Alex Bogusky Tells All: He Left the World’s Hottest Agency to Find His Soul

Alex Bogusky, the Elvis of advertising, has left the business. Is this a New Age midlife crisis or his greatest rebranding campaign?

Alex Bogusky Tells All: He Left the World’s Hottest Agency to Find His Soul
[Photo: Mike Piscitelli]

“The philosophy behind much advertising is based on the old observation that every man is really two men — the man he is and the man he wants to be.”
— William Feather

Alex Bogusky, advertising Dadaist, postmodern media manipulator, pop-culture Houdini, daddy of 21st-century advertising, and now a seeker of meaning on the dirt path of life, invites me and his monk into the FearLess Cottage. Inside the quaint cherry-brick-and-wood house, so placidly typical of Bogusky’s adopted hometown of Boulder, Colorado, are the props of an adman attempting rehab. There are the wrinkled tubes of acrylic paint lying like fallen soldiers next to a canvas and easel, an acoustic guitar alongside a cowhide chair, and a wood-framed mirror from Bogusky’s former Crispin Porter + Bogusky client Russ Klein, Burger King’s ex-president of global marketing. Inscribed on the mirror is a quote from Mother Teresa. “If you are kind,” reads the gift, “people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; be kind anyway. If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies; succeed anyway. If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you; be honest and frank anyway. What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; build anyway.”


It is mid-May, three months after Bogusky quit Crispin, a month and a half before he will abandon the advertising business altogether. The monk and I are among the first guests to visit the FearLess Cottage. The monk, in essence, was Bogusky’s going-away present to Crispin; last December, Bogusky hired Greg, a late fortysomething from Wisconsin who recently spent six years in absolute silence in a bamboo hut in Burma, to teach “mindfulness classes” at Crispin’s Boulder office. Back then, Bogusky was still cochair-man of the hottest ad shop in the country — last year, Advertising Age crowned Crispin both Agency of the Year and Agency of the Decade — but within five minutes of meeting the monk, he explained that he was existentially stuck. “Now I think some people are worried the monk will go away since I’m not there,” says Bogusky. “I was looking for his next benefactor, but then I was like, The monk is cheap, I’ll just pay for the monk.” Greg, whose translucent blue eyes suggest that all his troubles are behind him, gives me his take on Bogusky’s transformation: “Alex’s struggle was around doing good in the world and the sense that it may not matter, that it’s not going to have a big enough impact soon enough or fast enough.”

(1) The FearLess Cottage Bogusky has made this the Boulder center of his post-Crispin reinvention, and a hub for activists and entrepreneurs.

If only it were that simple. Bogusky first told me about his struggle, and his effort to become unstuck, in April, over coffee at a midtown café in New York. It quickly became clear that he was not the same man I had written about more than two years ago, when Fast Company lionized him on the cover as “the Steve Jobs of the ad world.” Back then, he had been as clever, brash, and iconoclastic as the campaigns that earned him a reputation as the most dangerous weapon in advertising. Bogusky relished playing cultural deviant — whether it was recasting Virgin Atlantic as late-night porn, turning Volkswagen drivers into crash-test dummies, pranking Whopper fans into mass hysteria (or, yes, transforming a human-size chicken into a virtual S&M toy) — and all the mystique that came along with it. Year after year, while the industry waited for him to stumble, its bad boy continued seducing bigger and more unlikely clients, such as Microsoft and Best Buy, while the cult of Crispin hogged virtually every award from Cannes to the ad trades. Crispin’s clients benefitted from his madness: Burger King was a private company when Bogusky first took it on. He pushed the company to roll out the most aggressive fast-food tactics ever seen — “innovations” such as Chicken Fries (chicken fingers turned into French fries), Meat’normous (with 47 grams of fat, the breakfast sandwich was dubbed “a heart attack on a bun”), and Flame (a flame-broiled-meat cologne) — and created so much buzz that BK went public in 2006, boosting its annual revenue 25% since then, to $2.5 billion in 2009.


