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Some years ago, I had the pleasure of conversing with Alex Bogusky before he became a demi-God of Advertising.

We were at a vendor-sponsored pool party in Cannes. Unlikely as it seems, both of us were not really digging the scene. He seemed to prefer a quiet discussion versus living it up in the shallow end. I was more torn on the issue but also more than happy to oblige him.

For the record, later that week, Alex and his namesake agency would win handfuls of Lions, including the Grand Prix for a charming spot from Ikea called Lamp. Crispin Porter and Bogusky were in the middle of an epic run making them perhaps the most famous ad agency on earth.

But Alex wasn’t interested in talking about prizes.

images-1.jpg Bogusky / file pic from that period

Like a lot of executive creative directors (myself included), he’d come to Cannes simply because he could. However, he now admitted to being unsettled by the attention he and his agency were getting. He confessed that this would likely being his last time at Cannes.

“Steff,” he said, “we’ve got plenty of swimming pools in Miami.” (This was before CP&B moved its main office to Boulder.) Then he added, “I find that I like doing work more than celebrating it.”

I’m paraphrasing from memory, but this was my favorite bit. Ironic commentary coming from the man who would later write Hoopla (a book about fame in marketing), and probably win more Lions than any other person or agency in the United States.

Yet, to me, Bogusky’s ambivalence about all of it seemed indicative of a higher power beginning to work in his life: that making work, really good work, was more important than drinking champagne and toasting about it.

Bigger picture Alex was also discovering the persistent headache and clashes of conscience that hedonism invoked. Lessons I would learn the hard way.

Later that year, Alex resigned from his agency to pursue other interests. Now he’s taking back the creative reigns at his namesake agency. Prodigal son returning or is something else going on? I know I’m not the only one who looks forward to finding out!

Author’s Note: A version of this story appeared previously in ReelChicago

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A few 24 hours ago, I had the pleasure of conversing with Alex Bogusky before he became a demi-God of Advertising. We were at a vendor-sponsored pool party in Cannes. However unlikely as it seems, both of us were not really digging the scene. He seemed to prefer a quiet discussion versus living it up in the shallow end. I was perhaps more torn on the issue but also more than happy to oblige him.

For the record, later that week, Alex and his namesake agency would win handfuls of Lions, including the Grand Prix for a charming spot from Ikea called “Lamp.” Crispin Porter & Bogusky were in the middle of an epic run making them perhaps the most famous ad agency on earth.

But Alex wasn’t interested in talking about prizes.

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Alex Bogusky, from that period…

Like a lot of executive creative directors (myself included), he’d come to Cannes simply because he could. However, he now admitted to being unsettled by the attention he and his agency were getting. He confessed that this would likely being his last time at Cannes. “Steff,” he said, “we’ve got plenty of swimming pools in Miami.” (This was before CP&B moved its home office to Boulder, CO.) Then he added, “I find that I like doing work more than celebrating it.”

I’m paraphrasing from memory but this was my favorite bit. Ironic commentary coming from the man who would later write “Hoopla” (a book about fame in marketing), not to mention win more Lions than probably any other person or agency in the United States.

Yet, to me, Bogusky’s ambivalence about all of it seemed indicative of a higher power beginning to work in his life: that making work, really good work, was more important than drinking champagne and toasting about it. Bigger picture Alex was also discovering the persistent headache and clash of conscience that hedonism invoked.Lessons I would learn the hard way.

Later that year, Alex resigned from his agency to pursue other interests.

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He’s back…

Has it been ten years? It seems like only yesterday that Crispin Porter & Bogusky and the Barbarian Group unleashed Burger King’s risqué digital critter, Subservient Chicken into the cyber sphere, changing the marketing landscape forever.

No overstatement, for here was a web born oddity that challenged the way marketers interacted with consumers. Subservient Chicken was stupid by design, entirely digital and immensely provocative, especially within the advertising community. Ostensibly touting BK’s chicken sandwiches, Subservient Chicken lived on a microsite, where one could make him do various naughty things. If I remember correctly the Chicken possessed a bondage vibe, implying Tarantino-esque behavior.

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A hit with the chicks…

Personally, I don’t recall the specifics but I do know it made Burger King and especially CP&B famous. Whether consumers actually gave two shits about SC’s antics, he/it became part of the conversation, driving more attention and commentary than almost anything else in Adland. Everyone at every agency had an opinion, many unfavorable. “Where was the brand?” the old guard screamed. “Why on earth would BK want a nasty chicken promoting their food?”

On and on the uproar continued. Through it all, CP&B flourished. The more the critics bellowed the more famous the campaign became. Instead of defending itself, the agency shrugged off all haters, if anything encouraging them more. Burger King corporate may have flapped its wings, freaking out. But they were powerless in the face of all this attention. Bad ink truly became good ink. And for a major advertiser like Burger King the notoriety was a game changer.

Notoriety. From that point on, CP&B’s mission to make brands famous (or infamous as the case may be) became a notion that countless other advertisers now had to take seriously. Online discourse, especially via social media, became relevant to marketing.

CP&B went on to make one award-winning campaign after another, incorporating then-new platforms like Facebook to do it. As a follow-up to the perverted Chicken, the agency introduced us to the Creepy Burger King. An equally loud and persistent racket ensued.

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Where’s the beef?

Clients flocked to the agency for something similar. Every creative person on Earth wanted to work there. For many years CP&B was the center of the marketing universe, envied and reviled at the same time. I can’t tell you how many meetings I was in where the Subservient Chicken was brought up. Like it or not, the campaign was in a league with Nike and Apple. Eventually, and controversially, BK and CP&B would part ways (the heat in the kitchen was just too hot) but SC’s impact in Adland can still be felt.

