Crispin Porter + Bogusky's Subservient Chicken website for Burger King has achieved over a billion hits since its launch in 2004. Yet its work still polarizes opinion
Crispin, Porter + Bogusky is an advertising agency that, to say the least, divides opinion. When bestowing its coveted agency of the year award for 2008 on CP+B, the US trade magazine Ad Age sounded almost apologetic, acknowledging that the announcement meant that "any number of curmudgeonly bloggers and envious creative types all over adland are fuming". Its sister title, Creativity, observed that "the agency is unrivalled in the amount and the intensity of antipathy it arouses". Most successful advertising agencies will suffer sniping from others in the industry, often motivated by simple jealousy, yet CP+B's detractors are especially persistent and vocal—but why?
A survey of online commentary about the agency, combined with the opinions of creative directors at rivals (off the record, natch) reveals certain themes. Accusations of facile humour, a lack of interest in art direction or aesthetic qualities, and an aggressive interest in courting the press, both for its clients and its own gains, are all regularly repeated. Another common complaint is that CP+B is simply a 'rock star' agency, fond of its own press but without the work to back it up. A recent rant on thedenveregotist.com claimed that the agency's "recent 'big' ideas were recycled, either from themselves or other work". (Although the author, Felix, also neatly illustrated the dichotomy surrounding CP+B by claiming at the end of his long rant that he'd "still take a job at CP+B. I'm just mad…not insane.")
Certainly the agency appears to enjoy courting controversy. As is typical, it entered 2009 riding on a wave of both admiration and admonishment, caused largely by its recent work for Burger King. Whopper Virgins, the agency's latest spot for the fast food brand, was launched in early December to accusations of insensitivity and even cultural imperialism. People in far-flung corners of the world who were previously untouched by American fast food were featured in a BK comedy taste test. 'Poor, backward foreigners: let's give them some real food' is one possible reading of its message. By contrast, Whopper Sacrifice, a Facebook application also for BK that encouraged users of the social networking site to ditch ten friends and receive a free burger in exchange was being heralded as an innovative step forward in digital advertising (despite being quickly banned by Facebook itself for breaking its privacy rules). Such debate and discussion is nothing new for a company which actively encourages conversation around its clients' work, recognising that creating discourse around a brand can be a vital way of breaking through our over-saturated media. "We ask 'will the press write about it?'," readily admits partner/co-ECD Rob Reilly. "That's our ultimate goal."
CP+B's unconventional approach to advertising has been evident since its early days. The agency was quick, far quicker than most, to realise the benefits of digital advertising, and scored a huge hit with its Subservient Chicken website, created in collaboration with the Barbarian Group, which has achieved over a billion hits since its launch in 2004. Other experimental projects followed, with the agency creating Burger King's Xbox King Games project—a tie-in with Microsoft to create a series of computer games around the BK 'king' character, which were sold only through BK outlets. Both of these campaigns were prescient in predicting the structure of CP+B today, with its heavy emphasis on digital—its in-house digital team is "the biggest at any advertising agency", according to partner/co-ECD Andrew Keller—and also its recent expansion to include an in-house industrial design department. Designs produced by the agency so far range from the invention of Chicken Fries for Burger King to a LED Wi-Fi lightbulb.
CP+B's attempts at creating a one-stop shop for its clients—providing them with solutions in digital and product design, as well as traditional media such as TV—has been heralded by many as representing a model for the ad agency of the future. The agency's emphasis on collaboration means that every department will be involved in a brief, allowing the possibility for unexpected results, as John Winsor, VP/executive director of strategy and product innovation, explains. "It's fully integrated," he says. "So when there's a brief for a project, our planning department attacks the strategy and research side of things, and the guys from the design group look at that problem as a product problem versus an advertising and marketing problem… I think it's the future. I think more and more clients want and need, especially in this financial environment, to figure out how to serve their customers better and how to grab market share and do a better job. Some of that's advertising and some of it's trying to figure out how to serve the client better with different design products."
Keller (who now oversees all client work at the agency alongside Reilly, following Alex Bogusky's move to co-chairman) sees the range of services on offer at the agency as a way of helping clients to adapt to the new marketing possibilities available now. "I think a lot of clients still think about television a lot, it's still the main thing that they can think about," he says. "And if we didn't do digital, we'd be really happy to let them carry on thinking that way. But since we do digital, there's no conflict of interest for us to help them see the light. We're going to do that whether they want it or not, because we believe in it and we've got to help them be great. I think because we do both we're in a great position to help clients make that transition."