Yet the Bogusky sitting before me in Manhattan sounded more like some of the activists I’d interviewed in this era of financial and environmental crises. Instead of talking brands, Bogusky riffed on the inequities of Wall Street, the flaws of corporate structure, and the need for social and environmental transparency. He was a man released, trying on the clothes of a new and as yet undefined life. “I’ve freed myself from Crispin,” he exhaled. Who was this person? I wondered. I wasn’t the only one asking the question. “I have to go figure out, What the fuck is Alex?” Bogusky spilled, as if I were his therapist. “I don’t know.”

I asked Bogusky if I could chronicle him on this journey, have in on the enlightenment and the confusion. Given that we live in a world of open confession, and that no one is more in tune with the zeitgeist than Bogusky, I wasn’t surprised that he said yes.

And so here I am at this cottage in Boulder, with the most famous man in advertising and Greg the monk. Shuffling around his modest hideout in frayed jeans and flip-flops, Bogusky, who this afternoon resembles an amber-tinted Billy Crudup, tells me, “I wasn’t attached to the idea that I was an ad-creative-director rock star. I don’t believe any of that stuff. It isn’t my legacy. I guess I just don’t aspire to corporate legacy. I’m convinced that the greatness that matters more is the greatness people achieve through helping each other, through collaborating, more than the greatness that’s achieved by grabbing all you can or getting all you can or building all you can. The ‘you’ needs to go away for there to be the real greatness to things. So for me, the genuine part, it’s a weird thing — to get to the real you, you have to be less you.”


When Bogusky was 24, his father, Bill, a well-known logo designer in Miami, was hospitalized with a serious depression. Alex had to step in to save his dad’s business, which was just one month away from shutting down. He turned it around in a year and a half, handing it back to his dad after he recovered. “Alex was an only child,” says Bill, “but I guess we got it right the first time.” Alex then ran like hell to get on someone else’s payroll. “I hated it, I hated it, I fled from it,” says Bogusky. “It was one of the reasons I went to Crispin. I was desperate to be staff.”

Maybe. Whatever desire Bogusky had for stability quickly morphed into ambition. Soon after Chuck Porter — a friend of his dad’s — hired the community-college dropout as senior art director, Bogusky set about turning the sleepy Coconut Grove agency into a fame machine. He understood before most the power of word of mouth, and he was unnaturally talented at manufacturing it. In the late 1980s, he concocted hoaxes like staging a Jim Jones — style agency suicide and sending photos to the ad trades. “That’s the whole philosophy,” says Bogusky. “We didn’t do anything that wasn’t supposed to get press.” By the time he was promoted to run Crispin’s creative department in 1991, the hunger behind the cool surfer dude was clear. “I stood up and said to everybody, ‘We’re going to be the most written-about, talked-about agency in the world,’ ” he says. His first assistant, Ana, recalls, “We sat down one day and I said, ‘You should be famous. You’re amazing. You’re so smart, people need to know what you’re thinking and learn from you.’ ” Ana, now a feisty, petite woman with jet black hair and a Boulder tan, has been wed to Bogusky for 13 years — sometime after that conversation, they divorced their first spouses and got married. “I started this PR campaign years ago,” she laughs. “I didn’t think I’d be going along for the ride.”


(2) Alex at 12 “I was done developing then. I used to feel bad about it, like people would somehow be able to find out that inside me, there was only a 12-year-old.”

Over the past two decades, the ad business has changed utterly, with digital imploding linear 30-second spots, earned media usurping paid media, and consumers co-opting brand conversations. Bogusky’s insatiable appetite — and foresight — for change kept him ahead and on top. “It was a place where if I got bored, I changed it,” says Bogusky. His impatience and impulsiveness led to some of the agency’s most prescient moves: approaching media agnostically, bringing anthropologists and sociologists into planning, building an integrated digital department, and growing an industrial-design practice. “We had inculturated [sic] this idea of change, so that if there was something we were famous for in 1998, we didn’t want to be famous for it in 1999,” says Bogusky.

