01 Dec 2006

One-on-One with Jeff Hicks

President and CEO, Crispin Porter + Bogusky
by Julia Hanna


Jeff Hicks (MBA ’97) arrived at HBS with ten years of experience as an advertising executive at Leo Burnett in Chicago. Disillusioned with the trend toward “unbundling” agencies into different functions and media groups, Hicks considered switching to another industry entirely. Instead, the Miami native went home after graduation to join an upstart agency that seemed interested in doing things a little differently. At the time, Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B) had a regional focus, with 55 employees and annual billings of $60 million. Today its staff numbers 554, with billings for 2006 estimated at $1 billion. The agency’s client list now includes brands such as Volkswagen, Burger King, and Virgin Atlantic, among others. “The business I loved is the business we’re in now — being completely integrated with a client’s product and its strategy,” says Hicks.

CP+B is known for work that challenges the definition of traditional advertising (such as its 2004 Subservient Chicken Web site, created for Burger King). The agency has also garnered its share of attention through numerous articles and awards in the national press, winning “Agency of the Year” awards from Advertising Age (2005) and Creativity (2004, 2005). In May, Hicks and the firm’s three partners were featured on the cover of BusinessWeek as “The Craziest Ad Guys in America.” Here, Hicks talks about the method in the madness of CP+B’s success.

What has changed about the industry?
Advertising today has to be so entertaining, interesting, and useful that you won’t want to live without it. That’s a fundamentally different premise than the one advertising was founded on: I can pay money and put myself in front of you. I can bore you, I can offend you, but I’m going to give you free programming, so you have to give me your attention. The reality is that you don’t have to give me your attention anymore. I have to earn it.

What makes CP+B different?
We don’t think of ourselves as an advertising agency in the typical sense. CP+B is a company that produces and distributes creative content that hopefully powers the marketing of companies. But is that advertising? A lot of the work we do for our clients involves media not on a rate card or in a typical distribution unit. Is producing the telephone “hold” music for Burger King’s corporate headquarters considered advertising? One of our clients called us their “brand advocacy partner.” I thought that was cool because that’s really what this place is about — getting behind a brand to help it win in its category.

CP+B has seen enormous growth in the past ten years. What was the turning point for the agency?
In the first quarter of 1998 we won the “Truth” anti-tobacco account in the state of Florida. That put us on the radar. It also just happened to be targeted at kids between the ages of 10 and 14, which really anchored this agency in youth marketing. Eventually, the campaign went national. Those kids are older now, and we’re selling them Coke Zero, Jettas, and GTIs. We’ve grown up with them, and that experience gave us a leg up on the learning curve about this cohort’s acceptance of the Internet, instant messaging, and many other technologies. That campaign was a great foundation in what has become the future of marketing, because that group has a hair-trigger response to anything that’s boring. Now that hair-trigger response has caught up to other generations.

Where is the industry headed?
People are often focused on figuring out if the next advertising medium will be via the Internet, TiVo, or some technological device we don’t even know about yet. In my mind, the future of advertising is in great brands that market themselves without paid advertising. For example, I’m a huge fan of Google’s marketing. I love it because you can’t quite put your finger on it. What is it? Why are we all using Google? For me, that’s the ultimate compliment. They’ve created a product that’s so compelling and has marketing so far embedded in it that you can’t really isolate it.

Do kooky campaigns like the Subservient Chicken for Burger King translate into actual sales?
Hopefully there is a strategic foundation, that is, having chicken any way you want it. But there’s no single ad that’s going to convert you. The effectiveness derives from a thousand teeny things that, over time, can get you to believe that this is a brand that I want to spend time with and that the people behind this product have a sense of humor I understand. How do you become one of those brands that people want to wear on a T-shirt? There’s no one commercial that’s going to make me want to wear an Apple or a Nike T-shirt. It’s a succession of many different impressions and moments. That’s how marketing works now.

Why does CP+B use the research of on-staff social anthropologists to guide its campaigns?
This business has been founded on consumer research, trend analysis, and focus groups, so that advertisers can find a way to piggyback on a trend. Unfortunately, you often have to be dishonest about your product to fit in with a particular movement. What we’ve tried to do is realize that advertising has a different sort of power and perhaps even a responsibility. In true marketing, you can change pop culture to create a world that’s more aligned with your brand. Our fundamental premise is, let’s use social anthropologists to get in and try at a basic level to understand human beings. Once we understand the culture we try to figure out how to play within it and hopefully shape it into something that’s better suited for our client.

Here’s an example. We just launched the GTI for Volkswagen. The car culture of 25- to 35-year-old males is one based on a lot of accessories like tricked-out exhausts and spoilers, and it’s dominated by Japanese imports. We could lie about the GTI and try to make it live in that world, but instead we developed the “Un-Pimp Your Ride” campaign to demonstrate that there can be another kind of performance car culture. They’re fun, successful commercials. And VW is on fire, which is obviously exciting.

How would you describe CP+B’s ideal client?
We get excited when we can become involved with all aspects of the brand. We just signed on with Hager slacks, which is a re-launch of a terrific, 80-year-old American brand. A lot of people didn’t think Hager fit our profile, but it’s incredibly exciting for us because we’re touching all aspects of the brand. In addition to advertising, we’re involved in the design and naming of the products, the in-store merchandising, how the stitching looks on the back of the garments… right down to the appearance of the hangtags. Having that level of access to the product inspires us as much as anything else.

What management issue do you think about most in your job?
The culture of the agency. When the doors open and everyone leaves at the end of the day, the agency is gone. It’s important to keep the culture of this place strong so that everyone understands the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable — and establish that without a lot of written rules, structure, and hierarchy. We used to be small enough that everyone could be in a meeting at the same time. You’d hear someone answer a question and learn indirectly how to handle a difficult situation. As we grow, I think a lot about how we replicate that experience with training that is within the brand and the culture of the agency.


Your controversial Jetta ads use real-time crashes to emphasize the car’s safety. How would you respond to critics?
The two permissible ways to demonstrate safety in commercials in the past involved crash dummies or showing a car weaving to avoid an obstacle. But in movies and television there were more realistic crashes. All we did was bring the entertainment level of television and movies to the issue of safety, which is a tough story to tell in a compelling way. Those commercials have really helped people take note that VWs have the highest JD Powers safety record, which was exactly the intent. They played on the Today show and people were sending them around online and viewing them on youtube.com. That’s part of the mission, to create content that people can’t live without.

CP+B just moved 120 employees to a new office in Boulder, Colorado. How is that working out?
Miami is a terrific city. We’re always going to be here, but we needed to have a base of operations closer to California, where we do a lot of work, and Boulder is a great quality of life complement to Miami. Last year we had to close the agency for about a week after a hurricane damaged the building. We had people all over the world working from hotels, and we got as much work done that week as any other. We realized, wow, this agency is not about the space. It’s about the people and everyone being connected to the Internet and the telephone.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1997, Section H

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