It was a new day for Microsoft. After two years of having Apple define the Windows user in the form of John Hodgman's bumbling "PC" in the "Get a Mac" ads, Microsoft enlisted, for the first time, agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, whose counterpunch -- a series of spots featuring company founder Bill Gates and comedian Jerry Seinfeld -- would be among the most anticipated ad campaigns in recent memory.
But the initial Seinfeld-Gates broadside -- a 90-second spot set in a shoe store, predicting a future that would be "delicious" for PC users -- left the public perplexed. And a second ad, four-and-a-half minutes long, in which the odd couple shacked up at a suburban family's home, didn't make things much clearer. After two weeks, Microsoft moved on to the broader "Life without walls" campaign, which featured Windows users around the globe proudly declaring, "I'm a PC," riffing off the familiar Apple line.
With the Gates-Seinfeld spots coming and going in a flash, it was widely assumed Microsoft pulled them early, in a tacit admission they had flopped. Not the case, says Rob Reilly, Crispin's co-ecd, who, along with co-chairman Alex Bogusky, led the creative pitch for the estimated $300 million Windows assignment in late 2007. (The agency was awarded the business in February 2008.)
"The point of the Bill and Jerry stuff was to get people thinking about Microsoft in a different way," says Reilly. "So, when 'I'm a PC' came, you were ready for something different. It was always designed to be two weeks. It did exactly what it was supposed to do."
The Gates-Seinfeld spots, though controversial, did catapult the Microsoft brand into the public consciousness. Love it or hate it, it touched a nerve and got people talking. And it is that buzz that has brought clients seeking a turbo boost -- particularly challenger brands -- to Crispin's door again and again.
Adweek's U.S. Agency of the Year for 2008, the MDC shop reeled in another big consumer brand last year with Old Navy, in addition to Hulu, Activision's Guitar Hero game, Aliph Jawbone and the nonprofit Save the Children. In June, it added the Zune business from Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices unit. It also grew revenue by an estimated 15 percent year over year, to $138 million, on billings of $1.33 billion, its seventh straight year of double-digit revenue gains. All the while, Crispin continued to produce provocative work for clients including Burger King and Volkswagen.
Bogusky recalls the first time the Miami and Boulder, Colo.-based shop won a Grand Prix at Cannes in 2001 (in Media, for its Florida anti-smoking campaign). Someone asked whether the agency wasn't just "a flash in the pan." Says Bogusky: "At the time, I was very happy to be a flash in the pan-but it is nice to not be a flash in the pan, too. In the past, in some ways, I felt it was more about, 'You've done a good job with the agency,' and now I feel more like I've helped put together a great team. And the latter is more rewarding."
In January, Bogusky, 45, assumed the co-chairman title he shares with Chuck Porter, 62, and handed day-to-day management for creative to Reilly, 39, head creative on Burger King, and fellow co-ecd Andrew Keller, 38, who oversees VW.
Reilly and Keller, along with group account director Steve Erich, 45 (another key player in the Microsoft win), and COO Eric Lear, 42, joined Bogusky, Porter, president and CEO Jeff Hicks, 43, and director of content management Jeff Steinhour, 45, as partners. "They've been an important part of everything we've done," Bogusky says of Reilly and Keller in particular.
But the promotions were not merely symbolic -- they were about preparing the agency for the next 5 to 10 years. "It's about growing our own leaders and empowering our own people," says Porter. "Alex moved aside from day-to-day creative and we didn't miss a beat."
Among the agency's standout work last year included campaigns for Burger King and VW. For BK, the agency created its biggest award winner of the year, "Whopper Freakout," which used hidden cameras to show people's horrified reactions when told (falsely) that the Whopper had been discontinued. An eight-minute film documenting the deprivation experiment was featured online, receiving more than 1 million hits and inspiring spoofs on YouTube. More recently, the agency ignited criticism with its "Whopper Virgins" campaign, billed as the "world's purest taste test" by having residents of remote parts of the world compare the Whopper to the Big Mac.
Both agency and client see an upside to any controversy. Russ Klein, BK's president of global marketing, strategy and innovation, says the two companies share a belief that "it's more important to be provocative than pleasant."
Reilly is even more blunt. "We ask ourselves, 'Would the press write about it?'" he says. "We use that as a guide and it's worked out pretty good for us."
Klein calls tension the key element in a creative brief -- whether the theme is deprivation, purity or, in the case of a campaign slated for this month, anger. ("Angry Whopper" spots will explore the "origins" of the new spicy sandwich-for example, a farmer growing "angry onions.") "We're always looking for these turbulent, emotional insights in the brief," Klein says. "Most agencies wait for that to come out in the creative development process. For us, it's something that we put more upstream."
The process, he adds, "liberates" the creatives to try anything, so long as they "discharge tension around the insight, which is really, when you think about it, the essence of humor." The results, he points out, justify the strategy, with Whopper sales up by double digits in the past two years.
