The ad agency business is a fickle beast. A rollercoaster of highs and lows. It’s also one of the few places that creative mavericks and outcasts can make a name for themselves and millions of dollars too. Alex Bogusky, for example. He rode his skateboard into the Miami offices of Crispin Porter and soon ascended to creative director at the then regional shop. Bogusky went on to rule the ad world and his agency with it.
Crispin opened an office in Boulder, and several years later closed their office in Miami. Last December, the big news was about packing up in Boulder and heading to new digs in Lower Downtown in Denver. Now, Ad Age reports that once-legendary Crispin Porter & Bogusky is down to just 40 employees (fewer than 10 in the creative department) and two clients. Down from nearly 1,000 employees at its peak.
“Time just passed them by,” says one agency exec who spoke to Ad Age. “This is an unforgiving business.”
It is, and this news cuts deep not just for the people of CPB but for the industry, as well. Crispin is an iconic shop—a shop that creatively speaking many of us look up to and admire.
Where Does the Path Forward Lead?
This might be a good time to ask the obvious question. What kind of talent is rocket fuel for today’s best agencies?
The old guard at Crispin and elsewhere bought into the culture of overworking and late nights at the office. As far as I know, there are no longer hordes of talented people signing up for that sort of abuse at agencies today? There is simply not enough pay in it, or glamor or fame to put up with the crap.
Are Ad People Ready to Redefine Themselves?
In the industry’s ongoing quest for diversity, how about we start to look for a new kind of creative worker—one who cares just as much about the clients’ customers and how the work will land with them, as she does about improving her portfolio?
This also means taking a hard look at what the agency stands for and projects to the world. For way too long, there’s been a red velvet rope approach to getting inside the best places. But the agency business is not a club, it’s a job and for some, it develops into a satisfying and rewarding career.
Plus, the cool kids all work at Google, Apple, and Facebook now. Agencies can lose their pretense and still be attractive to both workers and clients. Humility is attractive in people and in brands.
Where Is Tomorrow’s Talent Today?
In related news, Adweek reports that industry finishing schools may be finished.
Ad schools have long been the conventional route into the industry and a go-to source of new talent for agencies. But this month, one of the best in the world, The Watford Course in the U.K., shut down. And it is not the only ad school facing trouble. The School of Communication Arts in London is also under pressure after losing about $273,000 last year.
The article points to COVID and the rise of agency training programs as the one-two gut punch. I’d like to entertain another idea. Perhaps learning how to make ads is inadequate preparation for a job in persuasion and mass communications. Brand experience is what matters now, therefore the need for people trained in anthropology and sociology can fill a critical role. People who understand media and media criticism can also play a critical role at a time when consumers block or swat ads away like flies.
As an industry, it’s clear that we must teach and honor the craft of making ads. At the same time, we must recognize that several other skills are needed to be an effective communicator and ad agency worker. Soaking up pop culture and spinning it for brands is still needed, but it’s not nearly enough. We need more than wry humor and high production values. More than inside jokes and flat pitches that contain no truth or little relevance.
Mavericks Are Needed, Even When They’re Not Welcome
Alex Bogusky is an advertising maverick. This news leads me to wonder yet again how much room there is left for mavericks in this business? I will argue there is some room remaining, but I’m not sure a company led by a maverick can merge with a big consultancy or get bought up by a holding company and survive with their agency or culture intact.
Leo Burnett wanted his name taken off the door whenever his namesake agency got to the point where the people who worked there forgot why they existed as an agency. Do Chuck Porter or Alex Bogusky want their names on the door today? Do they regret what’s transpired?
CPB’s Creative Method Is Foundational
I believe CPB will be back and I believe that some of the agency’s original DNA is intact today. Let’s examine a strand…
Are you familiar with the agency’s Creative Method? It’s a framework well worth studying and replicating with your own twist or modifications.
Find a relevant tension within a cultural truth. Ask a question that releases the tension by turning the cultural truth on its head, making it controversial, and relating it to the product. Then, present it all as a news story to test whether anyone would bother to read it.
The method is pure gold. Finding the right people to work this methodology into breakthrough ideas for clients, and the right clients who value this sort of insight and approach are the hard parts.