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.
My beef is more with how Crispin uses all that power. Because it seems that every time it takes over a brand, that brand quickly adopts an off-putting, bullying personality. For instance, Volkswagen's image throughout the 1990s was laid-back, progressive, and nongendered. Yet when Crispin won the account, its very first set of ads encouraged reckless driving and careless misogyny.
Crispin also appears to have a strange obsession with dictating the bounds of male identity. In the "Un-pimp Your Ride" spots for VW, a somewhat cruel protagonist ridicules young men who dare to seek self-expression through the art of modifying their cars. In the "Making Things Right" campaign for Haggar, two middle-aged guys gruffly rule their suburban neighborhood—advocating physical force against any young men who dare to wear earrings, or listen to rap music, or date your daughter. And then there's that Man Law campaign for Miller, where the concept achieves its most literal form.
I hate this kind of subjugating, behavior-circumscribing, frat-guy approach to humor. I realize it appeals to a certain target demographic (i.e., fratty guys of all ages). But it repels almost everyone else. And there's a danger in that.
When Crispin took over the Burger King account, Jeff Hicks told me, the agency "made a decision to be about the 'superfans' who are in the category on a daily basis." (Meaning young men, who are the most reliable fast-food eaters.) So, while McDonald's puts out upbeat, earnest ads aimed at women and children, and has a family-friendly mascot in Ronald McDonald, Burger King has abandoned any effort at broad-based appeal. BK's ads are full of irony and dark humor, and their creepily mute brand icon is the anti-Ronald.
Perhaps this is the correct strategy for Burger King. It's too early to say. But look at what's happening in the gaming-console business—another category traditionally focused on young men. While the PlayStation and the Xbox have fought a war over hard-core tech specs and nerdy graphics capabilities, the Nintendo Wii has gone the opposite route—roping in casual gamers, women and girls, and even retirees. As a result, the Wii has been a tremendous hit.
There's something to be said for maintaining focus on your core customer. But Crispin risks pigeonholing itself as an agency that understands only one kind of person. If they can't find a new voice—one that speaks to a wider range of consumers—I fear the Miller mess might be less an anomaly than a sign of things to come.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.