Features

Alex Bogusky in interview: CP+B is ‘an assembly line with a fucking brutal quality assurance process’

Explaining why he left the advertising industry for an eight-year self-imposed exile and what he found upon his return last year, the charismatic Crispin Porter + Bogusky founder Alex Bogusky talks to Mumbrella’s Dean Carroll in a wide-ranging interview

Bogusky returned to the ad industry after eight years

Your father and uncle ran a design shop, and your mother was an art director. So in a way, you were kind of born into the industry weren’t you? What was it like growing up as a kid surrounded by creatives?

“It think it feels the same way as if you were born into a family of cobblers, but it happened to be design and art direction instead. It always felt very normal to me. I was maybe one of the few people in advertising who didn’t have to explain to their parents what you do.

“At the same time, it was the family business so you wanted to get out right. Like if your family has three generations of shoemakers, you might be saying ‘man, I really want to be a pilot’. I didn’t think that I wanted to do it, it was a fallback plan.

“First I wanted to race motorcycles, but I was a pretty dismal professional motocross rider. And then I was going to go into the Air Force before a family friend who was a pilot for Delta told me ‘no, don’t do that, I hate my job’.”

Are you own children going into the creative industries as well?

“My son is in art school studying photography and my daughter is all about dance. So for sure, they are focused on the arts. That practical side of me says ‘yeah, but how do you make money?’. I’ve learned not to bring that up though because dad talking about it can ruin things.

“It’s about doing what interests you and that might end up being lucrative, but you can’t fake your passion. ”

Indeed, and you invested in and are passionate about the ride-sharing company Lyft. Like many big tech players, Lyft loses a lot of money still due to the fact it is focused on user acquisition rather than profitability. Is this ‘we will own the future model’ sustainable for the company and the technology sector as a whole?

“Well, here’s how I got involved in Lyft. I used to give these presentation called ‘The nine gorillas’ and it was all about the mega-trends and companies that were going to own the future. One of the companies I talked about in it was Zimride, which became Lyft. So John Zimmer [Zimride founder] reached out and asked me if I wanted to be an adviser.

“The first thing I ever did with them was I went to their office and at that time there were just five people, and I helped them put together an Ikea table. It was very early stage. Their whole reason for being was about finding a more sane way for people to get around using less resources. I worked with them a lot on the rebrand and the launch of the app.

“I can’t speak to the financials, as that’s private equity. It’s beyond angel investors and VCs. But knowing why they do what they do, that company is a beautiful company with great heart. It’s always been in great contrast to Uber and how that started. I don’t want to talk trash, but I think there is contrast and most people know and feel that.

“It’s been a lot of fun for me and at this point we are just friends who hang out and talk, I don’t advise anymore. Now it’s one of the most valuable companies on earth. I read the press, but I don’t really believe that’s real; a lot of the news stories are about manipulating markets. I am super-confident about them long-term. 

“If I love something, I invest in it and I stay in it. It’s for my kids and grandkids someday. My advice is, find things you really believe in and would like to see in the world. That’s a little separate from ‘what chance does it have?’ We do early stage investments. What chance do they have? Almost none. 

“Wanting to see something succeed is enough of a reason to invest in a company. You should feel ok with your investment going to zero not just because you can afford it, but because you understand you are putting money in to manifest something you want to see – even if that doesn’t guarantee it will happen.” 

What did you do for those eight years when you were out of the agency and do you consider that period in self-imposed exile to be a success?

“My definition of success my whole life has been working with people you love on things that you find interesting. Although I wasn’t working that much during that period, but I was working on raising my kids. The timing was perfect for me and I feel so blessed that I had that time to ride bikes with my son every day for years from when he was in ninth grade upwards. 

“I mean, come on. That’s maybe the most valuable thing I’ve ever had. Financially, that activity is not that successful. We didn’t make any money on that.”

How healthy was the industry when you left, why did you leave it and how had the industry changed by the time you returned?

“It was pretty healthy when I left and I left because I had achieved way more than I ever thought I would. My goals in life were things like ‘man, it would be really cool if someday I could afford a house’ and working with people I love on things I found interesting. That was it. Everything else was way beyond any expectations that I had.

“Within advertising, we had grown to the point where I didn’t know what was going to be interesting beyond scaling. I was thinking ‘what kind of account or what kind of experience had I not had’. I was out of ideas as to what we should do next as an organisation.

“I also felt like it had been great for me and there were all these people that had helped me so if I stepped out of the way that would make room for them to have their moment. That seemed really important to me. Although, in retrospect, I did it wrong. I should have kept a finger on the tiller. With a light touch, I could have guided things in a better way for the people that I wanted to inherit the place. 

“When I came back after eight year, despite the technology advances it wasn’t an alien space because I had spent time with tech companies during that period that were perhaps more advanced on customer acquisition and customer journey than we were. So we have brought that expertise into the agency.

