Alex Bogusky: “That’s all folks!”

For the better part of our new century, one “ad” agency has dominated the media landscape, transcending advertising and changing marketing forever. This same agency not only managed to thrive during economic turmoil but continuously spat in the face of industry naysayers and doom and gloom mongers, all the while making game changing, firestorm igniting, award winning, fame inducing, I-wish-I’d-done-that, kind of work.

Of course I’m talking about Crispin Porter & Bogusky. I once called them the Doyle Dane Bernbach of our time. A huge compliment, I know. Yet, I agree with the comparison now more than ever. CP&B has done to our business (and popular culture) exactly the same thing DDB did almost fifty years ago: Changed it. 4EVR.

Crispin’s version of Bill Bernbach? Alex Bogusky. And now, at the relatively young age of 47, Bogusky is resigning from the agency that bears his name, presumably to write books, ride bikes, stop the BP oil leak, and then some. Having received considerable earn out from MDC’s purchase of the agency, Alex can do whatever the hell he wants. Apparently, that includes bidding adieu (at least temporarily) to Ad Land.

For those living in a trailer down by the river, Alex Bogusky has been the agency’s creative leader since its inauspicious beginning some 25 years ago in Miami. His creative philosophy likely began the same way yours and mine did, to do persuasive communication that is smart, beautiful and entertaining. But it rapidly evolved into something unique and, at times polarizing. Pre-supposing social media and all that it entails, Alex wanted a Fame Factory for his clients, an agency that created conversations not just ads. It’s motto: “Don’t show me a script, show me the press release.”

CP&B’s anti-smoking “Truth” campaigns put the agency on the map. Launching the Mini-Cooper in America didn’t hurt. Then Burger King, Ikea, VW and more. CP&B was off to the races and just as quickly “off the chain.” Like it or not, no other agency generates heat –for their clients and for themselves- like Crispin Porter & Bogusky.

And so his resignation has caused a furor. Fast Company printed this story, painting a snarky picture, especially as it related to MDC Chairman & CEO, Miles Nadal. The piece made Alex out to be an “existential, rock star” (cool!) and Miles some sort of jilted “life partner.”

On their own blogs, Nadal and Bogusky quickly came out in refutation of the Fast Company story. Their passionate yet professional replies likely tell a far more truthful rendition of the story than the one posited by Fast Company. I’ve posted them here:

Alex\'s blog reply

Miles\' blog reply

Yet, these are more refutations than explanations…

Why did Alex Bogusky resign? I’m not a journalist and I’m not looking for angles. But I am deeply curious. Here’s a man at the top of his game, doing a job most of us can only dream of doing, and he just walks away. Why? I’m certain it wasn’t a business decision. Far from it. Next post, I’ll share comments made by one of his partners and bits from a conversation I had with him as well. Who knows; maybe resigning was a hoax. Just more hoopla. And I mean that in a good way.

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I’ve gone on record stating my almost complete disdain for radio as an advertising medium. I’m not changing my tune. Unlike other mass media, for some reason the intrusion of commercials just bothers me more. Always has. Always will.

That said I admire well-written radio when I hear it, especially given how rare. Kudos then to my agency brothers in New York, Euro RSCG in winning several Gold Lions on radio for Dos Equis, “Most Interesting Man in the World.” Last year The Most Interesting Man barely eked out a bronze in TV but since then has become one of the more beloved characters in advertising, winning prizes here, there and everywhere. Not to mention actually selling mucho Dos Equis.

Good for him. He and the agency deserve all the credit in the world. If for nothing else creating (and selling through) the counter-intuitive copy line, “I don’t always drink beer but when I do I drink Dos Equis.” Anyone in this business knows how risk adverse clients are, especially when it comes to dissing their own categories! That Euro RSCG and Dos Equis (Heineken) put forth a hero who doesn’t “always drink beer” shows creative moxie. The fact that he’s an older man is also refreshing in the youth-obsessed spirits business. The campaign rocks. ‘Nuff said.

Back to radio as a medium. When I was a boy there were no Ipods and MP3s. (Fuck you, it wasn’t that long ago!). People, especially young people, listened to music on radios. Sure, the Sony Walkman would usher in portable, private listening but for a brief period of time, maybe thirty years, from 1955 to 1985, every teen-ager in America owned a radio. Many of these contraptions were souped up multi-platform music machines also known as “boom boxes.”

