Ruling The Roost

Like just about everything Crispin Porter + Bogusky does, the Subservient Chicken ad campaign is risky and extreme. It's also very, very smart.

"It's official: We've gotta find somebody to replace Dolly Parton!" Andrew Keller booms to a small group of account executives making their way into his remarkably uncluttered office.

Keller, 34, the number-two creative executive at Miami ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, leans back in an Aeron chair and plants a pair of sneakered feet firmly against the edge of his desk, noisily drumming a black plastic ballpoint pen against his knee as the group gets settled. In the hallway, Alex Bogusky, the agency's 41-year-old creative wunderkind, ushers the account people into Keller's office, dancing haltingly back and forth like a boxer readying himself to jump into the ring.

"What about the Judds?" Bogusky breezily chimes in, making the entire room fall silent despite the soft-spokenness of his suggestion. Bogusky, who by this time has also grabbed an Aeron and firmly planted his own sneakered feet on the wall, rubs his baby-faced chin, looking perplexed. "Is Naomi the mother? The mother's the hot one. She's a sexy, sexy lady."

The room bursts with laughter. Off-color jokes about the mother-Judd comment wing back and forth for several minutes until the group slowly gets back on track, sporadically throwing out names of other female country stars to replace Dolly. Meanwhile, Bogusky grabs a nearby laptop and begins Googling pictures of the Judds, ignoring the conversation that swirls around him.

Then Bogusky looks up from the computer and glances mischievously around the room. Again, everyone freezes. "Maybe we should get a man instead," he says with a prankster's grin. Chaos reigns for the next five minutes. Keller simultaneously talks and listens as suggestions fly in every direction. He finally takes back control of the meeting and ticks off a short list of women and men who will be considered to star in an ad. End of discussion. Next agenda item: Burger King's July campaign.

This small, mostly informal meeting on a balmy December day — typical of the many like it that happen all the time in the agency's 300-person-strong Coconut Grove headquarters — was called in part to recast a Burger King television spot that was to break in mid-February to push the chain's latest chicken sandwich, the Bacon Cheddar Ranch. The original concept had been to have the ample Dolly belt out the tune "Big Rock Candy Mountain" on a surreal fantasy ranch where an average working Joe could escape reality for a custom-made "Have It Your Way" meal.

Though the scene in Keller's office could have occurred at any ad shop across the country, it was in exactly this kind of half-formal setting — where play mixes seamlessly with work, and minor setbacks are taken as opportunities to challenge existing ideas — that CP+B hatched the ad industry's blockbuster hit of last year (a Web site, no less): Burger King's Subservient Chicken. For the seven or so people who've never heard of the campaign, let's just say it involves a man, a dingy apartment, a chicken suit, and a garter belt. He hangs out in front of his Webcam all day — or at least that's the illusion — and happily accommodates almost any request a user can think to type in. (Suggestions for lewd acts are met with a "naughty naughty" shake of the wing.)

The site attracted more than 385 million hits, with visitors spending an average of six minutes asking the chicken to perform various stunts. And while CP+B and Burger King remain stubbornly mum on the total cost of Subservient Chicken, even assuming the worst (the costume was designed by Hollywood's prestigious Stan Winston Studio), the buzz had to be a relative bargain. For perspective, consider that a 30-second spot on this year's Super Bowl broadcast, which reached an audience of 133 million, went for a record $2.4 million a pop.

Subservient Chicken is the product of CP+B's ingenious blueprint for systematically producing work that is original, innovative — and effective.

Subservient Chicken may seem goofy and haphazard — the random beneficiary of the kind of lightning stroke of good fortune that ignites popular frenzies on the Web. It is, in fact, anything but. This odd bird is the product of CP+B's disciplined, ingenious blueprint for systematically producing work that is original, innovative, authentic, strategic, and most important, pretty damn effective. It's a creativity that, ironically, is liberated by the marketing game's strict limits on such things as media choices, budgets, and message content.

It's also a blueprint the agency has closely followed to achieve its remarkable success over the past decade. During that time, CP+B's billings have exploded from $45 million to well over $500 million and counting, thanks to groundbreaking work for such clients as Ikea, BMW Mini, and Virgin Atlantic.

The past 18 months have been even hotter. The agency has landed an impressive roster of big-league mainstream clients that includes Burger King, Google, Gateway, and Gap, prompting jealous chatter on Madison Avenue about whether it can keep the streak going now that it's no longer dealing solely with cute little yuppie brands. For now, the Miami outfit continues to rack up more awards than it has space to display in its increasingly cramped offices, including being named Advertising Age's 2004 Agency of the Year.

The question everyone in the ad business is asking now: How do they do what they do?

It ain't pixie dust. And it's not even, particularly, the brilliance of any of the agency's four partners. (In addition to Bogusky, there's chairman Chuck Porter, president Jeff Hicks, and account-services director Jeff Steinhour. Sam Crispin founded the agency in 1965; his name is still on the door even though he departed in 1991 and his son, Charles, sold out in 1993.) Instead, a set of simple but insightful operating principles guides the agency at every level. When the shop is at its best, as it was with Subservient Chicken, it represents the very model of how an intelligent creative business should run.