“He came out of nowhere,” says one chief creative officer at a Madison Avenue agency. “His ascent was rapid, stunning. Alex is actually one of the greatest interpretive artists in advertising history. He’s a genius at rummaging around in the attic of stuff that exists and asking, How do we interpret it in a modern cultural context so the brand becomes more immediately present in the culture?” Crispin’s radical work made it the king of the advertising world, and Bogusky was the wealthy king of Crispin. MDC Partners, which started buying Crispin in 2001 and now owns the whole thing, consists of 30-plus communications agencies — but an estimated 55% of its profits come from Bogusky’s outfit, according to Deutsche Bank analyst Matt Chesler. Last winter, Bogusky received a payment of just under $15 million from MDC. And he says that when he told MDC chief Miles Nadal that he was leaving Crispin, Nadal dangled another $15 million in front of him. “I like money. I thought, Can I be happy and still get the money?” says Bogusky, who had already received a scheduled payout of around $10 million earlier this year. “But as I looked at what was happening around me, I didn’t want to miss out. I wanted to be free to pick and choose to participate in things without conflict, without guilt.”


In 2006, Bogusky moved from Miami to Boulder. Eventually, he uprooted more than half of Crispin to Boulder, which is now home to nearly 600 of the firm’s 1,000 employees. The industry deemed the move west as another sign of Bogusky’s arrogance, another cocky middle finger directed at stodgy Madison Avenue. In retrospect, though, it was the first public sign of Bogusky’s angst. “I never fit in in Miami,” he tells me, popping raw almonds into his mouth like candy. “I didn’t ever feel at home there.” On the other hand, Boulder — think Whole Foods metastasized into an entire town, where Tesla-driving entrepreneurs cut deals over hikes rather than cocktails — seemed a place where he could become his truer self. Says Bogusky, an avid mountain biker and skier, “I know we moved because it matches my values, yet my values moved further because of the move.”

When he settled into Boulder, as if it were the true home he’d never known, Bogusky found many of his life’s goals starting to unwind. Some he describes as superficial: His prized black Viper-powered truck became a guzzly embarrassment, so he sold it; a newfound sense of community began to melt away his suburban aspiration of a walled-off house in a gated enclave. “I literally don’t want a big yard anymore,” says Bogusky, who lives in a shabby-chic-decorated Victorian-style house within walking distance of the new cottage. “Your neighbors get closer the smaller your yard is.”


(3) Workspace Here, Bogusky can paint, play music, and explore his inner self.

But true internal transformation, he tells me, has been tougher. “There’s that bumper sticker harden the fuck up,” he says. “I want to soften the fuck up.” Bogusky, who always seemed to have gasoline coursing through his veins, was infamously competitive in the advertising world, and he came to it naturally. He raced BMX and motocross bikes from a young age, under the tutelage of his father, who taught him that “part of the joy of winning is the infliction of loss.” Now, he says, tapping his forearm like a junkie, “I’ve been messing around with this less-competitive version of myself, because the other doesn’t make you happy. You can’t win enough.”

Questioning himself blended with questioning the world at large. The man who built his career pushing sugary sodas for Coca-Cola and greasy pizza for Domino’s now recommends documentaries like The Future of Food (about the perils of genetically modified food) and Food, Inc. (corporate perversion of the food system). He has become a vegetarian. Films like The Corporation (big business is psychopathic) and books like The Divine Right of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy (the danger of shareholder-first economies) have shifted his thinking about capitalism and Wall Street. “It’s a false economy that undoes itself over time,” Bogusky tells me over vegetarian curry at a local Tibetan café. “I think we have to undo it.” Ana articulates her husband’s new passions this way: “I think he sees himself as someone who can change other people’s opinions and help the world.”


