The Hottest Ad Agency in the Country
And why I sort of hate it.
For some time now, Crispin Porter & Bogusky has been the hottest ad agency in the country. It's won massive accounts like Burger King and Volkswagen. It's been "Agency of the Year" at the Clio Awards for two years running.
And I sort of hate it.
It's not personal. Every Crispin employee I've ever spoken with has been friendly and likable. And it has nothing to do with how effective or ineffective Cripin's ads are as sales tools. The jury's still out on that.
No, my distaste is purely aesthetic. Crispin ads annoy me. And I'm not alone. Every time some new Crispin spot airs on TV, my inbox fills with mail from readers who are disgusted, offended, or just generally skeeved out. For example, consider the zombie Orville Redenbacher popcorn spot (reader comment:"It is one of the most horrible, stomach-turning ads I have ever seen"), or the paleo-masculine "I Am Man" Burger King spot (reader comment:"Can it get any stupider? 'Chick food'? Throwing a minivan off an overpass? Why not just show footage of Haditha with some CG product placement?"), or the ongoing BK campaign featuring the mute, plastic-headed "King" character (reader comment:"I like BK but the king is the creepiest thing ever to appear on TV and I know many people who suffer from nightmares thanks to him and these ads").
Strong reactions. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, a vigorous response is precisely what Crispin wants. As CEO Jeff Hicks told me, "We make a conscious effort to have our brands commented on and talked about." It's his feeling that in a world supersaturated with content—video games, Web clips, text messages, etc.—to "break through and be noticed is a huge victory." Crispin is the master of breaking through, getting attention with its provocative TV ads and also with smart viral projects (remember the Subservient Chicken?).
But is all attention good attention? This is an age-old question at the heart of the ad game. And there's really no right answer. Sometimes a provocative, attention-getting ploy is just what a brand needs. Other times, the tactic falls on its face.
Consider, for example, Crispin's recent split with the beer brewer Miller. Crispin devised a campaign for Miller Lite featuring a panel of red-blooded dudes (including Burt Reynolds) who convene to establish various "man laws" that will govern male behavior. The campaign has funny moments, and, as intended, it got some traction around the water cooler. But according to Ad Age, it "generated more of the social currency Crispin is known for than sales" (subscription required). Miller responded to this sales dip by pulling the Man Law spots and eventually substituting ads it created in-house, without Crispin's help. These new spots were drab and straightforward, mostly emphasizing Lite's low carbohydrate and calorie counts. Soon after, Crispin ditched the Miller account, citing "fundamental differences." ("We haven't lost a client in years," Hicks told me several weeks before this breakup. And technically, they still haven't—since they brilliantly played the I'll-dump-you-before-you-can-dump-me game.)
Of course, it's always insulting when a client pulls your ads and replaces them with in-house dreck. But for Crispin, this betrayal is particularly galling. As Hicks explained to me (again, weeks before the Miller spat), Crispin's core philosophy demands total control over every nook and cranny of a brand's image. Crispin wrote and recorded the hold music for Burger King's corporate headquarters; designed the look of all the food packaging; and came up with the response BK counter-workers bark out when you order ("Nice order!"). They chose the uniforms for Mini Cooper's sales staff. When they started work for Haggar, a men's apparel company, they went so far as to consult on the clothing designs. ("Marketing is sometimes the fact that you have double-stitched pockets," says Hicks.) Increasingly—and this is the case with Haggar—Crispin even takes an ownership stake in the brands it partners with.
All of which is admirable. If I were hiring an ad agency, I certainly hope it would be detail-oriented. Branding is a delicate, nuanced affair, and every outward representation of a company helps shape its image.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.