Love or hate their work. It’s all good for Crispin Porter & Bogusky.

December 12, 2008

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No other agency in recent memory has gotten more publicity good, bad or otherwise than Crispin Porter & Bogusky. For about a decade they’ve been changing the game for the rest of us. Their early work on “truth” was groundbreaking and devastating. Subservient Chicken is almost like a God. Frankly, since hitting their stride, CP&B hasn’t really faltered –not if you define success by their criteria.

What, you say? Hasn’t really faltered! Their Burger King is a creepy monster. Those VW crash spots made me cringe. And Whopper Virgins are an insult to society. All of that is arguably true. But it is also why CP&B is so successful. Their mission (to make their clients famous) has been accomplished. And it has been accomplished in spades. Even this blog is a support point for them as an agency. Haters are just more clicks. More proof of an idea’s power.

Crispin looks for work that will create buzz, urgency, relevance and drama. They are willing to tip over bunches of sacred cows to get it. And, for better or worse, most of the rest of us are not. Myself included.

In my last post I called Whopper Virgins ingenious. I also wondered if it was the right thing to do. I still wonder. And yet, either way, CP&B is smiling. The more I wonder the more buzz they are getting. If 1,000 people read this post and then three other bloggers write about it and in turn their readers comment….You see where I’m going, where it’s going. Crispin has delivered thousands of impressions for its client. And they are the most relevant and radioactive impressions in the market place: young, urban & digital. But I said “arguably” because none of this might sell any hamburgers.

In many respects, so what? That is not the promise CP&B made to BK, or, I’m guessing to any of its clients. I’m speculating (based on their creds and communications), the agency only spoke about making BK relevant and cooler to certain populations and that the rest would take care of itself.

Do I agree with this philosophy? Not always. But I am impressed by it…and the agency. They are maddeningly consistent. They always delight or piss everyone off. One of the two. Sometimes both. They are seldom, if ever, middle-of-the-road.

And here’s another great, big point. Considering all the criticism and praise, have you ever noticed it’s always about the work and never about the agency? I happen to know CP&B is a sweatshop. People are paid less and expected to work more. But you never read about that. Draft FCB is in the press a lot. But for them, sadly, the criticism is mostly about the agency and rarely the work. Big difference.

People who know me know I would never kiss anyone’s ass, especially a competitor. And I’m not doing so here. CP&B is playing with fire. Clients can and will get burned by them. I also would add, unlike a LOT of creative directors, I do not think it’s important to try and “be” Crispin. I’d rather try and “beat” Crispin. Big difference there, too.

20 Responses to “Love or hate their work. It’s all good for Crispin Porter & Bogusky.”

  1. Van Gould said

    The last day of my copywriting internship at Crispin Porter + Bogusky was yesterday. Working there for 12 weeks was the most challenging experience of my life, and I enjoyed every minute of it. That statement sounds like bull, right? How is it possible that I could have enjoyed every minute of an experience more grueling than my 5 years in the military combined? I don’t really know the answer, but I believe the culture at CP+B has a lot to do with it. I agree with you that it is preposterous for other agencies to try to be CP+B. However, would it make sense for other agencies to develop a similar culture?

  2. Van Gould-
    Emulating CP&B is always a strategy. But it’s not for everyone. Working 24/7 at the expense of all else a dubious achievement. You can win running other offenses. I do.
    Still, the proof is in the pudding. And they have it in spades.
    Steffan

  3. Jason Fox said

    I’ve generally been a big fan of CBP’s work. But I’d be a bigger fan if they weren’t a sweatshop (everyone knows someone who knows someone who’s been through their grinder). I think there are two basic strategies for getting great work (not counting luck): 1. Have great people who work hard but have real lives outside of work so they can replenish their creative wells, and 2. Have great people whom you drive until their wells are exhausted and they leave or you axe them. Number one has always seemed the better choice for both the agency and the greater good of its people. But then, as I’ve said here before, I’d rather my tombstone say something besides “He did some cool ads.”