Crispin juiced up the automotive category with its "Das Auto" work for VW. Two separate campaigns last year starred a sassy vintage Beetle as a talk-show host, then Brooke Shields as a concerned citizen reporting on a baby epidemic caused by the family-friendly Routan.
Both featured heavy use of interactive elements -- in the former, extensive online polling that probed "What the people want," and for the latter, a tool that let users upload pictures and design a "virtual baby" (more than 1 million were created). A campaign to launch this month will lean on digital to change perceptions about the reliability of VWs.
Again, the VW work was not without controversy. Some bristled at the baby maker, and what they felt was comic treatment of procreation. But Tim Ellis, vp, marketing at Volkswagen of America, counters that detractors were in the minority, tending to be older men while the target was young moms. The results were "far above what we expected," he says.
Both BK and VW came to Crispin without formal reviews -- in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Microsoft was a different animal. According to Bogusky, it was the first big, competitive pitch that cast him in a "supporting role" to Reilly. "That was fairly dramatic for us as an agency and empowering for Rob to realize he can do that," Bogusky says. It was also, he adds, the first time the agency did spec creative for a prospect.
Keller describes the Microsoft win as another rite of passage, and a moment of "vindication." "You can either say, 'Does that mean we've become mainstream and conventional?' or 'Does that mean a great thing has happened in the world because what we do is now deemed useful by some of the largest companies in the world?' We prefer to think the latter," he says.
Not everything went off without a hitch last year. After an arduous year with Nike, Crispin and the brand parted ways with only a single, awkward Nike+ spot and a Nike Sportswear 'zine to show for it. Bogusky cites "terrible creative differences" for the split.
The experience showed Crispin that its long-standing position to not produce spec creative for prospects is not always the best approach. "Sometimes, when we had this arranged marriage, it put an immense amount of pressure on the work, which isn't good for the work or the relationship," says Bogusky.
While the agency revved up new business last year, Hicks points out that Crispin takes great care who it goes after. The shop continues to seek opportunities "where, perhaps, other people hadn't had success or thought you couldn't have success," he says. And it wants clients that are the forefront of technology. "The work that flows through the agency is the culture of the place. If it brings in modern issues [to tackle], then it makes the agency more modern and adept," he says.
Crispin, twice named Digital Agency of the Year at Cannes, made its greatest investment in 2008 in digital. In June, it acquired Boulder-based digital-marketing firm texturemedia, helping to boost the shop's digital staff to nearly 200. "We want to be in lockstep with the growth in technology and also be in front of it," says Jeff Steinhour, managing partner, director of content management. Crispin's now-legendary "Subservient Chicken" for BK, in 2004, "feels like old hat," says Steinhour. "There is a race to find what's next."
Crispin has told the Microsoft Windows story using various messages: the "Life without walls" manifesto, the Gates-Seinfeld spots, the "I'm a PC" series and ads showing how Windows connects consumers' multiple devices. "That's not typically how we've done our campaigns," explains David Webster, gm, brand and marketing strategy in Microsoft's Corporate Marketing Group. "The diversity of the story we needed to tell lent itself to multiple ideas rather than betting everything on one idea."
The agency came up with the idea of using the term "windows" metaphorically, to suggest that the tech behemoth breaks down silos between devices and facilitates connections. "Windows is the name of the brand, but we hadn't used it as a storytelling device," says Webster. "It was a clever way to pick up the name, dust it off and add a bit of drama and intrigue." He adds, "The best thing about working with Crispin is...they go to bed and wake up with 10 new ideas. The worst thing is actually the same thing. They fall in and out of love with ideas, and we have to catch up...It's a good problem to have."
Crispin's big challenge at the moment is to help client Old Navy reconnect with consumers, particularly fashion-conscious yet budget-minded females. Led by vp, creative director Tiffany Kosel, 32, Crispin won the estimated $200 million account in October following a shootout with Omnicom's TBWA\Chiat\Day. Its first work for the brand will debut in February. Kosel, the lone female among the shop's eight creative directors, says the multimedia effort will showcase Crispin's full creative range, including product development. (It has created a range of products for BK, for example-from Xbox games to a branded perfume.) "The idea has been able to cross over all our departments," she says.
(Read "Crispin's Product Plays" for more information on the shop's development efforts.) 
With European assignments from Microsoft and BK taking Crispin's work overseas, the next step is global expansion. The agency mostly services Europe out of the 300-person Miami office, which, Bogusky says, is part of the same "creative factory" as Boulder, with 550 staffers. The shop has service offices in the U.K. and Spain but needs two more factories, in Europe and Asia, says Bogusky. A European outpost is expected to open in the coming months.
Naysayers will question whether Crispin can successfully export its culture. But for Crispin, stepping into places where it might not be expected is motivation in itself. "When CPB is at its best," says Hicks, "it's the gangly teenager that sometimes says the wrong thing at the dinner table, sometimes says things that are genius, sometimes offensive, but it's learning and finding its way. That sort of naive, open-eyed, optimistic approach-never to be cynical, always believing that the glass is three-quarters full and everything is possible -- that's at the core of what makes this place what it is."