"I'm a frustrated industrial designer," says Alex Bogusky, one of the world's best known advertising men. "I originally wanted to be a designer and my dad told me, 'No, it's too hard, you won't be able to do it.' So a little of this is a way for me to say to my dad, 'Yeah? Really?'"
"This" refers to a burgeoning design discipline at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the agency known for its award-winning, culturally penetrative, category-charging brand campaigns. And while paternal comeuppance is doubtless a satisfying incidental perk, becoming the designer he always wanted to be is really just Bogusky's next necessary step in making CPB the complete brand creativity factory. The agency's design initiatives have ranged widely in nature and scope. They include products for existing clients?like BK Joe, a variably caffeinated house coffee and Chicken Fries for Burger King, and a whimsical new pizza ordering device called the Knock Box for Domino's. They also include self-propelled product initiatives and industrial design-driven partnerships?like developing a range of new products for Twist, a startup sponge company, and creating a large scale new public bicycle sharing system for cities and large institutions.
CPB's design "department" actually consists of just six full time staffers, including former art director Neil Riddell who now acts as VP/director of product innovation. But as it builds its repertoire, design thinking is more intrinsically woven into the creative cloth of the agency, meaning that many of the agency's ad creatives contribute to design ideas, and that clients are now often briefing the agency on design and communications. A 3D printer allows the design team to prototype all the agency's industrial design ideas in house.
CPB bolstered its design resources with the acquisition, in spring 2007, of Radar Communications, a Boulder-based consultancy and market research company. Radar was joined with CPB's existing Cognitive and Cultural Studies contingent to form the new Cultural Radar department, with Radar founder John Winsor acting as VP/executive director of strategy and product innovation.
Winsor, previously a sports magazine publisher, met Bogusky in the classic Colorado way?mountain biking ("John is out of his fucking mind," says Bogusky, approvingly, of Winsor's outdoorsmanship ). "The agency's products department is now closer to a design studio's," says Winsor. "Where you've got anthropologists and people from social sciences and journalists. It means a broader way of thinking about the cultural effects of something, about what can be solved."
The upshot of the industrial design and research rigor is that marketing thinking is applied at the beginning of the brand process?so design applies to product, communication, total experience. The goal of CPB's product innovation efforts is to have marketing and design thinking considered together, from the start, or as Bogusky is fond of saying, to create a product with marketing baked in (he and Winsor are co-authoring a book on the subject).
"Here's the old approach," says Bogusky. "As an agency you're given a product, then you come up with your consumer research and figure out what's going on around the product. Then you figure out how to position the product or lie about the product so it seems to answer all the issues around it." A better way, he says is "to take the cultural insights and move them to the beginning of the process. Your cultural and consumer research instructs the product. So it creates something you don't have to lie about. The product not only fulfills a need, but it fulfills it in a way that is very apparent to the consumer. Because that's the other part of it; people have to see that a product has what they want. It has to be very explicit in its design that it solves a unique problem."
And that's another unfortunate reality of most advertising produced out of communications silos (aka ad agencies), he says. Any genius that might be in the product has a good chance of getting lost in an advertising narrative that is built discretely, well away from anyone or anything having to do with the creation of the product's own narrative. "One of the things I always found fascinating working on strategy and research for products is that many companies, too, have silos," says Winsor. "There are product design teams and marketing teams and really they don't talk. At Radar we were connected to the product folks but we never worked with the marketing folks." Deepening the design/marketing chasm is the surprising fact that at most companies, design does not occupy pride of C-suite place.
"If you look at the way companies are structured, the people in charge of product are not in the boardroom," says Bogusky. "There's no product executive officer. Agencies are in the boardroom all the time. We know the CEOs of the companies we work with and obviously we know the CMOs. Product doesn't work like that. It sits further down." Different product managers also likely work independently of each other, so a common design language among a marketer's various products is a rarity. "They don't see that language as part of marketing or part of branding. We're lucky enough to be in that boardroom and we bring industrial design, we bring product ideas. Then it becomes a long term vision for the company."
The agency is also working on a larger scale self-propelled initiative called B Cycle. Inspired by a trip to Paris and that city's Velib program, Winsor and Bogusky started thinking and talking about the idea of a public bicycle rental scheme for Boulder and beyond. A series of connections led to conversations and ultimately a joint venture with health insurance company Humana and bike maker Trek to bring B Cycle to cities across the U.S.
Needless to say, the agency also aims to bake its design thinking into its new and existing client relationships. CPB has a history of innovating outside of strict communications?the 3 million-selling BK Games come to mind. One of its earliest marketing products?a design idea that complemented a bigger brand initiative? was the Fast, the demonic little creature the agency invented to ride along in GTIs it was advertising in 2006.
The agency is currently working on another covetable little product for VW?a slender camera that takes a steady stream of pictures inside and outside the vehicle, effectively documenting a driver's road trip. The camera design is still a work in progress?at this stage looking like a snap happy homunculus that can cling to a rear view mirror or stand on a surface to capture images. Another project has CPB re-creating a portable stick for WD-40, now called the Go Pen. The agency develops its own design projects under the banner Duh.
Which, well, sort of rams one face first into the question of how agencies are going to evolve to remain relevant into the next marketing era.
"CPB is often seen as doing new things," says Bogusky. "But when I look at the history of advertising we're really just trying to grab back the old things that agencies gave up over the years. People say 'we want to be strategically involved.' Well agencies stopped being strategically involved because it was profitable to stop being strategically involved. Then they stopped being involved in media because it was profitable to stop being involved in media and to spin it into something else. So we've reclaimed that territory; we've realized that creativity and media are connected." Bogusky compares the nascent design division to the building of the shop's digital discipline?the agency now has 200 people who work in digital. He sees the industrial design arm growing to about 30 specialists, and like digital, involving everyone in the creative department. "I don't think we're all that newfangled. Everyone will have to have serious digital capabilities, any good sized agency. To me (design) is very much the same thing. We're beginning a process of something that clients will expect. It won't be something that they will have any comfort level with you not providing."