U.S. AOY: Crispin Porter + Bogusky

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.