The rise and fall of Crispin Porter Bogusky: How the hottest ad agency lost its mojo
  • Crispin Porter Bogusky was the hottest agency of the 2000s, but is now a shadow of its former self, with revenue and headcount way down from its peak.
  • Its founder and one of the biggest names in modern advertising, Alex Bogusky, left and returned in 2018 but failed to revive the agency's sliding fortunes. 
  • CPB also had a string of leadership departures and struggled under a parent company that tried to grow it too fast.
  • Most important, it failed to keep up with advertising's shift to a data-based approach. 
  • Erik Sollenberg, global CEO of CPB, said that the agency was focused on the future, pointing to the hiring of Jorge Calleja as its new chief creative officer and its decision to move to new headquarters in 2021.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

In August 2018, Crispin Porter Bogusky employees gathered in the ad agency's Boulder office for a town hall meeting. 

Employees watched as a figure shrouded in a blanket was wheeled out before them, where chairman Chuck Porter uncovered him for all to see. Eight years after he had left advertising and the agency that bears his name, Alex Bogusky — one of the industry's biggest names — was back. 

Employees buzzed with optimism at the news of his return. But there was one question on everyone's mind: Could the creative czar help bring back the mojo his agency had lost in recent years? 

The answer turned out to be a resounding no. Bogusky bolted 18 months later, having barely made a difference in improving the agency's sliding fortunes. 

At its pinnacle, Crispin Porter Bogusky boasted more than 1,100 employees across 10 offices in Asia, Europe and North America, big-name clients like Burger King, Microsoft, and Volkswagen, and revenues of more than $175 million.

It made news with zany ad campaigns like 2004's "Subservient Chicken" for Burger King where a man wearing a chicken suit answered people's requests online; and "I'm a PC" for Microsoft in 2008, which took on Apple's Mac by showing that PC users were found everywhere.

Now, the agency is down to three offices, less than a third of those employees, and just a handful of clients, having lost high-profile clients in recent years including Jose Cuervo, Kraft, and, most recently, Domino's. 

Revenue has taken a hit, morale is at an all-time low, and its future hangs precariously as it defends its biggest account Infiniti in a review, insiders say. People have been leaving in droves, including high-profile execs like president Danielle Whalen Aldrich and co-head of strategy Jen Hruska. Meanwhile, the agency just announced that it would leave the Boulder headquarters that was synonymous with its rise under Bogusky for a smaller space in Denver.

Interviews with 30 current and former employees, executives at parent company MDC Partners, and former clients detail how one of the most celebrated ad agencies in America lost the plot. Many requested anonymity in order to speak candidly without fear of repercussion.

They said that the once-hot shop faltered after its founder and early partners left, struggled under a parent company that tried to grow it too fast, had a revolving door of management, and failed to keep up with advertising's shift to a data-based approach.

Read more: The rise and fall of J. Walter Thompson, the world's oldest advertising agency

As one former employee put it: "Every time we got to a fork in the road and we could either make the right or the wrong decision, it was always the wrong decision, time and time again. It's death by a thousand cuts."

Asked for comment, Bogusky told Business Insider that he had moved on from advertising (again), and was happy pursuing other interests including investing. MDC Partners CEO Mark Penn said that he would continue to back CPB "with all the resources and talent they need to continue to excel long into the future."

Erik Sollenberg, global CEO of CPB, said in a statement that the agency was focused on the future, pointing to new appointments of Jorge Calleja as chief creative officer and Jacqueline Redmond as director of account management.

"Throughout the past few years, we delivered work that we're incredibly proud of – effective and business-building creative for ambitious clients," Sollenberg said. "Now, we're catching up to our ambitions for a new vision and growth. And we have the leadership team in place who will provide both."

A founder-led culture unraveled once the founder departed

Founded in 1988 by Sam Crispin (who brought on Bogusky and Porter as partners soon after), CPB was a sleepy, regional agency based in Miami's Coconut Grove neighborhood until its award-winning, 1998 anti-smoking campaign for the Truth initiative. 

The campaign thrust it into the national spotlight, setting the stage for provocative work it would become synonymous with through the 2000s, from Volkswagen's "Safe Happens" — which used totaled Jettas to show how sturdy the cars are — to Burger King's "Subservient Chicken."

CPB racked up awards and big-name clients like Arby's, Domino's and Burger King, which set precedent by disregarding the potential conflict of using the same agency as a rival. It was in such high demand that it famously refused to pitch business or take project-based work — practices unheard of in today's volatile ad agency environment.

Bogusky was the agency's creative mastermind and cult-like leader, while other aspects of the business fell to other executives including Jeff Hicks, Jeff Steinhour, and Porter.

He greenlit every ad that went out the door; staffers lined up outside his office for hours to show him their work. CPB became known for creating viral, digital stunts while other agencies were still making traditional ads. And he got employees to think of ideas as press releases — an approach that's become standard in the industry.