Of course, this didn’t quite mesh with his day job as cochairman of Crispin. He says he found it difficult to balance his clients’ messaging against his own opinions. In 2008, the man who turned the BK King into a national figure published a book aiming to unravel the supersize trend, The 9-Inch Diet: Exposing the Big Conspiracy in America. Burger King was not amused. “You compromise your voice slowly over time,” Bogusky laughs, “and then you have a moment where you’re like, Wow, that really isn’t what I think.” For him that moment came at a conference late last year, when an audience member asked him about his client, Coke Zero, and the obesity epidemic. “I had some clever capitalist answer,” says Bogusky, who won’t let his children, aged 10 and 13, eat or drink artificial sweeteners. “I heard my mouth disconnected from my soul.” The time had come for him to leave Crispin. And advertising altogether.

For now, he’s tiptoeing into the future. “I won’t write down as audacious a goal as I would like, because I’m afraid,” he tells me about this new chapter, which his son and daughter call “Project Dad Gets His Balls Back.” He’s befriending a coterie of business renegades and Boulder entrepreneurs whose ventures seem psychically in line with his new values. One morning, Bogusky meets me for breakfast with Ann Cooper, a chef who mastered new-American cuisine at her restaurants in Telluride and Vermont — or, as she describes her former self, a “white-tablecloth chef feeding rich people their wet dreams.” She left those gigs to radically overhaul the Berkeley, California, school-lunch system, eliminating all trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup in favor of whole grains and salad bars, and is now doing the same for Boulder Valley’s school kids. Bogusky arrives at the hole-in-the-wall diner in cowboy boots, fresh from his mud-encrusted mountain bike. It’s barely 8 a.m., and we’re already talking about dismissing fear in search of a greater purpose. “You sort of get to a certain point in your career and it’s not always about money and it’s not always about the fast lane or the accolades, but about, What are you really doing?” says Cooper, who says she has received “hate mail” from such groups as the Corn Refiners Association and the National Dairy Council. “I think it happens to a lot of people.”


(4) Souvenirs In the back room upstairs, photos from his past lives litter a shelf.

Bogusky has made the FearLess Cottage something of a hub for people he deems, as he has inscribed on the cottage’s keys, “capable of pushing aside fear in pursuit of doing the right thing,” which is to “help define a new era of social responsibility.” During my visit, Bogusky presents keys to the cottage to Cooper and Robyn O’Brien, a former Wall Street analyst who exposed how under-regulated Big Food allowed toxins into the U.S. food supply. The women aren’t completely sure what to do with this access, but they know to be flattered. And they’re not alone. “Alex brings this impish and fun-loving attitude to everything he does,” Hunter Lovins, author of nine books on the environment, later tells me via phone. “Sometime in the next week, I’m going to his cottage to come up with ways to play together.”

Bogusky, who often reminds his new peers that he was the brains behind the body-bag anti-smoking “Truth” campaign, is tinkering with the concept of turning FearLess Cottage into a company. If it ever comes into being, it might be part media company (he hosts an hour-long FearLess Web show every week), part brand incubator (he has made small investments in a bourbon company and Justin’s Nut Butter), and part consultancy for executives “trying to mitigate fear.” “If people think I’m fearless, it makes me compassionate for how much fear other people have because I feel scared to death most of the time,” concedes Bogusky. “Inside, I’m like all different levels of scared, jealous, angry, and loving.”


During my three days in Boulder, we meet with various startups Bogusky is involved with — all potential disrupters of the status quo. We visit the founder of Green Garage to discuss developing private-label products for a new model of sustainable garages to uproot companies like Jiffy Lube. We Skype with Dara O’Rourke, a Berkeley environmental science professor who is trying to transform consumer behavior through GoodGuide, his growing database that rates products based on hundreds of environmental and social factors. Down in Denver, we ride Treks from B-Cycle, a bike-sharing system hatched by Crispin. Bogusky revels in the potential of these ideas, especially if pushed by his helping hand. “If GoodGuide doesn’t get it right, I’ll swing my alliance to someone else and work as hard as I can for them. Same goes for B-Cycle,” says Bogusky, relishing his unattachment. “We need to reinvent the way we get around cities, but if somebody else we haven’t heard of yet does it better, I celebrate that. I just want bike sharing to win.” While we’re riding our Treks, I ask if he ever worries about Crispin’s future without him there. “Well, it’s going to sound bad if I say that I don’t,” he replies nonchalantly. “I don’t need it as a legacy… . If Crispin was gone in 10 years, if it was bought or name-changed, that’s fine.”