A decade later, Burger King, via work from a trio of other agencies, is bringing back its risqué’ mascot. Will it have the same effect as before –in Adland, at award shows and on popular culture? I don’t think that’s possible.

For a look at the new campaign as well more history, here’s the story in AdAge.


He didn’t respond so it must be true!

I still haven’t read the comments on Agency Spy’s “story” about me leaving my job at Euro RSCG Chicago. But then a visitor to my own blog (by the name JT) had to go and sum them up for me! Thanks JT. I guess. His full assessment is posted in the comments of my last post. Look, I believe JT was trying to do the right thing. He seems to have put a lot of effort into his “two cents.” While I was not planning on rebuttal, here are my responses to the three primary criticisms levied at me –chronicled on Agency spy and summed up by JT:

1. “Steffan- you’re always pimping Altoids.” The last time I wrote or spoke about Altoids was last year, in a speech for the Outdoor Association of Puerto Rico in San Juan. It wasn’t the primary focus of the material but they had asked me to work it in. Other than that, I don’t recall any recent communications I’ve done regarding Altoids. Tell you what. Search my blog or twitter feed. If you find something vainglorious promoting Altoids send me the link and I’ll publish it with my humblest apologies. Here’s a promise: If everyone else stops talking about Altoids and me the conversation dies. Your call everyone else.

2. “Steffan- you’re always promoting your books and blogs.” I link my blogs to my facebook and Twitter account. Doesn’t everyone? If not, why not? It’s called connectivity. When I write a post it sends the link to both. In addition, within 48 hours of creating new material on my blog I’ll probably tweet it 2 or 3 times, so as to share the link with friends and followers. My favorite bloggers do the same. I try to write three new posts a week. Do the math. Seems like normal behavior to me. Otherwise, I tweet about the same silly shit you do: “Bears suck!” “Go Bears!” BTW, one of my blogs, The Rogue's Gallery is a showcase for OTHER people. Not me. The other blog, Sweet by Design gives away my latest book coupled with a contest to design its eventual paper cover and win an iPad. In none of my blogs do I make any money or try to.

3. “Steffan- you criticize other people’s work but what have you done.” Here I might be culpable. Though I mostly write about tendencies in modern marketing from time to time I do select certain campaigns and talk about them. I believe praising Allstate’s “Mayhem” campaign is the most recent example. (Full disclosure: I am working on a story about another campaign, which I will share soon.) As for personal accomplishments (or lack thereof), I stand behind what’s on our website. I also think our campaign for Valspar paint was some of the best work I’ve ever had a hand in. Still, one of the things I’m most proud of from my last job was helping to build a good, decent agency from some pretty damaged material. We became viable and competitive, a real team. That we survived the crippling recession with minimal job losses is pleasant proof we did something right. Alas, I cannot put that in my “portfolio.” It was a mortgage on my creative reputation that I was willing to make. I’d do it again.

As I’ve already acknowledged, being part of the so-called “conversation” sometimes means getting your ass handed to you. Of course I get upset at the shit people say about each other and me. But I try not to contribute to any death spirals and I most certainly do not comment anonymously. In the end, I’m forever learning, just like everyone else! So, thank you JT and anyone else who cares to read and write on my behalf. Even the haters. It’s an honor.


My office: Me, Bo and the Internet

Last year at this time I wrote about Martin Luther King’s inspiring Letters from a Birmingham Jail. It’s an amazing piece of writing (his not mine) and on this day, when we celebrate what would have been his 82nd birthday, I urge you to read it or his famous “I have a Dream” speech. Despite all evil in the world, we are better because Dr. King was in it.

But it made me think…the line between hater and follower is razor thin isn’t it? Look at the craziness surrounding the tragedy in Tucson. Gun sights on Palin’s blog! Dark postings from the shooter! The finger pointing online is as reckless and hate-filled as that assassin’s gun. Yet, however uncivil, it is the “conversation” we are having. It is representative of how we think and feel. Therefore it is valid.

That is the blessing and curse of social media. As a writer and creative professional, it is the reality I chose to embrace, as much from necessity as desire. To do our job, one needs to be versed in the good, the bad and the ugly of the Internet. And that includes vitriolic blogs. When I left my job last week the trade tabloid, Agency Spy posted about it. As of this writing it has engendered over 60 comments, which I have not read. Needless to say, I’m guessing they are not voting me into the Advertising Hall of Fame. Sometimes being part of the so-called conversation means getting your ass handed to you.

Popular culture is vulgar and wonderful at the same time. (Have you played Left 4 Dead?) Advertising has always been a reflection of that. In turn our creative ideas shape popular culture, taking it in wonderful and vulgar directions. Often simultaneously. As we move from mass media into more personal territory, the distinction between what is inspired and what is cruel, stupid and downright creepy blurs even further. Last year, Diesel won a Grand Prix in Cannes for its Be Stupid campaign from Anomaly of New York, work that championed bad behavior in the name of self expression. I found the ads vulgar and wonderful at the same time. Didn’t you? Is that, then, the current definition of brilliant? It was rewarded as such.


I rest my case.

Such questions are a cornerstone of this blog. And I hope it is with this same inquisitiveness that I create and/or look at work, deciding what to make and how far to push it.

Ideas begin crude. Refining them is our craft. Lately, however, the refining process has altered. Instead of polishing words and pictures we keep in some of the crude. We think it honest. In this way our craft is reflecting a self-disclosing popular culture. Crude is real. It also happens to be promotional (Whopper Sacrifice) and direct (Be Stupid). Ironic for all our digital savvy how blunt we’ve become…again. Fifty years ago we said let the buyer beware. Now we say let the consumer decide. I say what’s the difference? What goes around comes around, right? Damn right it does.