In the summer one couldn’t go anywhere, really, without hearing them. When my amigos and I headed to Montrose Harbor or, as we called it, “the Lake,” it was always someone’s job to bring the “tunes.” Not that we needed our own as just about every car and beach towel had music blasting from it. The sounds of summer were a cacophony of Top 40, Disco and Heavy Metal. Occasionally, we’d here a Cub’s game but it wasn’t long before our Zeppelin and Judas Priest blew the old dude right out of his green and white lawn chair.

If we weren’t playing cassettes, the station to listen to was WLUP, otherwise known as “the Loop.” Guys like Steve Dahl and Johnny B were hugely popular in the morning (both of these jocks remain relevant today, though barely). Yet, it was the tunes that mattered and few stations played our heavier brand of music more readily than the Loop: Van Halen, AC/DC, Rush, Aerosmith; funny how these bands still play and record. Back then they were Gods.

If I go back even further (before pot…before girls…before even puberty) I remember sleeping over at my best friend’s house, staying up super late, listening to weekend countdowns on WLS Music Radio. We lived for the call-in contests, where if you were such and such numbered caller you’d win a lame tee shirt. The prize wasn’t really the point, however. It was about hearing your self on the radio. If you were lucky they’d let you choose and dedicate the next song. The one time I got through I chose “Slow Ride” by Foghat. Dedicated it to Becky at Mather High.

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David Jones, Kate Robertson, Oscar Morales for One Young World

At the Havas Café, adjacent the famous Carlton Hotel in Cannes, World Wide CEO of Havas Worldwide, David Jones and Euro RSCG’s U.K. Chairman, Kate Robertson took the stage to announce the location city for next year’s One Young World summit in Zurich.

For those unawares, One Young World is an initiative started by David, Kate and Euro RSCG to bring together the young people of the world in hopes of creating and securing a better future for it. Last year’s inaugural event in London had over one thousand young delegates from over one hundred countries. In fact, our agency in Chicago sent two. Featured “older” guests included Bob Geldoff, Desmond Tutu and Kofi Annan.

One Young World is a terrific example of a company proactively embracing social responsibility, which, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is one of the biggest trends in modern business. As David Jones pointed out (paraphrase), “It’s becoming more and more about what company’s are giving back to the world as opposed to taking from it.”

Marketing plays a key part. In fact, many of our clients (and yours too) are now spending time and money working on initiatives that add value to society and then talking about it. Besides being good corporate citizens, this is also a necessary business move. With the advent of social media and Internet connectivity, human beings no longer tolerate companies and brands that are not embracing values of some kind. Furthermore, when companies are seen as doing harm they are hammered for it, and not just by the press but also by everyone with a Facebook and Twitter account. Are you listening, British Petroleum? The message: Do good or else!

It’s easy to be cynical when big business and especially advertising agencies start talking about doing good works. Such entities are not known for altruism but for making money. Needless to say, they’d better walk the talk.

After the Havas Café event I spoke with my colleagues, Bill Mericle (CCO, Palm + Havas) and Blake Ebel (Co-CCO Euro RSCG Chicago) about this slippery slope. Was the spectacle of One Young World created more to look good than to be good?

“What’s wrong with doing both?” was their unanimous reply. They’re right of course. While creating One Young World clearly puts the agency in a broad spot light it is a deserved one. One Young world is an ambitious, complicated and costly affair. Procuring travel documents alone would tax most agencies beyond their patience. We should be proud that our firm is driving such a massive initiative. As Mericle pointed out, at the least, there is potential for “countless connections made on behalf of the greater good.”

The upside is considerably better than that. After all, these are the people who will be leading our world tomorrow. Presumably, after attending the One Young World conference in Zurich they will return to their home countries fired up to do some good. How could they not?

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Scene and be seen: Une soiree Majestik Hotel

So, I was heading to the Palais des Festivals for the awards ceremony honoring radio, media and outdoor Lions, when I noticed a cocktail party taking place on the swank, poolside terrace beside my hotel. Not being a drinker, I could care less about the open bar; it’s the people that make these things work.

And man, did I see people. Kraft Foods was hosting a gathering to honor one of their guests, who was featured at one of the better-attended events at the Palais, none other than the famed auteur, Spike Jonze.