“In the time I was away, the industry definitely became much more corporate. It was like if you hadn’t seen your daughter in 10 years and then when you did she was president of the Young Republicans. That was just the feeling. 

“You are your process and how you go about things. Integrity is going about things the same way to create the same outcomes. Lack of integrity is when you will do anything for a buck. Over time, there has been more willingness to do anything for a buck whether it leads to great work or not. 

“So as a company now, we are spending a lot of time working out and writing down what is great process. You have to get very granular about it and then stick to it so that everybody buys into it. We have to make it a reflex. That’s what it used to be like and you didn’t have to write it down.”

So what is your daily focus now in Boulder, Colorado, and what does the world look like for a chief creative engineer – your current job title – following the second coming?

“The reason I took the engineer title is because I very much believe in having a great process and operating system. That leads to consistently great results. You can put wonderful people into a great process and have wonderful results. You can also put wonderful people into a poor process and not get great results.

“If anything has gone wrong with the industry, it’s that a lot of great people have been put into positions without a great support system. That’s always going to be less effective. What clients are telling us they want better, cheaper, faster and super-consistently great results. From the time that I’ve spent outside the industry, we know how to do that. You know, it’s an engineering problem.”

In that case, I guess the company culture nowadays is a bit different to the first time around when committed and excited people were said to have worked very long hours in order to create great work that would impress you personally just as much as the clients?

“There’s a lot of things like that though that were just not by design. On the long hours, we were always trying to get people to go home. I mean, I don’t know if you’ve ever worked with somebody young who decides they are going to get into the business and never stop working, and they just turnout shit

“This is a marathon. You may think you’re running when you are actually on the ground crawling and you don’t realise it due to the fact this is mental work and not physical work – but you brain is crawling. It’s ‘please go home’.

“It was happening for sure and we struggled to control it and get it into a sensible place. There was nothing about people working themselves too hard that was working for us. The results did not come from that. The results came from when we knew hot to sprint and rest. 

The CP+B office in Boulder

“I don’t believe in long hours. I don’t now and I didn’t before. I love to ride my bikes and I really want to do that on the weekend. The work ethic here now is pretty sensible. I feel really proud of the organisation and where we’ve gotten too in terms of creating a really positive work environment where everybody gets heard.

“I was here Sunday and there were a few cars in the parking lot, but it wasn’t out of control. If there were no cars at all, I’d be worried because there is always probably somebody who needs to get something done on a weekend.”

Looking at the wider industry, greats like Lee Clow and Dan Wieden have pretty much retired. And even Dave Droga has sold to Accenture now. Do you see much of a future for traditional advertising and where do you think the industry is going – I know you’ve said the plan is to “reinvent” the agency model?

“We are in classic red ocean territory, where the margins have been going down and the agencies have been contracting for a period of time. From what I can tell though, there really is still a market for big ideas. Those big ideas are still hard to come by and clients are searching for them as they don’t know exactly where to find them, even though there isn’t that ability to pay way too much for big ideas anymore.

“Some of the ways we used to work came from the time when there were incredible margins and incredible wealth. That sort of ‘you can’t rush an idea, I need inspiration’ approach. I’ve never really believed in that and I don’t think we’ve been a part of that. If you’re a professional, you can kind of think of stuff on demand right.

“You have to put the discipline on yourself and that’s where great processes help too. You might have to come up with one great campaign every day this week because that’s the workload. When you sit down and work on something in the right way, you might think that it’s going to take three weeks but you’ll find that the true amount of time brainstorming or putting pencil to paper is much less than that.

“Our process helps to guide creatives with a structure in place where turn over an idea. A senior creative will know that you create a first list of ideas and then turn it over and start again whereas a junior creative will think they’ve got a great idea first time and then try to sell that idea and defend it. They go into protect mode. 

“So the process is about making sure those turns happen collectively. I’m not even calling it creative direction anymore, it’s more like quality assurance. We make ideas and look at those ideas through a QA lens. We move to the next phase and we do it again. 

“I used to think we were doing custom work and that was what made us different. Now I think we are the same as an assembly line. It’s just that our quality assurance process is fucking brutal. We make a thousand things and only two get to go out of the door versus Ford that makes a thousand things and only one gets kicked back.

“If you look at this generation of millennials to use the fucking broad definition, holy crap, this group is kind of rational. Is this the first group ever of rational consumers that we’ve ever had? What we all learned to do was to apply emotion to brands, but all the brands that have grown up with millennials have very rational value propositions.

“Look at the beer was. You’ve got Budweiser and Bud–Light doing the best work that is funny and wins a lot of awards – from an ad person’s perspective – but they are losing customers from a percentage basis faster than any other brand. Have we learned as an industry to make a thing that is millennial customer-repellent? I’ll just put it out there because it’s a big concern if we have.

