Why did Alex Bogusky, the most celebrated adman of his era, turn his back on the business?
On June 30, Alex Bogusky went for a bike ride in the hills outside Boulder, Colo., then made his way downtown to the century-old house-cum-studio he had renovated and dubbed FearLess Cottage. Once inside, he called Miles Nadal, his boss in Toronto, and resigned. Bogusky was 46. Adweek had named him creative director of the decade, and the agency he helped build, Crispin Porter + Bogusky, was bringing in more than a billion dollars in billings. He had a dream title of his own making, chief creative insurgent, and a salary close to $2 million.
Bogusky's conversation with Nadal, the owner of CP+B's parent company, MDC Partners (MDCA), was followed by an e-mail. Bogusky hoped Nadal saw him "as a friend who wants to try something new." He signed it, "Love, Alex." Then Bogusky and his wife, Ana, spent much of the afternoon sitting on their porch contemplating what he had just done.
MDC relied on CP+B for at least one-quarter of its $546 million in revenues last year, and Nadal often referred to Bogusky as the Steve Jobs of the industry. In a lengthy statement to Bloomberg Businessweek, MDC concluded: "Our future has never looked brighter and neither has Alex's." MDC would not grant an interview to discuss exactly how bright its future would be without the most famous name in advertising.
Bogusky declined to comment for this story, too, though he left plenty of clues about his state of mind, as revealed in interviews with industry peers, co-workers, and family members. There are also hints about why clients, such as Best Buy (BBY), Burger King (BKC), Domino's (DPZ), Microsoft (MSFT), and Kraft (KFT), which had just awarded its Macaroni & Cheese account to CP+B, did not want to say much about him. Perhaps the most telling of Bogusky's statements before resigning was a blog post calling for a ban on advertising to kids. In it, he pointed to the child-friendly marketing at Burger King, one of CP+B's biggest accounts. Bogusky had a reputation for pushing clients, employees, and even consumers right to the edge. This time he went over.
Bogusky spent his entire career at one agency, one he had known since he was a child. His father, Bill, was a graphic designer in Miami whose main client was a local firm, Crispin Porter. Bill Bogusky says that at age three Alex drew "an incredibly perfect caricature" of him, which Bill still has in his home studio. As a teenager, though, Alex devoted himself to dirt bike racing and motocross. "I thought the racing was outrageously stupid," says Bill, who nonetheless served as Alex's crew and sponsor. "Then one day he said he wanted to be a graphic artist like me. He sent off his bikes and went to art school in Atlanta." After a semester, Alex returned to Miami and joined the Bogusky studio, where he soon caught Chuck Porter's attention. In 1989, when he was 26, he was invited to join the agency. He was Employee 16. Five years later he became creative director; by 1997, he was a partner.
Crispin Porter was small and unknown to Madison Avenue, but Bogusky and Porter were ambitious, methodical, and ferocious advocates and defenders of their work. (Sam Crispin retired in 1991.) The agency's first big break came in the late 1990s when it put together a series of antismoking ads for teens in Florida funded by the cigarette companies' settlement with the U.S. government. The campaign, called Truth, told kids they were being played by tobacco executives, and the number of young smokers dropped dramatically. Bogusky's creative partner when the campaign went national was Pete Favat, now chief creative officer at Arnold Worldwide. "Alex called us brothers born in outer space who came to earth to screw with the ad world," he says.
Truth won all sorts of industry awards, including a prestigious Effie, which brought all sorts of clients, and employees, to Miami. It also brought Nadal, who in 2001 paid about $20 million in cash and stock for a 49 percent stake in the agency. He now owns it outright.
CP+B's first attention-getting, rule-bending corporate account was the MINI Cooper, which it introduced to Americans with an appropriately minuscule advertising budget. Bogusky put the cars on top of SUVs, in stadium seats, and outside department stores as kids' rides; he produced an online mockumentary about how to spot a counterfeit MINI.
When CP+B won the Burger King account in 2004, America's second-largest burger chain had been trying with scant success to revive the brand. "The guys at CP+B absolutely loved the fact that we were a challenger," says Brian Gies, who was a senior executive in Burger King's marketing department at the time and has since left the company. They conceived of Subservient Chicken, the website that invites viewers to order around a man dressed in a chicken costume. It was one of the first ad sites to go viral, getting more than 15 million hits in the first five days and nearly half a billion since. "We wanted to develop our social currency, to stimulate curiosity," says Gies. "Subservient Chicken was a pretty unexpected but compelling approach to talk about 'Chicken Your Way.' " After that, Bogusky got Burger King executives to reintroduce the King, creepy and silent and hard to ignore. He was just as bold with Volkswagen, persuading the carmaker to run ads featuring a very realistic crash in which no one was hurt. The tagline: "Safe happens."
Bogusky was in total control in the office in Coconut Grove, which was just minutes away from the ocean by skateboard or bike. Bogusky himself might come in on Mondays with a bloody bruise from biking. He was charismatic and intense, good-looking enough to command attention and talented enough to make his unconventional style acceptable. For years, he checked every piece of work. His opinions were orders, and when he reviewed a campaign, the veterans knew to take notes. "He wasn't trying to be an asshole. If you were secure, you would have no trouble," says Evan Fry, a creative director who left CP+B last fall to start his own shop. A sign on Bogusky's door read, "If you want someone to make you happy, see your therapist. If you want someone to make your ads better, see me."