On my third heady day, I end up on the front porch of his cottage for our final interview. It’s 70 degrees outside, and a breeze brushes by, gently rocking his white porch swing. A gray cat rubs up against a wooden beam. The Rocky Mountains are painted like a mural in the distance. No wonder Bogusky says he never wants to leave Boulder, which the locals affectionately refer to as “25 square miles surrounded by reality.”


“So, I have to ask,” I start. “Is there any notion of a midlife crisis in this? You do happen to be 46.” Cradling a cup of chamomile tea, Bogusky releases a quiet laugh. “Yeah, just happen to be,” he smiles. “You know, I’m not completely unaware that that’s what this could be.” He pauses, looking off to the Rockies. “I’m trying to think … midlife crises occur generally because we fear death, right? And I’m pretty sure I don’t fear death. So maybe, what do I fear?” He pauses again. “What I fear — actually, I’ll tell you what it is — what I fear is, I fear” — his eyes start to pink around the rims, his voice cracks — “I fear a moment when my children are older, and they look at me and say, ‘What did you do? The world is like a spiraling cesspool. You were an adult, you needed to do something, I was just a kid. What did you do?’ I want to be able to say, I did this, this, and this. And did my best. Yeah, that’s it. It is a midlife crisis, and it’s not my death. It’s the fear of not being able to say that you tried, in all sincerity. I think it’s a new kind of midlife crisis.”

We’re done.

The next morning, Bogusky sends me an email, thanking me for that final question on the porch. “This quote reminded me of why I have to learn to dream bigger,” he writes: “Men often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. But when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn’t have it in the beginning. — M. Gandhi.”


(5) Members Only Each key card to Bogusky’s FearLess Cottage carries this text: “The recipients of this card have demonstrated that they are capable of pushing aside fear in pursuit of doing the right thing.”

“Alex Bogusky is so fictitious. He’s nobody, he’s not there, he doesn’t exist. He’s a big, long list of manipulation and deceit; he doesn’t even know where he went, what happened to him. Now maybe, and I hope this is what’s happening, maybe up there on that hilltop he got his ass kicked by his conscience, his collective consciousness has him on the ground strangling.”

I’m back in New York, doing follow-up interviews by phone, and a former Crispin senior creative has been ranting for more than two hours about the “phony life wrecker” he used to work for. As I continue calling around, it becomes apparent that all those hours of candid, “fearless” reckoning I shared with Bogusky may not have been quite as fearless or as candid as I thought. There were a few things, it seems, that Bogusky neglected to mention.


He didn’t bring up, for example, the mind games he has played with employees and colleagues. “He liked anything that gave him ideas for how to control or dominate people,” says a colleague who worked with Bogusky more than five years ago. “He used to pride himself on reading books on war and combat; he loves that shit.” Says a former colleague who still considers Bogusky a friend, “He’s a manipulator, a master manipulator. He’s good at putting on the shtick. No one knows if it’s manufactured or not.” In the words of one award-winning chief creative officer who has served on industry-award-show juries with Bogusky: “He is a master of disguise, in a way. ‘Aw, shucks, little old me.’ It’s cute Alex, it’s charming, but it’s a disguise. The way he managed that room would have made Machiavelli proud. He’s a master at nonverbal communication. He doesn’t go straight at it, he does little tiny things designed to make you feel slightly self-conscious, uncomfortable, off balance, and then he can sort of bring you along in the direction he wants to bring you.”