“To some degree, the answer is ‘yes’. It’s about understanding that as an industry a lot of what we are doing is not just ineffective, but is actually repellent. That’s a big deal and so we have to learn new ways of thinking about brands really quickly. And the clients have to learn it too, as they’ve been trained up with the same thinking as us.

“That thinking is ‘we tell a joke over the weekend and then you like us that next week and you buy us’. Millennials are not cool with that. Brands still matter, but they have to be underpinned by an actual value. That doesn’t mean it’s cheap, although it could be cheap like Dollar Shave Club. But it could also mean it’s Purple Mattress.

“Without an actual value prop, you’re with a lot of risk in terms of this customer. So you have to find it and then tell that story. It doesn’t mean bland advertising though. For example, the Dollar Shave Club advertising is wonderful. I think all of that is really fun, it’s not scary. It’s interesting. You shouldn;t have your head in the sand. I’m kind of like stoked. Like rational, whoa.”

Why did you close the Los Angeles and Miami offices back in the day – and was it difficult to get the staff onboard when you decided to move the HQ from Miami to Boulder?

“I feel like you don’t need a lot of offices in the United States what with technology and the ability to travel. You don’t need multiple offices anymore.

“For me, to be honest the Miami office closing was just a little sad. That was where we started and grew up. Although I think it was the right decision to bring everything into one location. Tonnes of good things came out of it in terms of new people and processes.”

Do you have an office in China and what’s your evaluation of the potential of the Asian market?

“We have a tiny support office for clients in China. The different CP+B offices are actually separate P&Ls so it’s a different structure.

“I haven’t thought about Asia that much, quite honestly. I think it’s a mistake to look at it through the lens of what we think it good work coming from America or Europe. The industry loves to make assumptions and have opinions. 

“What I do know about Asia is what works there will not be the same as what works here. To talk more generally, people want advertising to be a science not an art. And it turns out that creativity is, in fact, exactly like science. 

“There are those people that make great big guesses, ideas that move things forward and unlock energy. But now, we can use experiments to test those guesses and prove or disprove them. You can now run those experiment quickly and inexpensively. So it’s become in a comforting way exactly like science.

“I’m a creative guy though and you have to start with the big guess. The data and the experiments alone will never generate the big guess.”

With that in mind, which are the great agencies and individuals you still admire today that are still making those big guesses?

“We’ve got Droga. We’ve got Anomaly and 72andSunny both in our MDC network so I’ve got to give a shout out to them. And then there’s a lot of good stuff coming from small shops. I should have a bigger list, but I’ve never followed – or been a fan of – the trappings of the industry. All the parties and stuff, I don’t care about that. 

“What I really like about the industry, and I missed when I was away, is it makes you ask the big questions about where we are going as a culture. And that manifests itself in brands as we’ve seen with the American Airlines and Fruit of the Loom examples of late.

“I really respect all the agencies and the people in the industry, but I don’t respect advertising as a form because I want to change it you know. However it looks today, it’s temporary. It’s going to change, it’s going to evolve. I get excited when you see something you’ve never seen before. 

“It can be the tiniest thing. We just did some work where the people were in the pool soaking wet and then they jump in this luxury car soaking wet. I’ve never seen that before. So little things like that keep me going.”

How do you find working with your holding company MDC?

“What I’m hoping for is that we can pilot new ideas, processes and ways of working here and then export those to the holding company. It we can crack that nut here, it could be good for the holding company MDC and the industry as a whole. 

“I never worry about sharing those things because I feel we have a first-mover advantage. We’re competitive and yet at the same time we want the network and the industry to succeed.”

Finally, let’s take a hypothetical. If you were to leave the industry again now for another eight years, what do you think it would look like upon your return? Would artificial intelligence and virtual personal assistants powered by Facebook, Google, Amazon and Alibaba have destroyed the agency scene and advertising itself?

“I would say no. A lot of it is going to take longer. I can tell you what’s going to happen in the next 15 minutes and I try not to think far beyond that. You can actually be forward in your thinking just by realising what’s happening right now and acting upon it.

“Futurists are famous for being wrong 100% of the time. I think eight years from now will be a little bit more like today than we think it’s going to be. I believe that AI will be slower than people think because of the multiple complications with the technology. 

“We know that AI paired with humans has proven to be way more powerful than AI alone. That trend will continue for a while yet. The AI that makes the big guess is going to be some way away.

“I got into advertising, and this is funny, because I was a graphic designer and I went to a conference where they said graphic design and print was dying. It was going to die, we were told. So I went over to advertising with Chuck Porter thinking ‘I can get out of this dying design industry and I can be an ad guy’. 

“Anyway, here we are some 35 years later and design is still a huge thing. Back when I was age 20, people were talking about the death of advertising and that has never stopped since. I very much doubt we are at the last eight years now.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella Asia newsletter now.

 

SUBSCRIBE

Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing