The King’s Comeuppance
How the hottest ad agency of the aughts fell from grace.
I come to bury Crispin, not to praise it.
In 2007, I wrote a Slate story detailing my bitter hatred of the advertising agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky. At the time, Crispin was the sexiest ad agency in the country. It had been named “Agency of the Year” at the Clio Awards for two years running. It was designing enormous campaigns for well-known brands like Volkswagen and Burger King. And yet the more accolades Crispin received (Ad Age judged it the No. 1 agency of the decade at the end of 2009), the more my distaste for the outfit sharpened. Crispin’s raunchy, bro-focused vibe rubbed me all the wrong ways, targeting the lowest common denominator with campaigns that valued provocation above substance and casual cruelty above inclusiveness.
Thus it has been with a toothy grin, and evilly steepled fingers, that I have greeted reports of recent Crispin setbacks. In 2010, VW dumped them. In 2011, Burger King followed suit. So it’s safe to say I’m feeling vindicated. And, if you’ll forgive me, I’d like to take a moment to victory Dougie.
First, let’s talk about Burger King. What will we remember from Crispin’s long run with the brand? Well, there was the exhumation of BK’s old King character—which, in Crispin’s 2004 update, became embodied by a man wearing a creepy plastic mask. The ginger-bearded King would show up in various contexts, look scary, say nothing, and generally propagate disquietude. Or perhaps you recall the Subservient Chicken. This viral sensation involved a giant chicken in black lingerie, practicing ritual submission in front of a webcam in a seedy room.
Even when Crispin promoted children’s meals, using a SpongeBob SquarePants tie-in, they somehow managed to make an ad featuring busty women shaking their asses. There was a conscious strategy at work here: Crispin told me straight out that it had decided to laser-focus all its marketing on BK’s “superfans”—meaning young dudes who eat fast food on a near daily basis. I wondered at the time if actively ignoring, and even offending, every other demographic category in America might be unwise for a nationwide brand that could potentially find solid customers among women, children, and men who don’t wear Ed Hardy T-shirts. But Crispin plowed on. And what happened?
Live by the bro, die by the bro. Basically, Crispin steered the Burger King brand into a deep ditch. At a time when McDonald’s and Wendy’s sales were growing, Burger King’s shrunk. Sales in 2011 fell by about 4 percent, and BK—long the No. 2 to McDonald’s—is projected to drop to No. 3 in market share, overtaken by Wendy’s. Burger King’s demographic tunnel vision fared particularly poorly when the recession hit, as young men have suffered disproportionate unemployment levels and now have much less money to spend on 1,300-calorie bacon-burgers.
In March 2011, Burger King kicked Crispin to the curb. Soon after, the company began testing out oatmeal, smoothies, and salads on its menu—the kind of stuff Crispin once dismissed as “chick food.” Over the summer, in the coup de grace, BK finally retired the King character. "The King is not our brand," Steve Wiborg, Burger King's North America president, told Bloomberg News—in just about the clearest rebuke of an ad agency’s work that you’ll ever hear from the company that paid for it. "He resonates with a certain age demographic and in certain media. I don't think he has general mass market appeal."
Crispin’s Volkswagen tenure went sour in a pretty much identical manner. The agency came in, immediately trained its sights on the pop-culture pleasure centers of fratty young fellas, and methodically repulsed all the other kinds of people who might once have considered buying a Volkswagen. Gone were the sort of ads created by previous VW agency Arnold Worldwide—poignant mixed-gender bonding, goofy odes to the lazy-day hang. Way too fey. Instead, Crispin’s first ads for VW included 1) a guy telling his girlfriend in the passenger seat to shut up, saying, “Sweetie, it’s really hard for me to hear the sound of the engine with all that yakking,” and 2) a guy kicking his girlfriend out of the car altogether, saying, “I’d rather not carry the extra weight.” Who wants that as a brand image? It’s no wonder VW ditched the agency.
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.