Not everyone agrees that such multiplicity of skills is the way forward for advertising, however, with concerns that no company is able to provide all the specialist skills required in today's complex communications world across all media at the same time and at equal quality. And other commentary around CP+B's practise has trodden a darker path than simply whether it is constructing a good business model for the future of advertising. In its early collaborations with digital agencies, it was accused of a lack of generosity when it came to acknowledging the input of others on projects: many felt that it could have done more to credit the contribution of the Barbarian Group in the Subservient Chicken website, for example. But these are issues for the ad industry as a whole, particularly when it comes to the major awards, which often reduce the contributions of digital agencies to a bit part, with the credit given solely to the lead agency. CP+B says that all its digital work is now done in-house (bar "some programming and testing and things like that", says Keller), though complaints about its past behaviour in this area rumble on.
What is undeniable about the agency however, and is a point that even its more furious detractors will acknowledge, is that it has a deft ability to recognise what will seep effortlessly into popular culture. It began 2008 with another hit for Burger King, for Whopper Freakout, which showed CCTV footage of BK patrons 'freaking out' when told that their beloved Whopper had been taken off the menu… forever. The ad spawned a number of spoofs, including most famously the Whopper Ghetto Freakout, which has had over three million views on YouTube. The ad may have contained a gentle mockery of BK's customers at its core, but this in no way put them off, with the ad leading to a significant increase in sales of the Whopper.
Other hits of last year included the introduction of Tivo-based ordering for Domino's pizzas, as well as the ability to custom order your Domino's pizza online and follow the order via the website a la FedEx. The Tivo ordering, while undeniably a clever idea, led to claims that the agency was promoting laziness, and in turn, obesity. "You see a lot of the press and they are on it," acknowledges Keller. "And it's just natural that they're going to have to take a dig of the notion that 'ah, how much lazier could you be?'. We can't expect them to grab the insight, which is what we're doing is connecting our product with moments…. To connect with movies and television that directly is an incredible thing. But certainly part of the tension resides in the fact that it's like 'wow, you couldn't even get up to use the phone'."
CP+B has also demonstrated a knack of knowing which celebrities will get our attention. Going against the commonly held theory of using a squeaky clean star that will make the associated brand look good, CP+B regularly chooses celebrities who have a history, and sometimes even a rather checkered past. It used Brooke Shields in a series of ads for VW's family wagon, the Routan (which were accompanied by a website where users could get a glimpse of what their future babies may look like, with either real or fantasy partners), and, most recently, Alec Baldwin in an ad for online video service Hulu that aired during this year's Super Bowl. Both had been caught up in very public celebrity spats in recent years (Shields with Tom Cruise and Baldwin with his own daughter).
Keller and Reilly emphasise that central to the agency's success with such campaigns is a deft understanding of what will get people talking. Inevitably such a goal will also have its downsides, however, and the coverage of its first work for new client Microsoft last year can't have made for easy reading. The campaign began with two ads featuring Bill Gates and Jerry Seinfeld, an unlikely pairing that made for awkward exchanges and a somewhat confusing message, before the strategy abruptly changed direction with the 'I'm A PC' ads, which came as a direct response to the 'Mac vs. PC' ads by Apple. While the intention of these latter spots may have been clear, the agency was derided for riding on the coat-tails of the Apple campaign and faced further humiliation when some nifty technical types exposed that the 'I'm A PC' spots were in fact made on a Mac.
This seemed a surprising mistake from such a press savvy agency, but if it was attention that they wanted with this campaign, attention is what they got, even if it was broadly negative. "You know, there really is no such thing as bad publicity," says Keller. "People like to say it, but you have to believe it, because it really comes down to the fact that [if you want] to generate energy around something, [it] can't be harnessed for a positive outcome. Unfortunately it's not the nature of culture to generate a lot of excitement and energy around really positive things. But our goal is to be positive, it's not to be cynical… We know that we have to generate a conversation and to have a conversation there has to be two sides. If you're not willing to have the negative side, then you're not willing to have a conversation, and if you're not willing to [do that], you're not going to create anything."
Perhaps in this lies the root of CP+B's success. Its work may not be pretty, and it may at times centre on a certain style of frat boy humour, but it will always get our attention and get us talking. As will the agency itself. Those working there might find it frustrating—"it's bad enough dealing with clients and the economy, before attacking each other," says Reilly of the regular swipes the agency receives—but it seems that the debate around CP+B is as ingrained in the agency's DNA as the conversation that its ads are intended to encourage. It will no doubt continue to be the one agency that everyone, but everyone, has an opinion about. But perhaps secretly that's just the way it likes it.
See many of the ads mentioned in this piece here.