    Fox

  4. SRP said

    Jason-
    Dictatorships work.
    And cults are powerful.
    CP&B is both.
    Though Alex no longer holds the whip, his figure looms over the agency like a Saddam banner. Young creatives are drawn to the agency, offered pittance, then toil for the almighty concept. Brilliant offerings are almost always a guarantee when failure is not on an option.
    It’s awesome, albeit a little creepy.

  5. Jason Fox said

    Oh, I have no doubt it works. And if I were 22 and just out of school I’d probably give anything to get chewed up and spit out by CP&B — and have the attendant portfolio to boot. But at this point, I have no desire to either be under such a regime or be the one running such a regime.

  6. I’m going to spend my two cents to agree with most of the sentiment here. I want a life. I want my dog to recognize me when I come home (though I imagine that she could come to work with me if I were at Crispin). I want to do “things” on the weekend, not ads. I’d like to date. Perhaps marry and have children, who, like the dog, will recognize me.

    But on the other hand… how easy is it, for those of us not doing “Crispin work” to say how much we would not want to be there? Some would call it sour grapes. If I were heading into my 15th hour of work this week at Crispin right now – on a Monday – I’d probably say our opinions are sour grapes. I’d have to. Because for the laborers in that sweatshop, that’s their easy route. As much as we may need to tell ourselves we don’t want that life, I’d guess that they need to tell themselves we’re all jealous… and it’s worth it.

    But when we’re honest with ourselves, and we look at the industry as a whole, it’s not necessary. Sure… there’s a lot of press and fame and fortun…. oh, maybe not fortune. At least not for the troops. But as Jason points out, they’re burned up and they move on. Of course, they move on to just about anywhere they want.

    But, like I said, it’s not necessary. I work in Boston. I wanted to the moment I got out of Portfolio Center in the late 90s. But the first job came in NY. Then I moved back to Atlanta. And Tampa. And Phoenix. It took several jobs, in six states, and 8 years before I got back to the city I wanted from the start. But I got here. And I’m glad. I’m glad because of the culture here. Boston is an excellent ad market. The Hatch awards are perhaps the most prestigious regional awards in the country, and some of the biggest brands are represented right here in Beantown. And like Crispin, we have stars here. Stars like Ernie Shenck (Hill Holliday), Marc Gallucci (Fort Franklin), Lance Jensen (Modernista) and Roger Baldacci (Arnold). They’ve all done some of the best ads we’ve ever seen. Big, impressive, creative, effective ads. And they all work their asses off. But there’s one big difference between them and the superstars at Crispin. They’re grown up. None of them are in their 20s. None, still in their 30s. In some cases, not even in their 40s anymore. But still relevant, and talented as hell.

    There’s no doubt the folks I’m writing about worked plenty of long hours. No doubt at all. But not to the point of destruction. And not in a way that consumed every part of their lives. And as a result, they have performed, above average, for decades. And all of them continue to do so.

  7. David Burn said

    “Dictatorships work.
    And cults are powerful.
    CP&B is both.”

    Tell us how you really feel, Steffan.

    Personally, I see them more as a fraternity, than a cult. Jim Jones really gave cults a bad name.

  8. SRP said

    Of course I’m being melodramatic, DB!
    Fraternity is a good metaphor as well.
    But I know people, including my brother, who’ve ‘lanced at CP&B. They bring food in and have quarters for sleeping…so folks won’t go out. Wives and girlfriends are considered a problem. And, by the way, where are the women?

  9. I just read Adage & Creativity’s coverage of CP+B’s anointment as 2008’s Agency of the Year. Of course, referencing Whopper Virgins, I’m a PC, and others. I remember when I heard Crispin got Microsoft that I was a little excited to see what they were going to do with it. And it made me start to wonder if there’s a little chicken/egg thing going on with Crispin. Is the work they do excellent and from Crispin? Or is there some element of the work being excellent BECAUSE it’s from Crispin?

  10. Andy said

    I’m just going to say a brief word because I’d rather not get involved in internet bickering that tends to result from conversations like this.

    I work at Crispin. And yes, I’m also relatively young and new to the business so take my observations with a grain of salt.

    When I interview here I made mistake (as many do) of mentioning the agency’s reputation for being a sweatshop. That belief was countered by a far more compelling perspective. It’s that people work so hard because you are basically drowning in opportunity. I’ve been here not even two months, and already I’ve worked on Hulu, American Express OPEN, Old Navy, Guitar Hero, the agency’s holiday site, and I’m about to start on Domino’s. What amazing opportunities. As hopefully as I was coming out of portfolio school, I never could have imagined having the opportunities that I’ve had here.

    And either appropriately or ironically depending on your view, I’m saying all this after having pulled in all-nighter last night, and I’ll likely be here till 10 tonight or so. We don’t get all our meals here as a way to keep us here. We’d be here anyway because we want to. They provide all sorts of amenities for us because we’re dedicating a very large portion of our lives here.

    But if before you think it’s just a machine that chews the juice out of young people and piles their corpses out back, I’d say that the leadership here is amazingly dedicated. ECDs Andrew Keller, Rob Reilly and Jeff Benjamin are here as much as anyone else–often more. And there are CDs here that I think are absolutely insane in their ability to function as human beings and accomplish all they do.

    And yes, there’s certainly a bit of a cult of personality that surrounds this place, but then again, look who we just elected as president. (And for the record, I’m a fan of both Bogusky and Obama.)

    I feel amazingly lucky to be here every day. And sure, I absolutely understand how this place is not for everyone. But why do people choose to attack it simply because they wouldn’t necessarily like to work here or don’t agree with its philosophy?

    Oh boy . . . I just got really deeply involved in this whole thing, didn’t I?

  11. SRP said

    Andy-
    Thank you for the note.
    It’s honest. It’s passionate.
    You and CP&B are lucky to have each other.
    And I mean that in the most sincere way.
    For young people, unattached, CP&B is the WAY.
    The opportunities are amazing.
    But ask those ECDs how their marriages or relationships are faring.
    Can a young father and mother pull all-nighters for the love of the game?
    No.

  12. Andy said

    Certainly. But that’s their decision. And I appreciate their dedication to what we do. We give back in. You tend to give back in the amount you’re given. And we’re given a hell of a lot here.

  13. Andy-
    Count your blessings, for you have many.
    Remember too -this is not, nor will it ever be, a hater blog.
    My original point was in regard to Crispin’s Fame strategy -that as long as the work generates buzz (good, bad or ugly) it has fulfilled its duty.
    Can you share with me (us) your feelings about fame as your co’s mission statement?
    Thank you for contributing to the blog.
    PS: I count Alex as a friend as well as competitor.

  14. Patrick said

    It’s a taste test but who cares about the winner in this contest. The Whopper Virgins idea is the most authentic piece of advertising I’ve seen in awhile and by far the most interesting idea ever to come out of burger culture.

    There’s been a lot of negative comments about this campaign ranging from “Those poor people. I bet their stomachs exploded soon after eating those things and woke up the next day craving hamburgers. Thumbs down for CP+B.” to “Why don’t they bring along a little smallpox while they’re at it…”

    This campaign isn’t about taking advantage of third world cultures or some bizarre global expansion strategy. It’s not even about taste! It’s about 1 thing: Making Burger King relevant again by getting people talking about it. In this they have succeeded based on all of the noise in the media about it.

    But for me, the real genius of this is how it introduces the idea of discovery and understanding through authentic cultural exchange. Not only did BK take our culture to other parts of the world, they are allowing us peek into cultures many of us aren’t familiar with even though it’s just a commercial. American society is so preoccupied with itself that we’re oblivious to just about every other culture on the planet. We often believe that everyone is just like us. And why not? We’re the greatest aren’t we?