Pick The Right Clients

CP+B says its process begins with picking "inspiring" clients. But that can be a little misleading when it comes to a client such as Burger King. After all, multibillion-dollar fast-food chains aren't typically known for wackiness or exuberant risk taking. In Burger King's case, inspiring was just another word for nothing left to lose.

After suffering a years-long slide, stuck in its perennial runner-up status, Burger King had little going for it other than the fact that it was still a nationally recognized brand. By December 2002, the chain's then parent company, Diageo PLC, was so desperate to sell it that it dropped Burger King's $2.4 billion asking price by a Whopper-sized $1 billion. The Texas Pacific Group, a hard-charging leveraged buyout firm with a Texas-sized appetite for troubled properties (it also owns controlling stakes in J.Crew and Continental Airlines), gobbled up the company, figuring that at least its real-estate holdings and franchisee fees would be worth something.

"We brought CP+B in without a review because we were, and still are, operating at a turnaround pace," says Russ Klein, who was hired by Texas Pacific as Burger King's chief marketing officer (its eighth in nine years). That's a sanitized version of what others said at the time — namely that a radical campaign from CP+B was the company's last hope.

From CP+B's perspective, Burger King doubled the agency's billings overnight to more than $500 million — and instantly catapulted it into a new level of high-stakes competition. In essence, the two Miami neighbors each made a bet-the-company gamble on the other that would test both organizations' appetite for risk. The game isn't decided yet, but play is shifting decidedly in Burger King's favor: Since CP+B took over the account in January 2004, Burger King's sales not only stopped a 21-month slide but actually turned around. Sales growth for the company in 2004 came in at an estimated 18.2% compared to McDonald's Corp.'s 11.3% (though Mickey D's is almost twice as large).

Build A Strategic Platform

At the center of CP+B's new marketing effort for Burger King lies a long-retired 30-year-old slogan, "Have It Your Way," which the agency dusted off as a way to pitch customizable fast food to a mass audience of 18-to-35-year-old men. But "Have It Your Way" is no mere tagline, as people inside and outside the agency will quickly tell you. It's a screening tool that, as much as possible, is used to guide every creative decision about the account.

At most agencies, strategy restrains creativity. At CP+B, disciplined thinking gives license to work that can be extreme.

Chris Rossi, the vice president of marketing and sales for Virgin Atlantic Airways, says the strategic thinking that CP+B bakes into its creative work is the key to its brilliance. Of course, every ad shop that hopes to stay in business would say it blends creativity and strategy. The difference is that at most agencies, strategy tones down creativity. ("Just say the brand name over and over until they can't get it out of their minds.") At CP+B, disciplined strategic thinking often provides a license for work that is, by any measure, extreme.

For Virgin Atlantic, for example, the agency launched a controversial spot this past fall on LodgeNet, a pay-per-view movie service carried in hotels throughout the world. After CP+B's media department discovered that business passengers gravitate to LodgeNet's adult section, CP+B produced a nine-and-a-half-minute spoof of a soft-core video (no nudity) called "Suite and Innocent." Next to Subservient Chicken, it has been one of CP+B's most talked-about works this year, drawing within three months 800,000 hotel viewers, who watched on average for a full seven and a half minutes. (Read into that whatever you will.)

"Virgin is a brand that likes to push the edge," Rossi says. "Even so, I would never have given the green light for the LodgeNet piece if the agency didn't have the strategic thinking and research to back it up." Instead of pushing the creative genius of the idea, CP+B came to the briefing on the LodgeNet piece armed with reams of data showing that executive types who would most likely fly business class pay especially close attention during pay-per-view shows in their hotel rooms (they're paying for them, after all). In the end, the total cost of Virgin's "Suite and Innocent" spot came in at less than $1 million. That's "a lot of bang for the buck," Rossi says.

Burger King's Klein echoes Rossi's sentiment. "All of CP+B's work is driven by a strategic purpose," he says. "Nothing is done solely for creativity's sake." In reviving "Have It Your Way," CP+B hoped to capitalize on the notion of mass customization, an idea popularized by B. Joseph Pine and Stan Davis in the 1990s, as a competitive weapon against McDonald's merely Brobdingnagian "We serve billions" approach. Instead of trying futilely to convince people that one burger or one fry is better than another, something like Subservient Chicken — the idea of having your way with a chicken in bondage — expresses the brand's custom-made approach in a cheeky way that connects deeply with Burger King's target demographic. Or at least it connects much more so than Burger King's previous agency, giant Young & Rubicam (released after only 10 months), did with its "Fire's Ready" campaign, which played up the grill.