As the agency grew to nearly a thousand employees and won award after award, Bogusky became a somewhat reluctant icon for an industry going through tumultuous times. In 2006, Bogusky and his wife, whom he had met at the agency, decided they wanted to raise their two kids in the progressive city of Boulder. He threatened to quit if not allowed to open an office there. Later that year he took about 50 members of the creative team with him to Boulder. Before long, some 550 people had relocated.
Then something changed for Bogusky. In early 2008 he began to disengage, giving up day-to-day responsibilities but keeping an eye on the creative work. While CP+B was making ads about "Whopper freakouts" and perfecting ways to order Domino's pizzas from a laptop on a couch, Bogusky was finishing a book, which he released in the winter of 2008, The 9-Inch "Diet": Exposing the Big Conspiracy in America. The back cover promises: "The best tricksters in the industry explain how you as a consumer are being duped and how you are actually part of the conspiracy to make you fat." Many assumed it was satire or even an elaborate advertisement. It was neither. The nine inches of the title refer to the average diameter of a dinner plate in America in 1970; today the size is one-third larger.
Bogusky hadn't told any clients, or Nadal, that he was writing a book. "Burger King and other clients didn't ever figure into our discussions," says Daniel Power, whose powerHouse Books published it. "His idea was: 'We have obligations to our clients, but we can be active agents in the world. Some things we do for a living, and some things have to be challenged.' " In a 2008 interview with BusinessWeek, Bogusky called the disconnect between his book and his Burger King work "maybe a bit of creative tension." Fry, who worked closely with him, says Bogusky "had to do some damage control." Burger King declined to comment.
Bogusky continued to move further away from the corporate hand that had been feeding him. He became interested in climate change. He read about the industrialization of food, the politicization of education. He invested in a Boulder company, Justin's Nut Butter, that makes organic peanut butter sold in jars and single-serve packs. The first time he met Bogusky, founder Justin Gold recalls the adman asking him, "Doesn't it suck that you have this amazing organic product in this totally unsustainable package?" Says Gold: "It was the thing you don't want to talk about. He went right for it."
By the end of 2009, Bogusky was ready to leave CP+B, but Nadal wasn't ready to let him go. According to a person familiar with the matter, Nadal offered him a three-year contract potentially worth $20 million. Bogusky wasn't interested. Eventually they worked out an agreement: Bogusky would take one step further back from the agency and become the part-time chief creative insurgent at MDC. Nadal declined to comment.
On Jan. 7, Bogusky called Colin Drummond, then head of account planning at CP+B, into his office to tell him the news. "I was shocked," recalls Drummond. "Alex was pretty matter-of-fact. He wasn't emotional. I knew of his desire to look beyond advertising. He thinks about something for a long time, but he keeps quiet. Then when he makes a decision, he acts very swiftly." They talked about what Bogusky might do next, which seemed wide open and didn't have much to do with MDC. Except in this way, says Drummond: "He said that he told Miles to fire him if he said anything that would potentially upset any MDC clients."
The next morning the seven CP+B partners held a town hall meeting in Boulder. "Alex didn't say he was leaving the agency quite as directly as he did with me," recalls Drummond. "He smoothed it over, saying that he would still have an office at CP+B. He wanted the clients and employees to feel that it wasn't a big deal, and the industry too."
Bogusky continued to influence life at CP+B, though not necessarily in commercial ways. He got the agency involved in a bike-sharing program in Denver and brought in a Buddhist to lead mindfulness sessions. The dissonance between his avocation and his vocation was increasing. When he spoke at a gathering of environmentalists in California in April, Bogusky opened: "Many of us are in this imperfect situation where we make decisions within corporations and then we go outside and have to deal with it." That month he also received at least $10 million for his remaining stake in CP+B.
By June it was clear Bogusky wasn't just leaving the industry, he was turning on it. While most of his peers were at the annual Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, he was advocating on his blog for a ban on advertising to kids. He named names, citing McDonald's (MCD) and Burger King, still a CP+B client. Then he sent the post by e-mail to Porter in Cannes. Porter has spoken about Bogusky and the piece just once, to Advertising Age: "I told him it was well written and made some great points, but I also said he needs to make a choice because [it's not compatible with the business we're in]. And the next morning he sent me a note saying, 'I resigned like you recommended.' "
In the days after his resignation, there was among his colleagues a sometimes uneasy recognition of the dilemma Bogusky had found himself in. "He was definitely aware that there would be a conflict when he expressed these thoughts," says Drummond. "He wants to see systems change. Who wouldn't?"
Bogusky's decision leaves CP+B without its Jobs, and the first big test of its ability to cope is likely to be with Bogusky's signature client. Burger King recently appointed a new head of marketing and is fighting with its franchisees, in part over the direction of its advertising. "Miles says the relationship with Burger King is solid, but I don't believe it is completely stable," says Jim Edwards, the former managing editor of Adweek who now writes about the ad world for BNET Industries. "If CP+B can stabilize it and sales go up, then all is well. If they lose Burger King, then they've lost their biggest client and their spiritual father. And that's a lot of trouble to be in."
From FearLess Cottage, Bogusky sends out periodic messages to the world, offering glimpses of his future ambitions in sometimes cryptic blog posts and homemade videos. In mid-July he interviewed Robyn O'Brien, author of The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick—and What We Can Do About It, and focused on genetically modified soybeans. "God created all these seeds but never got around to monetizing that s—t. God's a bad capitalist. So we said, let us show you how it's done," he said, to the bemusement of his guest. "We have a right to critique a food system created by a corporation....What if things don't turn out well and your kids come to you and ask: 'What did you do to try to stop this?' "