    For better or worse this piece forces us to look at ourselves and take stock in what kind of culture we’ve created and/or forced onto other parts of the world. It forces us to think about how other people may view our culture and just how foreign we can appear in a different context. It forced me to think where the hell is that guy going to put that wrapper we just gave him? Will it end up in the ocean? Where have I been putting wrappers all of these years?

    These individuals should look curious and confused just like we would be if we were eating seal meat for the first time. I don’t think it’s designed to exploit them, rather to hold up a different mirror to our own culture. But the underlying point is we need to be aware and open others so that we can have a better understanding of our neighbors whether they live next door or live on another continent. It’s everything Obama’s been saying!

    Part of this “exchange idea” comes through during the Thailand scene when they show the Americans dining on the other cultures food. They even give you a nice close up of the dish that would typically be reserved for the burger “product as hero” sequence of a typical commercial. Everybody is sharing and it’s a two way street. I especially like the last interview and the gentleman revealing he “likes seal meat better.” It’s a great ending and more importantly it’s real.

    So thumbs up to Crispin Porter + Bogusky for letting us have it our way and bringing some other ways to us.

  15. Andy said

    Steffan,

    Sorry for the protracted reply.

    I do feel incredibly lucky to be at an agency so skilled in its work. While the strategy of “making our clients famous” isn’t always the right strategy for everyone, the agency has certainly honed its operations in this one area (much the way a purely digital agency directs its efforts). It gets so much press because it’s gotten so much for its clients. As you said before, it’s not a trick that other shops should imitate but rather take notes from incorporate into their own methods.

    Alex’s hero is PT Barnum, and it shows. That’s what the whole “Hoopla” thing is all about. I saw him speak about a year ago to the Atlanta Ad Club while I was still in school. He spoke about the fact that all ideas are written up in the form of a press release. i.e. Is this idea big/interesting/crazy enough to warrant press coverage? I remember that just blowing my mind. If you want to create big, attention-grabbing ideas, you have to approach your process from a completely different angle.

    And that’s what I love about things here. It’s not just about advertising but about everything around it. If we make some cool ads, great. But if we make ourselves or someone else look at something they’ve looked at for years in a new light, that’s the brilliant part. A burger is the same it’s been for fifty years. But what if we made a cologne out of it?

    And like I said, I don’t think the place is for every type of person or every type of creative. We’re trying to change that a bit with accounts like VW, Old Navy and Amex. But when we work on them, it’s still about how can we make people notice them. Often it’s a much different tone.

    And for as much fame as the place has generated, it takes a lot of heat too (obviously). It’s like any celebrity I suppose. A pop star can be featured on the cover of five magazines at once but also make the cover of all the tabloids. Personally I’ve gone through a lot of varying opinions. They were gods when I was in college. In portfolio school I slammed them for some of their “worst work ever” and thought they’d “lost it completely.” But then I was won over by stuff like Whopper Freakout.

    Any agency is going to have it’s fair share of successes and failures. CPB simply has to deal with it more because it’s put itself in that position. When JWT Atlanta runs a bad campaign you don’t hear people proclaiming the end of the agency.

    But hell, it’s all part of the fun. At the end of the day, it’s a fun place to work that generates a lot of fun work. That’s it. It’s good people working their asses off to do great work. That’s really what all of us are doing, right?

  16. SRP said

    Andy-
    This is an amazing essay on CP&B.
    Would you mind if I drew attention to it in the blog.
    I’m a big believer in the “Fame” strategy but I also agree that it’s not for everyone, including my shop.
    I’d like to continue this dialog. Okay?
    PS: Alex and I are mutual in our respect. I spent several meaningful hours with him in Cannes discussing our business…before his shop hit it big. Very enlightening.

  17. Andy said

    Of course not. It’s just more publicity for us, right?🙂

  18. Andy said

    As an addendum, I don’t think anything I’ve said here is any type of great insight gained from being here. It’s simply observations about the agency that you could likely get from picking up a copy of Creativity, reading Hoopla or hearing Alex speak. I think the difference about working here is that you get to see the (very kind) faces behind the work on a daily basis.

  19. I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

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