Industry heroes: Alex Bogusky of CP+B – ‘he embodies the renegade spirit of creativity’

Pantarei's executive creative director Nugroho Nurarifin on why he is looking forward to the second innings of his hero - the chief creative engineer at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Alex Bogusky - a man who always put passion over money

Some called him the Elvis of advertising. Others called him the Steve Jobs of the ad business. Adweek bestowed him with the title of “creative director of the decade” while Fast Company referred to him as a “postmodern media manipulator”. Call him what you will, his influence on modern advertising is undeniable.

When everyone in the world was busy looking at Madison Avenue, he uprooted an entire agency to a place no world-famous agency had ever set foot before: Boulder, Colorado. He took an obscure agency from Miami and made it one of the world’s hottest shops and in the process, added his name to the original moniker of Crispin & Porter. One subversive campaign after another, CP+B became the first agency in history to win Cannes Lions Grand Prix in all categories.

And right when he was at the top, he called it a day, retreating into the woods accompanied by a Zen monk. Gradually, more and more VVIP guests visited his cabin including Al Gore – trying to find ways to fix what was wrong with the world. 

In 2018, he decided it was time to return to advertising – with a homecoming at the agency he propelled to stardom and which still carried his name but was on the decline. My industry hero is a man who embodied the renegade spirit of creativity and remains one of my biggest influences, Alex Bogusky.

Alex was born into a family of creatives. His father was a graphic designer and his mom, an art director. Chuck Porter was a good friend of the family. The game at home would be about who could design the best logo, the fastest. Something that truly prepared him for life in the business.

Initially, young Alex distanced himself from anything creative because it was family business. But then the business was about to shut when his father was diagnosed with depression. He was needed to run it.

Or to be more accurate, to salvage it. Needless to say he, he did a very good  job, turning it around in just 18 months. But the experience – as well the exhaustion – of being on top, at just 24, left him wanting to restart at the bottom. He wanted to be part of the regular staff.

And he found the job he wanted. An art director in an agency owned by Chuck Porter. He was employee number 16.

In one the episodes of Foundr, a podcast hosted by Nathan Chan, Alex reminisced: “We were fairly terrible. It would have been easier just to start an agency from scratch. Because if you’re a bad agency, there’s so many things you have to unlearn. And it took years and years.”

At that time, Crispin Porter was the third best agency in Miami. And Miami was not exactly the hottest spot for creativity. The pivotal moment came when the partners took the decision to shift the focus towards smaller national accounts instead of larger regional ones. A sacrifice in terms of growth and billing, but an investment towards maturity. The smaller accounts allowed the agency to learn how to develop CP+B signature style and later translate it to a client of any size: the way of the underdog.

And unlike a lot of network agencies these days, CP+B had the liberty to not put growth as their number one priority. “That was the rule – you have to be really passionate, wanting to lead, and it couldn’t be about money,” explained Alex on the Real Famous podcast.

As counterintuitive as it may sound, putting growth as the second priority effectively grew the agency. Not only were they no longer the third best agency in Miami, CP+B exploded to a network of more than 1,000 employees across five cities all over the globe. It became known for works such as Burger King’s Whopper Sacrifice and Coke Zero’s Facial Profiler.

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing. As Alex rose through the ranks, he argued a lot with his own mentor Chuck Porter. There were a number of times when he wanted to quit the agency. And like any other creative who had differences with their boss, Alex too was shopping around.

He went to interviews at Y&R, BBDO and Wieden + Kennedy. But eventually, he always came back to Crispin. During one memorable fight, over a small piece of work, Chuck Porter is supposed to have said: “Not everything has to be good”. And Alex as a young creative director pushed back and said: “Everything has to be good”.

At that time, the concept of picking which work to push harder than the rest seemed too complicated to him.

While Alex Bogusky’s achievements and persona have been endlessly talked about across agencies all over the world, it is always how he operates on a day-to-day basis that will draw the most curiosity among creative leaders.

So how did he sell so many subversive ideas? To Alex, it’s all about alignment. He never pushed anyone into something they did not want to do. Yet he was very clear on one thing that he would not show anything he didn’t want to make.

Instead of giving the clients what the agency recommended and what the client would want, he only showed what he liked, without any particular order. It was up to the client which idea they wanted to see first.

And when the clients gave feedback, Alex believed it was the agency’s turn to listen. Getting upset about feedbacks was a lack of conviction in one’s own creativity. To him it was all about listening, about business problems. And being on the same side as the client. Hence, actually the absence of the act of selling.

Before going to clients, Alex had one peculiar method to test ideas. He would have the team share their ideas as a press release. That way, the agency would always have a third-person point of view even without the presence of any outsider. Yet the goal was not getting the press, but to acquire distance and get some clarity on how interesting the idea actually was.

Speaking of distance, being on a hiatus for eight years gave Alex the third person’s point of view on the industry.

He realised that no one is paying attention to ads the way the industry looks at them. There are campaigns people in the industry talk about, but almost no one ever saw. He became suspicious that the industry was a little confused because of award shows. To him, it was dangerous. Instead of being obsessed with awards, Alex prefers culture jamming and solving complex business problems.

Now that the distance is gone and he is once again in the thick of things, the world is curiously awaiting the outcome of this homecoming. The moment it was announced that Alex Bogusky was returning to CP+B, Fast Company was quick to draw comparisons with Steve Jobs second coming at Apple in 1997, Howard Schultz to Starbucks in 2008 and Michael Jordan to the Bulls in 1995. This could be advertising’s turn to witness a triumphant return.

But nostalgia is not his favourite concept. He is clear that he is not on a reunion tour. While the prominence of his legacy is hardly debatable, he chose to frame this second chapter as almost a clean slate.

Will we see the CP+B’s equivalent of Apple’s original iMac? Alex might be the only person in the world who didn’t really think about it that much. As told to Omid Farrang, Momentum’s worldwide CCO and host of Talking To Ourselves podcast,: “I’m just looking at what I’m doing and am I having a good time? Is my day energising? Am I spending time with people that I love on stuff that’s fascinating? That’s what I want. And the rest of it will work out, however it will work out.”

Nugroho Nurarifin is group executive director at Pantarei and is based in Jakarta, Indonesia


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