The King’s Comeuppance
How the hottest ad agency of the aughts fell from grace.
What went wrong—how did Crispin’s success so quickly transform into failure? My feeling is that the agency initially excelled mainly by whipping up attention through shock value and pop-cultural attunement. This skill won it plaudits from mid-level creatives across the advertising industry (who yearn to be as daring as Crispin but are reined in by the cooler, wiser heads who employ them), and was initially thrilling to Crispin’s clients (marketing executives who delight in the sudden onslaught of Twitter traffic mentioning their brands). But after it built this early momentum, Crispin was at a loss. It didn’t have the tools to do anything other than raise yet more buzz—which requires ever more outrageous stunts, and generally results in diminishing returns. There’s a Crispin employee handbook out there that defines advertising as “anything that makes our clients famous.” But effective branding is much more nuanced than that. Burger King is now famous for having a mute weirdo as its spokesperson. Given its sales performance, I think BK would prefer a bit less of that kind of fame.
To be fair, few ad agencies achieve the sort of singular aesthetic sensibility that Crispin has. In the agency’s heyday, I could spot a CP&B ad three commercial breaks away. This stemmed in part from the unique outlook of Crispin’s longtime leader, Alex Bogusky—for many years the closest thing advertising had to a rock star (though he has now left the agency and is pursuing personal projects). Bogusky was an ad exec who simply didn’t like advertising.
That’s not something I’m inferring from the tone of Crispin’s work. That’s something Bogusky has actually said: “My relationship with advertising was that I was not that fond of it," he told Canada’s Globe and Mail earlier this year. "So mostly the way I approached it was to kind of mess with the form. So I was never a fan. I don't watch commercials. I don't, you know, say, 'Hey, check this one out.' I really don't care about that stuff." Bogusky was an auteur, and Crispin was molded in his image. But auteurs are not wanted in the marketing world. It’s not about putting your personal stamp on the work. It’s about the product you’re selling. You need to melt yourself into the background.
“They’re much more important than the client, in their minds,” says Peter De Lorenzo, editor in chief of the car commentary site AutoExtremist.com. “They make ads to amuse themselves. Now that Deutsch is VW’s agency, they’re making ads that broaden the brand’s appeal. Crispin never bothered with that.” In fact, one of new agency Deutsch LA’s first pieces of work when it took over the Volkswagen account turned out to be the most beloved ad from the last Superbowl: a kid in a full Darth Vader costume believing he has psychokinetically started the engine of his parents’ VW. Crispin never once made a VW or Burger King ad this sweet and endearing, tickling every demographic at once.
But a redemption of sorts has come for Crispin, in the form of delicious, cheesy noodles. The agency’s work for Kraft Mac and Cheese—portraying kids who get revenge on their macaroni-stealing dads—has been mildly subversive yet still heartwarming and delightful. It seems Crispin has learned its lesson and found a sweet spot that makes both creatives and clients happy. And it’s already been rewarded: Kraft has recently granted the agency additional work. I can say in all honesty that I look forward to enjoying it.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.