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Aside from the twenty-four foot tall wooden box of Kraft Mac & Cheese hovering in Crispin Porter + Bogusky's foyer—its latest client win—there wasn't much indication that anything at the hottest ad agency in the country had changed. "It's no big deal, nothing's happened," Alex Bogusky reassured me a few weeks ago in Boulder, several months after ditching his chairman role at Crispin for a job upstairs as "Chief Creative Insurgent" of MDC Partners, Crispin's parent company. "There are 1,000 other people that work there."
According to those to whom he's passed the torch, life without Bogusky is no different. "He had been designing his exit for the past few years," David Rolfe, one of agency's five rising stars who was recently promoted to partner in Bogusky's wake, told me over dinner. Winston Binch, another new Crispin partner, concurred. "I think that what Alex has been able to do is unlike Steve Jobs"—the hands-on creative genius Bogusky is often compared to—"he's been able to design a system where he can let go and things are still going to be great." Even Crispin's head of IT told me: "It¹s not like he took the Colonel Sanders original recipe and left and we've only got a little bit left. It's almost like he left and he's like, 'You're ready to graduate. I taught you and your ready to do this stuff on your own.'"
That, at least, is the party line coming from Crispin, the agency known for perfecting the art of PR spin. However, when yesterday's news broke that after a mere five months into Bogusky's new gig, The One was abruptly quitting MDC, the odds of Crispin staying on top got a bit slimmer. "The problem with the Jesus model is it's hard to institutionalize," a former executive of an MDC agency told me. "Alex has created a cult of Alex. It's all about what does Alex think of this? and the how much time do I get with Alex model. Now Jesus is off skiing."
In months since Bogusky has left, Crispin has proven it can handle the ride without the training wheels. Last month in Cannes the often-awarded shop was named Interactive Agency of the Year and won the Titanium Grand Prix for its social media Best Buy "Twelpforce" work. Earlier this year, along with its Kraft win it helped client Domino's boost revenue by 14% with its "Pizza Turnaround" campaign. A May report by Deutsche Bank zealously reported that "momentum at CP+B is strong both from existing clients and new business," and that the 1,000-person shop is poised to add another 500 employees in the not too distant future. Investments in its digital production capabilities and regrowing its atrophied Miami office are also in full swing. Deutsche Bank analyst Matt Chesler, who authored the original report, said yesterday, "While some may view Bogusky's mere presence as critical to bringing in new business, we think he has had little if any direct role in recent key wins and is certainly not overseeing creative on accounts. There are now 13 partners with an equity interest in the agency highly motivated to keep CP+B going strong."
However, not everyone buys turning a cult-of-personality organization into a democracy as a sign of strength. "There¹s no one person Alex has passed the mantle to," points out industry vet Pat Fallon, whose agency experienced its own larger than life personality loss years ago. "That¹s what people do when no one has risen to say this is the obvious choice. Nobody's certain who's going to rise." Plus, Burger King, arguably Crispin's most famed and profitable client, could walk out the door any minute. In the past year the fast food giant's franchisees have been sparring HQ about the company's ads, its sales have been slipping, and in May it hired new Global Chief Marketing officer Natalaia Franco—always a cue of change ahead.
"The jury is still out as to whether they can maintain the creative excellence and personality and culture with him gone," says Judy Neer, president of Pile & Co, which manages ad agency reviews. Even former Crispinite Colin Drummond, who spent nearly a decade at the agency, most recently as its head of planning, ponders the future of the shop. "It¹s the million dollar question," says Drummond, who left in May. "Can a company survive the departure of its charismatic genius leader? There are lots of examples of companies that did not."