“Alex used to have a trick interview question, which was basically, ‘If you weren’t doing advertising, what would you do?’” recalls Keller. “Your answer was supposed to be, ‘There wouldn’t be anything.’ I fell for it the first time. I was like, ‘I think I’d be in a band.’”
The second time around, in 1998, Keller got it right. “That question came floating by, and he was wise enough to avoid the trap,” recalls Bogusky with a laugh.
Fast-forward to 2013, and the would-be rock star, who started as an art director, is marking his third anniversary as CEO of CP+B—helming an agency many times bigger than the one that initially rejected him.
CP+B has come a long way from the Bogusky era when the agency raked in accolades for flashy, high-wattage creative and landed trendy accounts like Volkswagen—but also developed a reputation as an often-puerile one-trick pony that couldn’t consistently hit business high notes for its clients.
When Keller took the reins in October 2010, the career CP+B creative—who once led accounts like Volkswagen and Burger King—faced the unenviable task of steering a rapidly expanded, 1,000-person shop out from Bogusky’s long shadow, amid the aftershocks of the recession and a rapidly shifting industry. More importantly, Keller needed to establish a new equilibrium, a pace that better suits marketers’ needs, including strategically driven goals.
The 43-year-old has settled into the role. “I do want the job—I love the job,” the CEO says. “It’s taken a while to get there, partially because it’s taken a while to understand the job.”
The agency has taken its share of knocks during his tenure. Burger King, closely associated with the hard-hitting CP+B creative of yore, departed in 2011 after changing ownership. This past summer, Crispin lost another longtime, big-spending client in Old Navy, after surviving years of churn in the retailer’s marketing ranks. Other, smaller pieces of business, including AmEx Open and Coke Zero, also have moved on. The agency suffered a painful talent drain, with veterans like former chief creative officer Jeff Benjamin bolting for JWT and a trio of top creative, tech and design execs—Dave Schiff, Scott Prindle and John Kieselhorst—peeling off to launch Made Movement, a Boulder, Colo.-based agency startup backed by Bogusky.
Since 2010, Crispin, which now has five offices, has seen its total head count shrink to around 700. “We’ve had to become so much leaner and more efficient than we’ve ever been, and those things are not creative words,” says Keller. “It used to just be bodies on top of bodies of creative people, just going at everything, and the industry just doesn’t support that anymore.”
Adaptation under Keller’s watch has spawned successes, too. CP+B is poised for its second-best business year ever—Adweek estimates it will generate $150 million in revenue in 2013. It has grown its relationship with cornerstone client Microsoft, adding work on the Bing search engine and Xbox console. The agency has also expanded its work with Kraft to seven brands, including Jell-O and A1. Last year, CP+B beat out three shops for Applebee’s, which spent $152 million across media in 2012, per Kantar. And this year, it became lead agency for Charles Schwab, a $118 million annual media spender that’s helped fuel the reboot of CP+B’s Los Angeles office. Arby’s and Fruit of the Loom also have arrived since Keller took over.
But its work for Domino’s, a client since 2007, perhaps best tells the story of the agency’s evolution. Few would mistake the suburban pizza chain for a sexy creative account. And yet the client’s turnaround has become a textbook case of honesty in advertising. Domino’s sales have climbed ever since it launched its transparency campaign in 2009, gaining 3 percent last year alone. “Domino’s is the best example of what can happen when CP+B and a brand partner deliver on all channels,” as Keller puts it.
It seems CP+B has fought even harder to win smaller accounts than the likes of Volkswagen and Burger King—clients that were handed to the agency, without review, during its heyday. And some Crispin accounts today—Microsoft, Schwab, Arby’s—would seem less likely to embrace the more brazen (and Cannes Lion-winning) work that helped gain the shop notoriety under Bogusky. At the same time, CP+B has buckled down on its clients’ business, forgoing the adolescent spirit and top-down ethos of the past.
“They’re a much better business partner,” says Russel Wohlwerth, principal at External View Consulting Group, which managed Schwab’s review. “The reputation of Crispin previously was great creative work, and when it hits, it’s a home run. Problem was, it didn’t always and their business retention record was not great.”