Bogusky also never told me about how he might come to terms with the fact that he’d created a workplace that was, for many people, nothing short of miserable. Crispin is still known as a sweatshop, with former employees often saying that while they were proud of the volume of work they did there, it was unsustainable. This is something the company practically prides itself on. Nadal, the CEO of parent company MDC, told me, “Alex created a culture of animals who work maniacally. Everyone at Crispin wanted to serve Alex, and Alex keeps the bar so high, he is a perfectionist. So everyone is trying to outdo him, which is impossible.” While former Crispinites describe the experience as akin to everything from Harvard to Army boot camp, they all make it clear there was only one dictator — Bogusky. “My beef with Alex is if you start disagreeing with him on something, he finds ways to humiliate you in front of people,” says one former copywriter. He believes that Bogusky once canned the agency’s best writer just to signal that “if he got fired, everyone else was expendable.” When this copywriter tendered his own resignation, he claims Bogusky insulted him by saying he wasn’t that talented, anyway — a complaint I heard from several people who had resigned. Crispin offers what seem like luxurious perks — an “extreme concierge” who fixes motorcycles and snowboards, for example — but these goodies came to be seen as ways to handcuff employees to their desks. There was even a feeling among staffers that the many Crispin marriages that occurred were a result of the intense pressure — after all, it wasn’t as if you had time to meet anyone working somewhere else. “I woke up on Valentine’s Day and told my girlfriend, ‘I’ll quit, that’s my gift to you,’ ” says former Crispin art director Colin Kim, who is now married to the woman (not a Crispin employee). “Sometimes you have to say, Alex is not going to give me a baby, Alex is not going to marry me.”

Nor did Bogusky mention how selfishly he handled Crispin’s move to Boulder. According to former employees, he gave the staff, and even his three partners, little forewarning or explanation. One day, in the fall of 2005, he called the creative talent into his office and tearily announced the cross-country departure. “He was crying and sobbing, saying, ‘I just need you guys to support me on this. We’re going to Boulder. I’m moving the agency to Boulder,’ ” recalls one copywriter. “That was like a bomb dropping,” recalls Colin Drummond, Crispin’s former VP and director of cultural and business insights. “People were mad at him.” Chuck Porter publicly reassured the staff that there was no pressure to move, but says one former Crispin executive, “Alex made it clear: If you wanted to work at Crispin in the creative department, you had to move to the Boulder office. He would cut Miami people off intentionally. He wouldn’t return their calls.” To make matters worse, many employees had to move on their own dime.

“He’s a bit of a Chance the Gardener,” explains one of Bogusky’s Boulder friends. “He had the rare opportunity that not many people in the world get to do, which is to do pretty well by being yourself. The problem is that after awhile you start believing the hype while people around you start getting tired of it. It’s too self-absorbed. It’s all about Bogusky.” That reference to the blank slate at the center of Being There is the kindest comparison anyone offers, and Bogusky being Bogusky, I am offered many: He’s Citizen Kane (“the most miserable rich guy”), Fidel Castro (“megalomaniac, sociopath, narcissist”), Caligula (“at the end of the Roman empire”), or Hannibal Lecter (“the handsome guy behind the Plexiglas”). After a week of all this, a week during which source after source begged me not to quote them by name (one emailed me that “anybody named in [your article] is a dead man in the career of advertising”), I knew it was time to call Bogusky back. I was starting to wonder if he had only shown me the man he wants to be, not the man he really is.

“I pretty much love everybody,” Bogusky says when I call him back to ask about his detractors. “Or I at least like everybody. There’s no one I don’t really like — there are some people I barely like. It takes energy to dislike, I guess. So the lowest you can go is, I barely like you.” I now understand this as quintessential Bogusky: charming, clever, disarming, and totally undermining. He does it again when talking about his indifference to folks who quit Crispin. “I know you want me to feel bad that you’re leaving,” he says, pretending that I’m one of the quitters. “I know this is a big deal for you, but in the context of what the rest of my week’s gonna be like, it’s just not a big deal. Everyone wants that to be a very special moment, but unfortunately it’s not.” And again when I tell him about those who feel he was the only voice in the room: “If someone thinks something’s great and I don’t, then it’s impor-tant that they have their own company.”

