Rebel Rouser Alex Bogusky Champions Irreverence at CP&B

Five years ago, 30-year-old Alex Bogusky was named creative director at the then Crispin & Porter. Although the Miami native had endured detours and self-doubt to reach the summit of his hometown agency, he saw his promotion as an exercise in misery.
“When you start as a creative director is when you are at your worst as a creative director,” Bogusky says. “You’re trying to establish your authority. You have a different style than the person who had the job before. [In his case, agency president Chuck Porter.] And you’re insecure.”
Fast forward to 1999. The shop, now Crispin Porter & Bogusky, enjoyed billings of around $100 million last year. It’s winning bigger accounts, snagging notices in the creative annuals and entering into pitches with top agencies, such as Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and Fallon McElligott. The best news? Last year, Bogusky’s troops secured the two-year, $100 million anti-smoking program for the state of Florida.
How did Bogusky parlay his anxieties into a successful creative department?
“I resigned three times,” Bogusky says. “I wanted to stay an art director. Chuck would take me to lunch and talk me out of it.”
“It was a complicated transition,” Porter admits. “I was creative director on all the big accounts” when Bogusky was promoted. “Part of [the problem] had to do with me letting go. Part had to do with Alex realizing he didn’t have to live and die with everything that happened.”
It also helped that Bogusky, known as the guy who stayed late and worked weekends, had his staffers’ support. “It’s sort of like this big cocktail party,” says Bill Wright, associate creative director. “Alex wanders in to see what you’re doing, then wanders out. He’s got a high-school-class-president charm that makes people like him. He thinks advertising should be like Zorro. You go in, make your ‘Z’ and get out.”
That sensibility has served Bogusky well. Consider the shop’s anti-smoking work, which won best of show at ShowSouth in Atlanta in December. “We’ve always had a good reputation in the creative community. This work will enhance that,” he says.
The provocative anti-smoking campaign doesn’t have a tagline or common thread. The agency made the decision to attack on several fronts, so teens wouldn’t tune out. Some ads show teens calling senior managers at major tobacco companies and asking them about the dangers of cigarettes. Not surprisingly, most ads end with the executive hanging up.
Another ad is a send-up of The Brady Bunch opener, in which each child is suffering from their parents’ secondhand smoke. Instead of the goofy maid popping up at the end, a nurse places an oxygen mask on one of the kids. One spot, an X-Files-styled movie trailer, suggests a film about a homicidal health conspiracy where the villains are tobacco execs.
“One campaign wasn’t going to do the job,” Bogusky says. “We didn’t want them tuning out the same message. We do whatever we can to get into somebody’s head.”
Indeed. It’s no coincidence that CP&B’s work focuses on companies that reach out to younger audiences. “Someone in the agency has to be passionate about a client before we go after it,” Bogusky explains. Those clients, including And 1 basketball shoes, Merrell hiking boots, Shimano bicycle accessories, Giro bike helmets and Checkers, a fast-food restaurant, are attracted to the shop’s style and demo: advertising for the X-Games set.
For Giro, they created the tag: “Live fast. Die old.” Each ad carries the headline: “I want to die” over a picture of a famous cyclist. The body copy for Lance Armstrong reads: “I want to die laughing at the age of 121 after riding into the opening ceremonies of the 2092 Summer Games in Sri Lanka and accidently dropping the Olympic torch onto the over-moussed coif of John Tesh III, totally ruining what was to be a very touching musical tribute to my career.”
The edgy humor speaks well of Bogusky, who could have spent his youth racing motorcycles rather than creating clever ads.
His father ran a small design firm and his mother worked in the art department of a magazine. In his late teens, undecided about a career, his mother taught him how to do mechanicals so he’d always have an employable skill.
After a flirtation with art school and junior college, Bogusky decided to race motorcycles. Then he left Miami and headed to Hawaii to surf. “I called my parents and told them to sell my stuff,” Bogusky says. “My dad wanted me to come back. He told me he’d set up some interviews.”
Bogusky then landed an entry-level job at Ryder & Schild in Miami. “My first goal in advertising was for somebody [at the agency] to ask my opinion,” he says. “It took a little over a year.” After three years, he started doing spec work for the shop’s clients on weekends, only to have it eviscerated on Monday.
“They always had a good reason why it was wrong,” he says. “I thought I’d never be smart enough to do advertising.” Instead, he went to work at his father’s design firm. Within three months, health problems forced his dad to take leave, placing Bogusky, at 26, in charge. “It was very painful,” he says. “I think I stayed a kid longer than most people, but that ended quickly. Some clients stayed. Some tried to take advantage of me.”
Bogusky kept the business going until his father returned, and in the interim, family friend Chuck Porter had taken the creative director’s job at Crispin & Porter. Unhappy with the agency’s art direction, he sent much of his work to Bogusky’s design house. “We had a client named Magnum Marine,” Porter says. “[Bogusky] sent the work back to us, and it was sensational. I told Alex he should work here.”
He did. In 1988, Bogusky returned to the ad business, working for someone who valued his opinion and his work. Then came Bogusky’s big break: At the age of 39, agency partner Charles Crispin retired. Porter assumed the title of president, and Bogusky was named creative director.
As the team began to gel, the agency got its work into Communication Arts. And as he began to trust his co-workers, Bogusky encouraged them to produce work with an attitude. “In some ways, I was learning as I went along,” he says. “I didn’t grow up in someone else’s
system,” or with preconceived notions of how to behave. Sara Jennett Lopez, vice president and director of broadcast production, says she used to have to buy him breakfast when they shared an office because he never had any money. “He’s a partner and he still never has any money.”
Yet his quirky, outsider status has paid off. “[CP&B] has breathed youthfulness into the advertising coming out of [South Florida],” says Mike Hughes, vice chairman and chief creative officer of The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va. “I get the impression that Alex and the agency are getting to the top of their game.”
Though irreverence runs through much of their work, Porter and Bogusky don’t champion a specific style. “What we try and do is solve the client’s problems and adapt to their style,” Bogusky says. “The agency shouldn’t assert itself on the client.”
Porter and Bogusky are undecided about how large they want the agency to get in terms of billings and personnel. They struggle with the old Jay Chiat question: How big can they get before they get bad?
“If we have people who have worked here a week and I don’t know them, that’s too big,” Bogusky says. “To do good work, you have to be covering your partner’s ass, spend time in a foxhole with them. If you don’t know that person well, you aren’t going to do that. And the work will suffer.”
“We’re unlikely to do the softer side of Sears,” he smiles. “What would be great would be to get projects from very large clients my mother has heard of.”