“We’ve begun a new phase, and we’re excited about that,” says Keller. “To have a client like Charles Schwab, to be able to work with brands like Kraft. Whereas maybe what the reputation of the agency was before, where it would be like ‘It’s super edgy, it’s for guys, it’s this and that,’ we’ve been able to demonstrate that what’s at the core of what we do as a company is relevant for all sorts of brands, and we can transition into all sorts of voices.”
That doesn’t mean that the agency has lost its mojo. “I think they’re doing as many creative[ly] genius things as they used to,” says Miles Nadal, chairman and CEO of MDC Partners, CP+B’s parent company. “The only thing is that people now expect it of them, but before it was a surprise because they weren’t recognized the way they are now.”
“I don’t think the old style has gone away,” adds Wohlwerth. “They’ve just got more arrows in the quiver now. They’re much more versatile than they were.”
Keller has also plugged the brain drain, attracting creative talent like Bob Winter, former chief creative officer of Young & Rubicam Chicago, to lead Miami’s creative department, and Sue Anderson from TBWA\Chiat\Day in New York as co-ecd of CP+B’s rebooted L.A. outpost. The agency’s expanded London office, once just a Burger King service station, is now a 50-person creative hub that’s won clients like Kraft’s Milka (now part of Mondelez) and Turkish Airlines.
In 2006, Crispin Porter + Bogusky moved its center of gravity from Miami—already off the beaten path—even further afield to Boulder, in part because Bogusky wanted to live there. At the time, CEO Jeff Hicks compared the agency to “a gangly teenager.” Today, Keller describes CP+B—which this year celebrates its 25th anniversary (counting from when Chuck Porter’s name joined Sam Crispin’s on the door)—as more a “recent college graduate that’s hungry to get a job and is looking to start a company and sell it for a billion dollars.”
In actuality, CP+B’s founders long ago sold to a larger company. MDC Partners took a 49 percent stake in 2001 and gradually upped its equity to full ownership in 2009—CP+B’s biggest year in revenue. By that point, Bogusky, who took a co-chair title and handed the creative reins to Keller and co-executive creative director Rob Reilly in early 2008, was already phasing out of the business. Bogusky took a larger MDC role in early 2010 and was gone by July of that year. Keller took over three months later.
At the outset, the CEO struggled with financial pressures related to a big holding company, as well as the scope and scale of the job. “I think when he first started, he was very overwhelmed because we have this holding company,” says Porter, chairman of CP+B and chief strategist at MDC, guiding its acquisitions. “We have [a] big organization, big enterprise, [in] different countries.”
A generally bad financial year in 2012, driven by client losses, left Keller—not a career-path CEO—distracted by numbers as he sought to find his footing. “He stepped into a situation that had a lot of problems, and as those problems have been resolved, he’s been able to get himself out of it,” notes Porter. “I think he’s able to focus more and more on what he’s really brilliant at.”
Keller’s style was apparent from his earlier days at the agency. In 2001, the shop won Mini Cooper’s creative account, a seminal moment for the agency, and Keller. “About six months into it, Andrew was really stepping up and taking on a lot of the meetings and all the grind of it and everything,” recalls Bogusky. “He earned [a] nickname on the client side. Mini called him The Agency. … He was everything. He was the account person; he was the creative.”
“That account really was where he cut his teeth I think, in terms of being a leader and fully taking on the ultimate responsibility for things, which is something that I think a lot of people just don’t feel comfortable doing,” says Bogusky.
Keller’s trajectory wasn’t lost on his colleagues. “When I started [at CP+B 10 years ago], it was clear that he was the next person in command, more or less acting as partner to Alex and then becoming a core leader later as Alex began his process of moving on,” remembers CP+B alum Tiffany Rolfe, who in 2012 left her post as co-ecd at the agency’s L.A. office to join Co: Collective in New York. “[Keller] was always very big picture.”
He may have come up under Bogusky, but Keller’s brought a much different vibe to the agency. “It’s probably become, to a degree, more democratic,” says Porter. “Andrew is more of a consensus builder than I ever was or Alex ever was. I think we were maybe a little bit more … is there a pleasant way to say tyrannical?”
