Not for the Faint of Heart: Crispin's Rules for Digital

Jeff Hicks Gives a Five-Point Guide to a Post-Interruption World

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CHICAGO ( -- Interruption as a tool is obsolete. Let ideas find the medium. Great ideas, not channels, create buzz. Get comfortable with consumers messing with your brand. Business results are the only measure of success.
Jeff Hicks, putting advertisers in a place that's uncomfortable
Jeff Hicks, putting advertisers in a place that's uncomfortable

Those five points are the new rules for the digital experience, according to the leader of the agency that's arguably done the most to re-write the advertising playbook.

Jeff Hicks, CEO of Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, told e-commerce, ad agency, digital-marketing and IT executives here on Oct. 24 at the Forrester Consumer Forum, the theme of which was humanizing the digital experience, that disruptive content is not the answer to digital video recorders such as TiVo. "That's not happening."

'A place that is uncomfortable'
While DVRs raise the bar for how marketers reach consumers, rather than intrude in consumers' lives, the job now is to create content that is "so motivational and useful" that "consumers are not willing to live without it," he said. But, he admitted, "this puts advertisers in a place that is uncomfortable."

Crispin Porter helped push marketers out of their traditional-marketing comfort zones by inverting the business model, which starts with media and later fits ideas into the outlets. Instead, the agency uses the marketer's products as the source for ideas. Mr. Hicks showed how the agency helped Burger King regain its relevance by putting stories on french fry and soft-drink packages that conveyed the burger chain's sense of humor. Instead of using an obvious brand logo on a bag of fries, for example, consumers could read protocols on who gets dibs on "bagglers," the bits of fries left at the bottom of the bag.

For Volkswagen's Golf, the agency restored the Rabbit name to the marque to help "create a product that would market itself," Mr. Hicks said. And while broadcast has a place in the new model, TV should send consumers to the web or other media to tell brand stories. TV spots for VW featuring rock guitarists with their amplifiers plugged into a Golf or Jetta help imbed marketing "within the brand," he said.

Similarly, ideas must determine the communication channels rather than the other way around. The agency starts with anthropologic research before briefing creative teams. "We don't need a website for every product we launch," he said. But the web fit perfectly for Subservient Chicken. Crispin Porter created the obedient bird idea to communicate Burger King's selling point of "having it your way." Once the idea was fleshed out, the agency teased it on TV to pull consumers to the internet, which drew 18 million unique visitors and 7 million broadcast impressions since its inception. "For a $40,000 to $50,000 investment, it has done OK," Mr. Hicks said.

A risk brands should take
Not surprisingly, the viral effort opened the door for consumers to have their way in ways the marketer might not have felt the most comfortable with. Likewise with the launch of its King character. Crispin Porter's inaugural TV spot put the King in bed with another man. And Mr. Hicks admitted that a consumer-generated video using King masks created by the agency that ended with a "The Crying Game"-esque revelation "wasn't our favorite," he said, but that's the risk an agency or marketer takes in allowing brands to be played with.

"People want to interact with [brands]," he said, and doing so has huge payoffs. He cited the popularity of the website, which was born out of Miller Light's "Men of the Square Table" campaign. The site allows visitors to post their own laws, like whether it's OK to wear a pink shirt to work. Between May 15 and Oct. 15, the site drew more than 122,000 man laws and 875,000 unique visits for an average of 10 minutes, Mr. Hicks said.

However, in that time the brand's sales have been less then stellar. Shipments were down 5% in the third quarter and down 3.6% over the six months through September, according to Beer Marketers Insights. In less then two years, Miller Lite tumbled from best-performing of the three domestic light beers to worst.

ROI and momentum
Such a poor return on the investment would seem to defy Mr. Hicks' fifth rule that the only measure that matters is "turning great marketing into great results." But he said Crispin Porter doesn't look at an effort's individual results as much as it does the longer-term outcome. "We don't spend a lot of time in each medium," he said in response to a question from the audience. "Brands have momentum or don't have momentum. Is there momentum in the more holistic contributions?" He added that no single VW spot made the difference for the brand; it was a "succession of body blows over time."

To be sure, Crispin Porter's rules aren't for the weak of heart or the short on time. The agency relies on an enormous amount of trust by a marketer to wait for sales to catch up with the pop-culture high. When asked how he reconciles Miller's weak sales despite consumers' apparent affinity for man laws, he said the brand was showing momentum on the effort and that the agency was preparing another round of man law creative.

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Jeremy Mullman contributed to this report.
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