Bogusky's ideas went unquestioned, even if they seemed crazy, like when he left Miami and set up shop in Boulder in 2006 on a whim. Scores of people left high-paying jobs on the coasts to work with him, undeterred by CPB's reputation for low pay and 80-hour work weeks, said a former executive. 

Read more: The sudden demise of a lauded New York agency is a chilling reminder of the ad industry's massive ongoing challenges

But founder-led cultures are hard to sustain once they leave, and CPB was no different. When Bogusky quit advertising and left CPB after his earnout in 2010, Andrew Keller and Rob Reilly took over as CEO and CCO, respectively. Insiders said that while both were highly regarded, it was always going to be an uphill battle for them. 

"We were such a cult of personality around Alex — like Steve Jobs at Apple — that when he left, it all eventually collapsed," a former partner and executive told Business Insider. "It was just set up to be really difficult for someone else to succeed in that role."

Reilly declined to comment. Keller could not be reached for comment.

Bogusky said that he had a succession plan when he left. But if he could do things differently, he would've negotiated having a board seat so he could have a say in the agency's decisions and trajectory.

A slew of creative, digital, production and operating executive departures followed, including former CEO Jeff Hicks, Jeff Benjamin, Rob Reilly, Tiffany Rolfe, Tim Roper, David Rolfe, Winston Binch, and Eric Lear.

Meantime, sources said, the agency didn't keep up with changing client needs and its holding company parent increasingly took the lead, contributing to its decline.

Sources said MDC and bigger clients diluted the quality of the agency's work

Current and former employees said a major turning point for CPB was MDC acquiring a 100% stake in the agency in 2010 and getting increasingly hands-on. As they saw it, MDC used CPB to fuel its ambitions and boost its bottom line. 

They said MDC pushed CPB to chase big corporate accounts like American Airlines and Infiniti that were lucrative but led to work that was safe but boring — with even Bogusky admitting to AdAge in 2014 that the quality of CPB's work had dropped off.

"There was a lot of pressure on keeping the clients happy and making them feel like we're not going to skip a beat," said a former employee. "Earlier, despite MDC, we always had someone in the ring that would punch back. But with bigger clients, we got too concerned about what they wanted versus what was best for them."

Former agency executives said that with Bogusky gone and CPB being in Boulder rather than the advertising centers of New York or LA, it became hard to hire to serve these clients, and corners were cut. 

"When you have these growth spurts, you have to look outside," one former executive said. "And that's when you start compromising on your mission, on your culture, and on all the other things that got you there in the first place."

Read more: Mark Penn tried to sell Stagwell Group to rival ad agency holding companies as he looks to cut $1 billion in debt

MDC also tried to make CPB into a global agency network a la rivals McCann and Ogilvy, snapping up European agencies like Daddy and Forsman and Bodenfors, and expanding to far-flung cities like Gothenburg, Hong Kong, London and São Paulo — moves that took CPB's focus off its digital roots, former agency and MDC executives said.

"You don't make a global network by focusing on digital and innovation, you make a global network out of big TV ads," a former CPB executive said. "So they stopped caring about those things. They just cared about big global clients like Infiniti and their style of campaign-centric advertising."

Clients like Russ Klein, who worked with CPB while leading marketing for Burger King between 2003 and 2009 and then as Arby's CMO in 2012-2013, noticed a change.

"Some of the newer account people were more mechanical about the briefs," he said. "It probably got hard to keep passing the torch."

Current and former employees also blame some of CPB's decline on Lori Senecal, who was global CEO from 2015 to 2017. Senecal had risen up the ranks at McCann and become MDC Partners' go-to for agencies in need of a shake-up, like fellow MDC agency Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners (now KBS).

CPB was already beginning to lose its cool-kid stature to up-and-coming shops like Droga5 and VaynerMedia, and Senecal's moves to continue MDC's global expansion and chase big corporate clients didn't help, those people said.

Senecal helped the agency boost its revenue by 21% between 2015 and 2016, according to Campaign.

Even so, she also upset many when she appeared in an Adweek interview to dismiss the contributions of outgoing CEO Andrew Keller; she maintained her quote was taken out of context. Some staffers also cried nepotism when she put her husband Bill Grogan in a global CMO role and criticized her choice of Los Angeles over Boulder as her home base. 

"Lori brought in the McCann mindset, where world domination was the only way to win," said a former MDC executive. "She was very good at putting dots on the map, but at the end of the day, that was neither CPB's nor Chuck and Alex's legacy."

Read more: Ex-Clinton strategist Mark Penn is cutting his agencies' offices to save more than $10 million and compete against giants like WPP and Accenture

Senecal, who left the agency in 2017, declined to comment.

At the same time, financial troubles at MDC caused distress and amped up the pressure on CPB to perform, former employees said. MDC was investigated by the SEC in 2014 into its accounting practices and payments made its former CEO Miles Nadal — causing its stock to plunge and its debt to soar. Nadal resigned in 2015, and MDC agreed to pay $1.5 million in 2017 to settle the allegations.

