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.


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.

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.

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.

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.


“Supar Tool”

These films for Old Navy by my former colleague, Jamie King and his creative partner, Roger Camp came out of nowhere. I didn’t even know Jamie and Roger had a thing going with Old Navy. When they started their new agency, Camp + King in San Francisco I assumed they’d have to start small and go from there. Old Navy is a lot of things but it ain’t small.

And neither is this startling campaign, which makes uproarious parody of fashion advertising, suggesting it’s time to “dress like a man…not that guy.”

In one film, “that guy” is an ass-clown in pleated khakis, ill-fitting polo shirt and a fetish for his smart phone. In other words, like every other guy you see at the airport. How are men like this ever let out of the house dressed like that? You’d think their wives would intervene. Being a guy myself, I mostly don’t give a shit. Regardless, it’s an ingenious send up of suburban males and their hopelessly outré wardrobes.

A second film, “Supar Tool” goes the other way, in a more expected (but no less entertaining) parody of those smarmy, effeminate fashion campaigns that play more like soft core porn than clothes advertising. Yes, we’ve seen these sorts of parodies before. Years ago, Saturday Night Live famously did one that still resonates. But so what? Adland has been copping ideas from SNL as long as I can remember. In my view, being derivative is only a sin if you do it poorly.

These spots, by Epoch Films’ director Greg Bell are wonderfully produced, delivering the concept in spades. Though made for the Web the films look like a million bucks, proving that making cheap video for the Internet is a decision not a mandatory.

Say what you will about Old Navy they always push the envelope. They are fearless. And while I didn’t like many of their previous campaigns from Crispin Porter & Bogusky, I respected the hell out of them. Rarely if ever have they resorted to posing models in contrived locations. In this latest effort they literally make fun of the convention. I don’t know if Old Navy can ever be a real man’s store but this is a hell of a way to find out.

The “comfortable” agency? More like comfortably ahead.

You’ve got to hand it to agency McGarry Bowen. They just keep winning business. After reeling in a big piece of the Sears account a couple weeks ago they followed it up this week by catching all of Burger King.

Not to kill the fishing metaphor but this monstrous haul is no fluke. McGarry Bowen has been on a winning streak for years. Maybe even since their inception in 2002. According to Wikipedia, in 2008 MB was the largest independent advertising agency in New York. Clearly, those numbers will have to be revised.

The paint was hardly dry in its Chicago office (2007), when they began pulling in account after account, namely from Kraft Foods and often at the expense neighboring agencies, including mine. It seemed they were winning new business every week, and this during the height of the recession.

What gives? Was this seemingly innocuous babe born of the devil? Not likely. Lord knows there’s nothing naughty about their work. Even their relatively edgy “Don’t be Mayo” campaign for Miracle Whip was pretty straightforward when you got right down to it: vignettes, music, supers. Old school.

And indeed principals, John McGarry (Chief Executive Officer), Gordon Bowen, (Chief Creative Officer) and Stewart Owen (Chief Strategic Officer) are as old school as they come: Y & R guys from New York. In addition, many on the management team in Chicago grew up where I did, at Leo Burnett. All these guys are old enough to remember The Brady Bunch and the ads than ran on it. Who said advertising is a young man’s game?

John McGarry: “Dag Nabbit, I’m good!”

So, what’s their secret? I know CEO’s from every agency in America are dying to find out. I’ve heard some theories, one being that the founders are totally committed to relationship and brand building, notions that most every other firm considers antiquated and even trite. Are they? Here’s what the inimitable George Parker had to say about it on his controversial and popular blog, Adscam/The Horror:

“Perhaps all the fucktards out there (aka Big Dumb Agencies) pontificating about how they are social douchnozzeling and friending, tweeting, liking, whatever, should wake up and realize that having gone around the track a few times on all this communicator – conversationnozzle – shit… What they (clients) really need is a fucking ADVERTISING AGENCY!”

For the entire new century the hippest agency on earth has been Crispin, Porter & Bogusky. And rightly so. Their winning streak of both business and creative awards was unsurpassed. (I even called them the Doyle Dane Bernbach of our time.) Until now. Whether I was right or wrong, CP&B lost the Burger King account to McGarry Bowen.

Does this signify a changing of the guard? If ever two agencies were polar opposites it’s these two. Avi Dan, in a piece for Forbes, stated,

“maybe post-recession clients are not in a gambling mood. McGarryBowen is the ultimate safe choice. Sort of the advertising version of “Nobody ever got fired for hiring IBM.”

I’m not going to editorialize; I admire both agencies. But I’m pretty sure only one of them is hiring right now. My take: MB and CP&B balance each other out. Like yin and yang. Maybe shops versed in both schools are where it’s at, places like Goodby and Wieden.

Making fun of monks may not be very zen but it is intrusive.

We’ve all seen the commercial, the one where Tim Hutton has dinner at Tibet’s expense. If you didn’t catch it on the Super Bowl (all three of you) then you most certainly read about it EVERYWHERE. The damn thing made the front page in all the papers. Conan did a skit. Bloggers went bonkers. Children cried! And now even I am putting in my two cents.

My opinion: Yes, it was crass. But crassness is why it was so intrusive. And intrusive is something advertisers want to be, especially those seeking marketing communications from a certain shop in Boulder Colorado. CP&B promises fame for its clients. Period. And fame is what they delivered.

Groupon is now covering its tracks claiming that consumers didn’t see the big picture; that, in fact, they are a socially aware company. That the causes they make fun of are actually near and dear to their hearts. That if one looks on their website one will find links to charities sponsoring the very causes they poke fun at. This morning, I read they are also “tweaking” the commercials so that all this ‘goodness’ becomes clearer to the consumer. Then I read they are pulling some or all of the work from air. What next: A mea culpa from the CEO?

Too late. The spot ran on the Super Bowl and that means it is part of history. Better said, it made history. Therefore, it did what it was supposed to do. Agency CP&B made yet another client more famous than they were before contracting them. No easy feat if you’re Groupon.

And it wasn’t the first time they’ve done so using shock and awe. Remember Crispin’s campaign for VW, which horrifyingly dramatized car crashes? Or when they gave Whoppers to poor people in third world countries? CP&B pushes buttons other agencies (and their clients) don’t, won’t and can’t. It’s their M.O. And they fearlessly stick to it.

And Groupon knew it. Why else would they have contacted them? They wanted dynamite and they got it. In my opinion, for them to pretend the collateral damage was wholly unintended is more offensive than the commercials.

And while King Consumer can react to the work as he or she pleases, we in Adland should think hard before throwing stones. Emulating CP&B has long been a silent mandate in many creative departments. This could be one of those teachable moments for all of us. Knock it off or lighten up. But before taking sides, take stock.

Something else. Alex Bogusky left his namesake agency for personal reasons. Once, he was their creative leader and conscience but that same conscience directed him elsewhere. A higher calling, if you will. He is now fronting a socially aware brand of capitalism called “Common.” Could it be Alex wearied of creating drama reckless of his moral compass? I would love his take on the Groupon campaign. Wouldn’t you?

Update: I had the spot posted above but it was yanked from You Tube, ergo the Tibetan flag…