For those unawares, Jonze directed Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and more recently, Where the Wild Things Are. Two of these films are in my top twenty of all time and all three are universally regarded as brilliant. In addition to revolutionizing music videos, he’s also made numerous groundbreaking films for our industry, including one of the best commercials ever created, Ikea Lamp, which garnered every award possible the year it came out, not the least of which a Grand Prix at Cannes. This year he has a 30-minute film in the show about robot love. The piece can be viewed here: Spike Jonze Film \"I\'mheremovie\"

Confession: Hours ago I played courier in a futile attempt to deliver my novel, The Happy Soul Industry and screenplay to his hotel. Yeah, I know, a total mook move. But a guy can dream…

Along with Mr. Jonze, attending the party were Bob Jeffries, Howard Draft, Dana Anderson, Ron Bess, Jonathan Harries, David Jones, Mark Figliulo, Abbey Klaassen, Diane Jackson, Lisa Wells, Tony Weisman, Edie Weiss and leadership personnel from USA Today, Hyper Island, MJZ films and countless other Ad Land movers and shakers. To appropriate a phrase from high school: it was like the C-Suite “on acid.”

Needless to say, I missed the awards ceremony. But that’s the thing with Cannes. Everywhere you turn is an existing/potential boss, partner, competitor, or client and, most importantly, mentor. To meet some of these people, however briefly, is a privilege. And besides, even if Spike Jonze has little interest in my book, I can now say I had a meeting with him!

To view a wide selection of Jonze’s work: Spike\'s ouevre.

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“Asia” for Fed Ex, DDB Brazil, Sao Paulo

Per usual, a great many short-listed adverts in the press and poster categories in Cannes are driven by their visuals. Assume similar for films. This has come to be expected; after all, it’s an international festival. Words are not the same everywhere. Not only is translating copy an imperfect means of determining its exact meaning (wordplay hardly ever comes across) but, let’s be honest, judges are impatient to do so. Jet lagged and jaded from hundreds of submissions, how can we expect each and every judge to take the necessary time to read the provided –often flawed- translations? It’s not fair –to them and the submitting agencies.

President and co-chief creative officer of the Martin Agency, Mike Hughes wrote an excellent article last week in Ad Age entitled, “Why Judging for International Awards Shows is Broken.”

Mike Hughes in AdAge

In it, he writes: “I confess that I often can’t even tell how good the craftsmanship is on many foreign pieces of work. How do I know if the writing’s sharp or if the use of local idioms is relevant when all I’ve got is a translation?”

But here we are and that’s the way it’s done. That said, pictures –be they illustration or photography- do translate across cultural divides. While aspects of the concept may yet be indigenous to a given population, and alien to others, an image fares infinitely better at being interpreted correctly than a piece of copy. Goes without saying, doesn’t it? Which is why so many of the submissions to Cannes also go without saying. (Point in fact there is little chance my hopefully clever double usage of the phrase “goes without saying” would ever come across translated in 17 different languages.)

And so we “see” more and more visually stunning ads in Cannes than we do copy-driven work. Maybe this isn’t so bad? Maybe it’s indicative of our shrinking world, whereby people from all walks of life are juxtaposed more than ever. The advent of social media has only turned up the heat. It’s like the melting pot at full boil.

In addition, for better or worse, I’d argue we are becoming an ever more visually driven world. Instead of all learning a common vocabulary we are increasingly reliant on images to communicate. This was said when TV first entered our lives, changing them forever. And it has only become more so.

As a wordsmith, I suppose I find the continuing transformation bittersweet. Watching communication be whittled down to 140 characters on Twitter or brief updates on Facebook can be disheartening.

On the other hand, it’s not like I don’t appreciate the changes either. Hell, I’m a part of them. I now use words to create images. I write stories (advertising and fiction), seeing the narratives in my head. Frankly, I started doing this a long time ago. Truth be told, agents and editors were quick to criticize my two books, The Last Generation and The Happy Soul Industry as being more like screenplays than novels. Younger people, however, appreciated them for precisely the same reason.

And so it goes at Cannes. The new breed of marketing communications is quicker: mobile technology, Apps, links, shared video, posters and design. A picture is truly worth a 1,000 words. Or millions of dollars, like this short-listed poster for the Illinois Lottery from Chicago’s own Energy BBDO.

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