Keller’s much different management style is not lost on clients. “He empowers his people,” says Russell Weiner, CMO of Domino’s. “I love my creative team. I love them with Andrew, and the cool thing is, I also love them when he’s not involved.”
“I don’t think they bring a prepackaged solution to the table,” adds Jonathan Craig, CMO of Schwab. “We’re open to being pushed and finding new and creative ways to get our story out there.”
Keller still gets his hands dirty when it comes to creative, but his role is “less about creative now and more about the thing he’s always been the best at, and I think even better than Alex was: making sure that things strategically lined up and the things we were pushing against in culture made sense, versus just doing something frivolous or salacious,” says Rob Reilly, Crispin’s worldwide CCO.
It's a mid-October Friday afternoon in Boulder. Keller is batting around ideas with Danielle Whalen, the evp/group account director who handles CP+B’s work on Fruit of the Loom. The agency just two weeks prior launched a new campaign under the “Start Happy” tagline. The TV commercials feature a racetrack pit crew and a stuntwoman in nothing but their underwear—emphasizing the point that the right pair makes hard jobs easier.
So far, the campaign has generated 29 news stories and 106 million earned impressions. Traffic to the brand’s website spiked 294 percent compared to October 2012, and 234 percent compared to the 2013 weekly average. The agency is getting ready to start the next phase—a LinkedIn promotion that will send fresh underwear to some 25,000 people who have just changed jobs. There's more to come—Crispin has been digging into Fruit of the Loom's business, and is intent on helping it deliver an updated message across all possible channels. “When we’re able to have this kind of relationship with a client where we’re doing packaging for them, and products for them, that’s much more like the Domino’s relationship,” he says. “When we get those relationships going they’re the most powerful relationships on both sides.”
The campaign is fun—and for a dusty brand, unexpected—but it doesn’t quite seem like a shoo-in for a Grand Prix. Lions, though, are not what matters most, Reilly says. “I’m more interested in when we get the chance to revive brands or fix a really hard problem like Fruit of the Loom or like Grey Poupon or give Schwab a whole new perspective… Doing those kinds of things may not win awards, that doesn’t mean the work isn’t great.”
In fact, the agency's cheekily overblown revival of Grey Poupon’s 1980's “Pardon Me” commercial this year earned an Emmy nomination (The prize ultimately went to Grey, for Canon). Perhaps counterintuitively, CP+B's work with mid-Western, consumer-packaged-goods giant Kraft (which owns Grey Poupon) been among its strongest performers at Cannes in recent years. In 2012, CP+B picked up a Titanium Lion for helping Kraft hire Ted Williams—a homeless, drug-addicted former radio announcer and internet sensation—as “the golden voice” of flagship Macaroni and Cheese. This year, CP+B won two Cannes Lions for Grey Poupon—one silver and one bronze, and the agency's only 2013 awards at the annual festival other than a creative effectiveness Lion for past work for now-departed client AmEx.
Staying in a business mind-set is essential considering the pitfalls always on the horizon in the agency world. Both Applebee’s and Arby’s have recently seen churn in their marketing ranks—the kind of thing that always puts an agency on notice. Keller says neither client has signaled the desire to launch a review—and he isn’t worried. “There are volatile moments of change potentially in the future, so it’s best to just keep doing great work and to keep looking for new business,” he says.
“They push the envelope a bit, but they also understand that at the end of the day it’s our business to sell sandwiches,” says Jennifer Dodson, Arby’s vp of advertising and content integration.
CP+B declined to comment on pending pitches, but sources previously identified the agency as a finalist, along with Arnold and Leo Burnett, for creative duties on
Hotels.com, which spent some $40 million on media in 2012.
But the gaping hole in its portfolio isn’t a travel website—it’s an auto client. The shop that helped launch Mini in the U.S. had traded up to VW until late 2009 when it departed in search of more mainstream appeal. CP+B pitched Porsche but failed to pry the account away from incumbent Cramer-Krasselt.
Never say never, as a dogged Keller sees it. “We’re patient,” he says. “I think it’s going to happen.”