CP + B: Ad Agency of the Decade

Crispin Porter + Bogusky: Creative Insurgents

Crispin Porter + Bogusky
Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Getty Images

When you think of Burger King, you probably think of, well, burgers. Specifically, that slab o' beef on a bun known as the Whopper. But a few years ago, some crazy advertising agency decided that promoting a chicken sandwich using a costumed creature would be the best way to put the ailing BK brand back on par with McDonald's.

The idea the agency proposed was to serve up a chicken on the Internet for people to push around.

Visit the BK site, type in a few commands, and the bird performs for your sadistic pleasure. Like David Letterman's Stupid Pet Tricks, with Mr. Rooster as your digital slave boy.

"How does this sell chicken sandwiches?" you may ask. Who would visit a website entitled Subservient Chicken to command a costumed cluck to perform silly stunts?

Well, actually about one million people did just that, on the very first day! By January 2005, less than a year after it was launched, Subservient Chicken would attract 14 million site visitors and almost 400 million hits worldwide, according to AdWeek magazine. The concept became a phenomenon, as did many others from a brilliant ad agency far from Madison Avenue.

Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B), now headquartered in Boulder, Colorado, has changed the way people receive and relate to advertising. Betting that the Internet would shatter the old model of mass media, and that consumers would demand entertainment and involvement versus one-way sales pitches, Crispin turned the ad world on its head.

As a result, the agency has become as visible as its clients, praised in both consumer and business publications. USA Today called them "the ad world's most talked-about agency," a title Business 2.0 also endorsed, labeling CP+B "the Next Big Thing."

Clients

Today, its list of accounts reads like the dream team of brands: Dominos, Infiniti, Fruit of the Loom, Hotels.com, Kraft, Sony, NBC, Best Buy, Burger King, Applebee's, and Charles Schwab.

Before They Were Big

Although their rise seems rapid, they weren't always this well known.

In the early '80s, Sam Crispin started a Miami shop to handle local and regional advertising accounts. Crispin then recruited Chuck Porter in 1988, and together they made a strategic decision that would ignite the agency's growth: Take on only clients who would view the shop as a full partner, and not a project vendor.

A year later, things got more interesting when Porter stole a 24-year-old designer away from a local competitor. An art director by training, Alex Bogusky had a streak of P.T. Barnum in him, as witnessed by the title of a recent book written about the agency. In Hoopla, Bogusky said, "We make our clients famous by any means at our disposal. We need to be what ad agencies will become."

And it did, distinguishing itself by embracing any tactic, medium or event that would generate buzz for a brand.

"Whatever gets our clients noticed is advertising," became the shop's mantra -- so much so it's written into the company handbook.

The Mini Cooper Campaign

A signature example of CP+B's mad science was the campaign for the Mini Cooper. The client, expecting huge sales instantly, told the agency that "in Europe the Mini is an icon," said Bogusky. But research showed that "the car had only two percent awareness among U.S. customers. So we did research to what understand makes something an icon."

CP+B's answer was to abandon the tried and true car formula of TV, print and radio ads. Instead, the agency made the car the star, literally. Mini Coopers appeared in malls across the country, tilted on their sides to replicate amusement rides. A price tag hung from the ride's coin receptacle. The charming sight gag grabbed attention while reinforcing the car's benefits of size, gas mileage, fun and affordability.

Another physical ploy was to allow prospects to build a little Mini themselves. Inserts with cardboard Cooper cutouts ran in upscale magazines, featuring cheeky assembly and racing instructions.

Combined with the occasional 3-D Mini hanging off a billboard, the "Let's Motor" campaign drove sales through the sunroof, putting car and CP+B on the map.

The Truth Campaign

The next home run was Crispin's "Truth" campaign against smoking. Among their many confrontational ads, one showed a Marlboro Man impersonator riding ahead of four horses carrying body bags. The headline above the image read, "What if cigarette ads told the truth?"

Bigger Brands Come Along

The accompanying visibility got the shop invited to a string of pitches for blue-chip brands. After winning the Burger King account, Crispin landed Ikea and The Gap.

Then Volkswagen came knocking, a major opportunity that could be CP+B's chance to win their first international brand. After beating larger incumbent Arnold Worldwide and a number of other advertising powerhouses, Crispin proceeded to field a concept many thought was insane. CP+B invented a Teutonic spokes-dominatrix named Helga, a bombshell chaperone wearing a white leather jump suit. She rode shotgun with and chatted up VW drivers. The underlying message: Hot German engineering under the hood.

This insane campaign worked. It also attracted Old Navy, Best Buy and project work from Coca Cola. No surprise, then, that in 2008, CP+B was named Creativity magazine's Agency of the Year, and Adweek's 2008 U.S. Agency of the Year.

Then in December of 2009, CP+B won its most prestigious honor, Advertising Age magazine's Agency of the Decade award.

But back to our friend the masochistic chicken. Did the subservient stunt achieve its goal? Did it sell chicken sandwiches?

According to Marketing Magazine, Burger King reported a whopping increase in chicken sandwich sales, halting a 21-month slump. The company also experienced a boost in overall brand awareness that set the stage for last year's brilliant ".

One might say of CP+B and its long winning streak, "It's good to be king!"

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