Two former MDC executives countered that the holding company enabled the agency when it was on a growth tear, and only stepped in when it started losing clients like Burger King and Microsoft in 2011.

CPB struggled to adapt to changes in the ad industry, and even Bogusky's return couldn't revive it

To be sure, all this was happening while the tide was turning against creative agencies like CPB. An exception is independent agency Wieden + Kennedy, which has stayed known for high-impact advertising while modernizing with tools like AI for clients including Nike, KFC, and Coca-Cola.

Like other creative ad agencies, CPB has struggled to adapt to the rise of tech platforms like Google and Facebook that ushered in data-driven performance marketing, and fend off consulting firms that have begun doing agency-like work.

Advertisers have also been cutting budgets, taking advertising in house, and using specialty services like media-buying, data, influencer and e-commerce marketing, and insiders said CPB wasn't keeping up.

"Crispin was the last of the Don Draper era where you could walk into a room and claim that you had the best idea and everyone believed it simply because of the way you delivered it," said a former creative director. "Now, you can tell what the best idea is right away based on what the clickthrough rate on your ad is or how low your cost of acquisition is."

Some question whether longtime agency brands still matter. Big advertising companies WPP and Dentsu have retired or modifying several of the ad world's best-known names like J. Walter Thompson, Young & Rubicam, and Grey.

Similarly, MDC bundled CPB with other agencies 72andSunny, Instrument, Redscout and Hecho Studios to create a collective called Constellation earlier this year.

Even so, expectations ran high with Bogusky's return in 2018. 

Crispin had just shuttered its flagship Miami office and was dealing with a #MeToo legal scandal and a revolving door of creative and executive leadership, and many believed he could help turn the agency around.

But some insiders quickly saw him as out of touch and a faded star.

Some were turned off by his stunts like challenging "The Rock" Dwayne Johnson and VaynerMedia CEO Gary Vaynerchuk to wrestling matches and declaring that CPB was dropping out of the awards circuit with "The Quitty Awards." 

"We all thought that it was going to be like the glory days," said one former employee. "And then he gets there and turns out to be a cringy frat bro."

Read more: Advertising giant Dentsu just announced huge job cuts. Insiders are speculating about how they'll play out and the growing influence of data agency Merkle.

To some, Bogusky seemed to dedicate much of his time to the podcast "The Woodshed" rather than creative work, and some bristled when he required them to use new tools and processes like Gut+, a new creative testing process; and Crisp Jam, a website to showcase ideas.

Bogusky wasn't out pitching new business, which one former MDC executive said was part of his deal with the holding company. But two agency employees said this absence contributed to CPB losing some big pitches.

"You've just gone and told everybody, 'Hey, the lion's back,' and everybody's lining up at the zoo to see him in action again," the former MDC executive said. "And then you have to say to all the clients, 'Oh no, you can't see the lion. He doesn't come out of the cave."

CPB won new clients like Ballantines and Noodles & Co. and produced work like "first poo with Boo," a co-branded campaign for Hotels.com and Poo-pourri and a limited-edition tee for Fruit of the Loom with NFL star Alvin Kamara — but nothing memorable, they said. 

Bogusky, for his part, said that he never cared for corporate legacy, and that he went back in 2018 with the aim of reviving CPB and inspiring the new generation of creatives. But even he hadn't anticipated how unrecognizable his namesake agency had become in his absence.

"My hope was that I could teach the agency to fish again, not be the fisherman," Bogusky told Business Insider. "But there was just not enough left [of it]."

Some are hopeful about CPB's new creative leader and headquarters

CPB's global CEO Erik SollenbergCPB

2020 has been a bumpy ride for CPB, with Bogusky's exit, clients slashing spending in the downturn, and its longstanding client Domino's dumping the agency after 13 years. Its relationship with Infiniti — its biggest account — is up for review, with Dentsu Aegis Network, Cheil Worldwide, WPP, Omnicom, and Publicis also in the running.

For others, CPB shows what happens when a founder-led culture loses its leader and a public company takes over a free-wheeling, creative agency. But its biggest challenge may have been its inability to adapt to a changing industry.

CPB is angling for a fresh start, with a new management team to supplement CEO Erik Sollenberg and managing director Ryan Skubic and a new Denver headquarters.

Skubic said that despite the challenges of the year, the agency has added new clients like VRBO and Veteran's United. He added that Calleja's hire would take CPB back to its design and digital roots, and that the move to Denver would boost the agency's diversity in people and thinking.

Internally, the changes are being viewed with a mix of hope and fear that while CPB could have a chance to rebuild, it's running out of chances to come back.

To some, it's already too late. A former employee said CPB was a lost cause, comparing recent changes to "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic once it had already started sinking."

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