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Alex Bogusky's 6 rules for being a media maverick

Alex Bogusky's 6 rules for being a media maverick Susan Kuchinskas

Crispin, Porter + Bogusky went from a scrappy Miami shop to one of the world's most admired agencies in less than 10 years, thanks to a small-budget, big-impact campaign for Truth, Florida's teen anti-smoking outreach program.

Alex Bogusky

The in-your-face campaign, which included images of kids in body bags and the distribution of tons of logo swag, made not smoking cooler than smoking. In 2002, CP+B introduced the Mini with guerilla stunts, quirky product placements and a smattering of TV spots, reaping tons of awards and goggling attention from Madison Avenue.

Under the direction of chief creative officer Alex Bogusky, the shop doubled in size when it won the Burger King account -- and surprised the industry by keeping it.

The agency is known as a rule breaker, yet it's now famous for handling formerly staid accounts -- and making them hip. How many servings of the Subservient Chicken have you had? Everyone is dying to see what Bogusky will do with Microsoft's $300 million campaign budget -- the brass ring account CP+B won in March.

Bogusky's lips are sealed. He wouldn't reveal zip about Microsoft's creative brief or goals. But he insists that creativity is merely a tool, not an end in itself.

Here are Bogusky's six rules for being a media maverick:

1. Sell the solution, not the ads

iMedia: Is it hard to sell clients on some of your wackier ideas?

Bogusky: Our approach to advertising is not necessarily to come at it through advertising. We use creativity as a leverage-able asset in solving business problems. We don't present things in such a way that they're ever misaligned to the business issues clients have. We don't wind up in a selling "situation," we wind up in a conversation where we usually talk about the work and the different aspects of each, where one might be stronger or weaker. It's everyone together looking for a solution, and not so much, "Hey, what's the most creative thing or the most outrageous thing?"

iMedia: Can you walk me through how the Subservient Chicken came to be conceived with this kind of process?

Bogusky: For that campaign, it was one of the first chicken products we had advertised, and we wanted to be on-brand and say, "Chicken your way." We were concepting the idea and came up with this chicken character that was very subservient and liked to be told what to do. We launched the idea with broadcast, and while shooting, we went over to a friend's apartment and shot it for the website.

iMedia: It makes perfect sense when you say it, but the Subservient Chicken is a bit disturbing and scary. You're telling me that the folks at Burger King thought that "disturbing" went with their brand?

Bogusky: Yeah, it's the idea of chicken your way. It's done in a post-modern sort of wrapper, but the marketing premise behind it is pretty old school, and the strategy is pretty old school. The idea that someone would spend eight minutes with your brand -- and that would help them create an affinity -- is pretty old school, too. It's the same belief in branding we've had for a long time.

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2. School the creativity

iMedia: How do you manage your staff to foster creativity while encouraging strategic thinking?

Bogusky: There's a little bit of work to be done to adjust people. I think as an industry, we sometimes get it a little wrong. We think that our creative goals are at odds with commercial goals. Until you get through that, you don't ever become a great creative person.

We're not in the business of making cute little films and throwing logos on the end of them. We're in the business of being really compelling. 

One thing we do as we begin a creative project, instead of working on specific media, we write press releases about our ideas. For example, a press release for the Whopper Freakout campaign would say, "Burger King announced today they would be removing the Whopper from their restaurants." It would go on to talk about consumer outrage. It's a good way to determine whether you have a rich idea or not. If an idea is good enough for someone to write about, it's probably good enough for someone to talk about.

3. Follow your nose instead of the money

iMedia: Explain your product innovation strategy and how it fits in with the traditional agency business. You've reinvented the kitchen sponge, for starters.
Bogusky: Reinventing the sponge is really fun, and it's such a small creative box. "Design more sponges." What could be more impossible?

Our approach to industrial design is purely around brand: creating products that best illustrate the values of the brand and that potentially have marketing baked into the actual design. For example, the Twist sponges we designed are actually branded with little tags. They're pretty enough to be left out, so if you're in somebody's kitchen, you see the sponge and the Twist brand.

4. Always tell the truth

iMedia: Do you have a personal mantra or golden rule of advertising?

Bogusky: No, I don't think it's a personal mantra, because you're discovering the brand and discovering what needs to be changed about pop culture, so the brand and the offering you're working on becomes an obvious choice for the culture. That's our way of going about things. We don't want to find some trend and then do advertising that basically lies about the product to attach it to the trend in the hope that it will sell. If it's Burger King, and we want to help guys who are being inundated with the notion of metrosexuality, understand that it's OK to have a killer burger -- that's a great path. And that's going to help our client become an offer that's culturally relevant. I don't want to do CP+B work; I want to do the right work for the client.

5. Look ahead but not too far

iMedia: What excites you about the future?

Bogusky: What's always kept me in it is that it's ever-changing. I get asked a lot to predict where things are going in media; for some reason, people think we have an idea. There are so many pieces moving at the same time. I can look at the sponge business and make some assumptions, but the media business is so complex that it's all chaos theory. We try to think about what's going to be possible 15 minutes from now. That's worked pretty well for us.

6. Do what you like, not what you want

iMedia: If you were a young person excited about the business, how would you prepare yourself to do great work?

Bogusky: At first, you have to just get started and learn more about what it is that you really like about the business. Sometimes you talk to young people and they think they want to be an art director, but you realize they're more of a writer. You talk to an art director and you see that the only time their eyes begin to sparkle is when they talk about the toys they make. And you realize: that's a toymaker. And yet, there's probably a lot of pressure at school and at home to do something because you're good at it. Yeah, you're good at that, but your eyes light up when you talk about this.

You have to discover that for yourself, and you can discover it at any place. Be open-minded and just slide toward those things that give you joy.

Susan Kuchinskas is a freelance writer who has written for Adweek, Business 2.0, M-Business and internetnews.com.

Susan Kuchinskas has covered internet technology since the mid 1990s, when e-commerce was kind of a wacky idea. As a senior writer for Adweek, Business 2.0, M-Business and internetnews.com, she's watched the interactive advertising grow from a tiny...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: kevin kelly

2010, February 08

Bogusky is a genius, and a REALLY nice guy. I got the privilege of interviewing him, and you can find out more of what this great article says in my video interview on the buzzbubble with Alex Bogusky.


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