happening. I think Linus Karlsson and Erik Sollenberg have already made the work better. There is a lot of work set to break that I'm excited about. Taking it to the next level is about getting to that place where absolutely ALL the work is bubbling. CP&B started as a pretty terrible agency, and we got to make it into the most-awarded agency in the world for six years. The difference between now and then is that back then I wasn't sure it was possible. Now I have the advantage of not having to wonder if we can do it. We know we can do it. And last time we had to climb the whole damn mountain. This time we can see the summit already. But this time around it will be very different. The definition of "great work" is certainly one we have to question.
Editor's Note: On Aug. 2, the same day Bogusky's return was announced, CP&B confirmed that Karlsson would be departing as global chief creative officer. Sollenberg remains CP&B global CEO.
A lot of the headline-grabbing stuff you did with CP&B was revolutionary at the time, but it is pretty widespread today. How will you be different now?
I hope this ride is similar and at the same time completely different. This is the way it goes: You do things differently. People get pissed. People say you're everything that's wrong with advertising. Then people begrudgingly adopt the way. Then it becomes widespread and boring, and you have to blow it all up again. Artist Joan Miró stated that his goal early in his career was to assassinate painting. And then he went about systematically mocking and dissecting the current school of thought. Eventually he was so successful that the new school of abstract painting was just like the work he was doing. So then he had to essentially start over but in many ways killing the ideas he had espoused. The second time around will be very different than the first for us, too. I don't have any interest in a reunion tour.
Under your watch, Crispin's innovations spanned not just the work, but also included how you addressed your business structure and model; for example, with the integration of production and bringing in design. How, if at all, are you looking to innovate the agency's current infrastructure? Where do you see the agency has room to grow/change in that sense? Where would you like to see the agency in one year?
It's too early to talk about, but yes, the structure, process and design is where a lot of my time is going right now.
What are CP&B's differentiators, or what should they be?
Again I can't get into the specifics, but as we advance we won't be shy about what we are doing differently. We won't keep our ingredients a secret. Right now we're running a series of experiments, and as those bear fruit and as they fail we will share those stories.
What are the changes you'd like to see at MDC Partners? We recently saw some executive cuts and changes—what else should be done at the high level or within its agencies to compete?
I've always experienced MDC as a culture and as a model that creates the environment that allows innovation to thrive. They aren't looking over my shoulder. They listened to the plan, they got excited and we hit go. Marketers need that entrepreneurial license now more than ever. With the persistent, dramatic changes taking place in our industry, almost everything deserves to be reexamined. It's our job at CP&B to be on the pointy end of the spear around innovation that can instruct the whole network.
We've seen such a shift to project work. What does that shift away from AOR relationships in the industry mean for the agency?
This is a good question. In some ways CP&B hasn't experienced that shift. CP&B is almost entirely AOR, and we and our clients value that relationship and the benefits it brings for building strong brands that take advantage of long-term thinking and planning. I love it. I love the commitment and the passion it breeds on both sides. But being nimble and quick to react is something that has to be a part of any engagement, no matter if it's a project or AOR.
You took on several consumer causes after you left CP&B, like going after Coca-Cola with CSPI. Now that you are back with a mainstream agency with mainstream clients, will you have to moderate how you publicly express your views?
I went through a period of righteous indignation for sure, but in general most of my heretical views on better ingredients and transparency are now mainstream views supported by mainstream clients. It's amazing what can change in eight years. Climate change isn't exactly debated anymore, and climate deniers can't even make a decent living today. Thank goodness. The debate now is much more about how to fix the problem and how fast. I believe it's important for everybody to stay involved and look for ways to move toward something better as we chip away at these big problems.
I do have another "environmental" issue that I'd really like to chip away at. And that's the toxic levels of hate and misinformation in our media environment. This problem also happens to be especially relevant to ad agencies. CP&B grew up as a business right alongside the internet. The open and democratic nature of the internet and social media was the "superhighway" that allowed us to zoom from a tiny startup to an agency that challenged the status quo of an entire industry. As a beneficiary of this new media environment, I feel I'd like to help try to protect it.
With our ad work we do our best to minimize the damage we do with positive, entertaining and relevant messages that go to people who actually want to see them. Yet we know everything we make pollutes the media environment to some hopefully small degree. But today advertising seems like almost a quaint form of pollution in a media environment swimming in toxic problems. Foreign governments hacking social media sites. Clickbait. Fake news. Hate speech. Media fraud. Bots. Data abuses and more.
I want us to work harder and smarter to minimize negative impacts of our own advertising and donate money to support groups that protect a free, positive and safe media environment. For starters, we need to get media literacy taught in public schools, but there are a lot of other great causes and projects we want to help. It makes all the logical sense in the world because we know that when we do this, every stakeholder in this value chain benefits, from our company to our clients and finally the consumer, who is, after all, us.
Your return generated widespread attention. You are one of the few remaining ad personalities that command this kind of attention. Is this a good thing?
I don't think it has much to do with personality. I think the attention was because of what we did. We weren't the only ones, but it's not a stretch to call us thought leaders in the industry. When the core group blew up, there wasn't the same sense of mission. It's not even easy to do an adequate job day to day, and when you decide you're going to do that plus push the boundaries of what advertising can be, every day, not everybody is up for that. You know when you're changing and disrupting – and there's no feeling like it. We're putting together those kind of people again, because the clients are asking for it and it will be fun as hell.
CP&B was described as a "sweatshop" when you were last there, with employees logging long hours and weekends. Is the current generation of creatives OK with working like this? What kind of pace will you keep now?
I don't know if you know it, but there is an insult sort of built into this question. People have called Ad Age articles clickbait. Are writers encouraged or discouraged from these tactics? Don't answer! Just fucking with you. You know, I have people constantly letting me know that their time at CP&B during those glory days was still the favorite part of their career. I heard it twice yesterday. We had a mission. We had each other's backs. And we offered an opportunity to find out how good you could be. When we moved to Boulder in the late '00s, we actively tried to dissuade an excessive work schedule. But with nobody holding you back and everything supporting your work, people dig in and sometimes go a bit bananas with their hours. That's always a bummer to see because it kills productivity.
But we're not a place for people who don't love what they do. No negativity. No cynics. Work as much as you need to be fucking great. Do it on a plane, on a trail or in a hot tub or at your desk. We are people who are always on and sometimes have a hard time turning it off. And it makes us happy to not have artificial lines between aspects of our lives. There are 325 million people in the US. I'm guessing we can find enough who want to be great.
You are still involved in multiple ventures outside of CP&B, including venture capitalist endeavors like Batshit Crazy Ventures, and you are an investor in Humanaut. Will you keep these roles? Do they present any conflicts?
One of the things I'm most excited about is what I've been exposed to as an investor the last eight years. Lyft was my first experience as an advisor, and it has been really stimulating to watch them go from five people to the tech juggernaut they are today. Using lean agile prototype and prove processes is a technique that we're already deploying in so many ways and in so many departments. An example that isn't very important but still interesting is optimizing freelance. We're running multiple experiments to determine engagements that optimize for creative, institutional client knowledge and cost. Being exposed to a lot of ad-tech startups has the important benefit of knowing what tech is out there in early stages that can be deployed against client opportunities. The ad industry thinks of itself as early adopters, but having spent time outside the industry, I can say that the reality and reputation that the industry has is as laggards. My keeping involved in venture is an advantage for us.
Contributing: Ann-Christine Diaz, Megan Graham