Create An Idea Culture

Ideas are an almost unhealthy obsession at CP+B: They interrupt marriages, they limit social interaction, they disturb sleep. And if there is a dirty secret lurking beneath the warm and fuzzy surface of CP+B's culture, it's that non-idea-producers are quickly chewed up and spit out of the organization. "If you can't come up with ideas, you won't survive here for long," says Bogusky, flashing a rare hint of intensity. Conversely, people who are true idea machines (from any discipline) find a welcome home within CP+B's concrete and steel walls.

One such idea superstar is Jeff Benjamin, the agency's interactive director. Recruited from San Francisco ad firm Goodby, Silverstein & Partners a year and a half ago, Benjamin was almost immediately charged with developing a Web element that would go along with a series of television spots that were being dreamed up for the Subservient Chicken campaign.

In fact, the whole Subservient Chicken idea — putting an almost seedy, slightly creepy but very funny twist on the idea of "Have It Your Way" — typifies the virtue of operating within an idea culture. It's the dogged pursuit of originality within the agency that produces these twists on ideas, which are what make CP+B's ads "sticky," as Bogusky puts it.

"Even if another agency had thought to bring back the 'Have It Your Way' slogan, it probably would have just replayed the original Burger King song from 30 years ago and shot some spots around that," says Pete Favat, executive creative director for Boston-based ad shop Arnold Worldwide. "They are like pitbulls when it comes to finding creative ways to deliver a message: They work and work on something until they know they've got it right."

With plans in place to stage a couple of days' worth of hot chicken Webcam action to go along with the Subservient Chicken spots, Benjamin wanted more. Then he got an idea (surprise!). If he were able to come up with an exhaustive list of commands that the film crew could shoot the chicken performing, maybe he could create a site where the chicken would simultaneously carry out millions of demands in real time. Burger King never pushed him or the agency to do this. He just thought it was cool. "Our approach has always been, 'Follow the work,' " says account-services director and partner Jeff Steinhour, meaning if ever you're in doubt about a decision, simply ask whether it's going to make the work better.

Suddenly, the situation became a no-brainer. The film crew grabbed a friend's apartment in L.A. and shot the chicken doing 200 different actions while Benjamin set to work on the Web site's functionality. Even before it was finished, everyone in the agency knew they had a barn burner on their hands. When the site neared completion, Benjamin emailed the URL to several people within CP+B asking them to send the link out to friends to test. From that single email Benjamin sent on the morning of April 8 last year, without a peep of promotion, the Subservient Chicken site ended the day with 1 million total hits.

Like all good Internet phenomena, Subservient Chicken took off literally overnight. By the end of January, nine months after its release, the site had scored well over 385 million hits and was still getting 250,000 to 500,000 hits per day. "I guarantee they'll take home some awards for Subservient Chicken this year," says Joan Minihan Reilly, the associate director of the Advertising Club of New York, which hosts the International Andy awards this month for creativity in advertising. Awards are nice, but results are even nicer. As Andy Bonaparte, a Burger King ad director, bragged to Adweek in October, the site helped "sell a lot, a lot, a lot of chicken sandwiches."

When The Heat's On, Be The Ninja

For his part, Bogusky worries that the chicken will get stale. "I'm sick of that damn chicken," he says. "But the site's still so popular, we can't take it down without causing an uproar."

The chicken isn't the only thing that risks going stale. There's nothing like gaining a reputation as a red-hot creative shop for turning up the pressure in a business where you're only as good as your last ad. And aside from a brief dustup caused by Burger King's paid inclusion in the premiere of The Apprentice's latest season (which the agency says was all Burger King's doing), nothing churned out since Subservient Chicken has turned many heads: not a much-touted "Chicken Fight" series of ads that ultimately petered out, and not a bland SpongeBob movie tie-in. People did talk about a series of spots called "Wake Up With the King," in which a costumed king rolled over to hand a breakfast sandwich to a surprised sleeper. But most comments focused on how creepy the king looked.

Now, as Keller and Bogusky's team wraps up the final details of the Fantasy Ranch spots (they finally settled on Darius Rucker, the lead singer for Hootie and the Blowfish, to replace Dolly), a new challenge lies ahead in coming up with something that will hit for July. Last summer, the agency easily drove traffic to Burger King outlets thanks to a Spiderman movie tie-in. This year, there's no big movie, no new product. Nothing. Yet Burger King is obviously going to want to see traffic and sales continue to climb.

The agency's principals don't seem to spend much time worrying about losing the account. After all, they're well aware that Burger King has had five agencies since 2000. "We've got to be the ninja: Accept death before going into battle," Steinhour says. "You have to be like that if you're going to give it everything you've got for a client." Klein, Burger King's marketing honcho, insists that the relationship with CP+B remains solid and extends beyond a month-to-month accounting of individual campaigns. "What they helped us do was sharpen and clarify what our brand means," he says.

That, he says, is worth more than any single campaign, even if it happens to be Subservient Chicken.

Ryan Underwood is a Fast Company staff writer.

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