Why MDC Will Never Love an Ad Man Like It Loved Alex Bogusky

The inside story of how a "life contract" between MDC Chief Miles Nadal and his rock star Chief Creative Insurgent soured.

"There is only one Alex and I’m the only one who has him," MDC Partners chairman and CEO Miles Nadal gushed to me at a Manhattan book party four weeks ago when I asked him about Alex Bogusky’s new role as Chief Creative Insurgent at MDC. “Alex and I have a life contract. It’s a moral contract. As long as he’s happy, he's mine.”

Nadal, who in one breath compared his partner to Steve Jobs and Kobe Bryant, made it clear he not only admires Bogusky the brain, but Bogusky the man. "Alex reverses with age. Every year he gets older, he looks younger," Nadal told me. In January, when Bogusky quit Crispin Porter + Bogusky--the ad shop that put MDC, a small Canadian communications holding company, on the map--Nadal convinced Bogusky to stay on in his newly invented figurehead role for a rumored $2 million per year in return for, says Nadal, "a blank canvas and unlimited resources."

"I am here to serve Alex,” said Nadal, smiling. "It’s Pavlovian. The quicker I say yes, the happier he is, the better I feel."

Which made it all the more curious when last week MDC abruptly announced that the Nadal-Bogusky partnership was suddenly aborted. "[We] wish him the very best in all of his future endeavors," politely said the three sentence MDC statement about Bogusky’s resignation. Several weeks ago when I visited Bogusky in Boulder, he told me, "Miles and I are going to go on this journey together." But on Thursday, he was as diplomatic as MDC about the fresh divorce, saying, "At least emotionally we’ll continue to be some kind of partners, it will exist through our friendship."

For the public company MDC (MDCA), losing Bogusky is less about friendship and more about its bottom line. "In 2009 MDC was the only holding company [in advertising] to grow profits and cash flow throughout the downturn. It has a lot to do with Crispin having a fantastic year, strong double-digit revenue growth and strong margins," Deutsche Bank analyst Matt Chesler told me last month. Despite owning 30-plus communications agencies, he pointed out, MDC earns some 75% 50%-60% of its profits from Crispin. [Update: In a follow-up call, Chesler revised his original percentage.] "It’s been by far the most important asset that they own and will continue to be the most important one for the foreseeable future." 

While Bogusky was still in-house--MDC had dangled $15 million in front of him to stay at Crispin, but he declined--MDC could at least give the impression that Bogusky’s juju wasn’t going anywhere. "They’ve positioned his [Bogusky’s] departure as if he’s moved into a bigger role at MDC, which implies he’s still available and somewhat involved," Judy Neer, president of Pile & Co, which manages ad agency reviews, told me last month when Bogusky was still at MDC. Another industry analyst reiterated the idea at the time, saying, "He is under contract for X number of years, probably 2-3 years. Investors take comfort to know that Alex will be around for a period of time."

But with Bogusky's existential departure from Crispin conveniently timed in parallel with his final MDC payout-- somewhere north of $10 million--it turns out sticking around MDC wasn't necessary after all. Especially if Bogusky couldn't be free to pursue his passions. "All the things we wanted to do I'm going to keep on doing," Bogusky told me after he resigned. "I think it’s easier now because I have one less job."

However for Nadal, it's another story. Without Bogusky on call, the pressure for Nadal to keep Crispin profitable without its Jobsian genius is at an all-time high. "I think Miles is scared shitless," one former Crispin executive told me, who asked not to be named. “My sense is that no one would admit to it, but they’re suffering from delusions of grandeur. All people were there to serve one person’s vision.” For all of Nadal’s big talk about the success of the MDC's innovative talent-focused model, the aspiring ad mogul's only guaranteed moneymaker has officially just walked out the door.

 

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