Our conversation follows this general pattern. Criticisms that would wallop most people don’t even strike glancing blows. He says he did what he did for the good of the corporation, that those who were able to rise to the challenge did breakthrough, entrepreneurial work. He chalks the criticisms up to legend, viewing them as tall tales of his persona. “I like hearing the stories,” he says. “At some point, if you can, tell me more of them.” I feel as if I’m hitting a wall. How can someone who wants to be on the side of fixing humanity, who claims to be so engulfed in self-examination, be so emotionally untouched by the views of others, of the very people who at one time were the human beings behind his machine? Toward the end of our talk, I press to see if he feels any remorse. “Do I feel bad about how I’ve treated some of my employees in the past?” he responds, taking an uncharacteristically long pause. “I want to say yes, but I’m not feeling that.”

I make another call, this time to a real shrink, Dr. Sylvia S. Welsh, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. I tell her of my time in Boulder, the vitriol of Bogusky’s former colleagues, and his astonishingly apathetic response. I ask her for a clinical description of narcissists. “Pathological narcissists really do disregard how their actions affect others. They don’t think or care about it,” she says. And what about sociopaths? I ask. “There’s one hallmark,” she explains. “They experience no remorse. They can do bad things and not have any guilt.”

Veterans of the ad biz assume Bogusky is on a search for redemption. “Crispin sells cheap clothing and bad food. They sell junk,” one former employee tells me. “I think Alex is almost trying to atone by going on record saying things like ‘Plastic bottles are bad.’ ” An executive at another MDC agency put it more bluntly: “I think he’s doing his penance for selling shit all these years.” But that’s not how Bogusky sees it. “It’s not that I don’t think people should eat fast food,” he had rationalized to me. “They should eat whatever they want to eat. I just think the conversation about what’s in our food is kind of separate from that.”

(6) Unfinished Work “What the fuck is Alex? I don’t know,” says Bogusky.

“My sense is he thinks it’s a big game,” a friend of Bogusky tells me. “He just likes playing the game. The game of life. If he finds something intriguing, he’s like, ‘I’m going to be the best in the world at it. I’m going to convince people to eat more fatty burgers, and I’m going to convince people to drive electric cars — because I can convince them of anything.’ “

Looking back, it’s clear that much of what Bogusky presented to me as part of his personal transformation — collaboration over competition, transparency over inscrutability, sustainability over excess — are the cornerstone issues of today’s most progressive businesses. These are big ideas, but they’re typically more the stuff of repositioning corporations than humans undertaking a gut-wrenching internal audit.

There’s a video online of a speech Bogusky made last April in San Francisco, at the Institute at the Golden Gate’s Turning the Tide conference. Bogusky sent me the link. In it, he unveils a new stump speech, in which the self-deprecating ad guy who has now seen the light offers his modest take on everything from the energy economy to the industrialized food supply. It’s riveting. It’s smart. In the background, his new audience — environmentalists, Nobel Laureates, scientists — sits rapt, under his spell. A former Bogusky employee who had also seen the video described it to me with awe and repulsion. “He’s in his organic sweater, his canteen water bottle held just perfectly in front of the camera. Alex has this amazing timing, knowing exactly when to take advantage of a cultural moment.”

As this story went to press, Bogusky and I traded emails and phone calls about his abrupt resignation from MDC. The day the news broke, he couldn’t help but admire his own reflection. “The Twitterverse, it is crazy,” he told me. “Like 1,600 Bogusky mentions or something.” A blog post I wrote about the “divorce” made Nadal irate, but the controversy merely amused Bogusky. He tweeted of me and the MDC chief, “She is awesome. Miles is awesome. Now we should all take a nice nap.” A few days later, his Facebook profile was updated with a photo in which he sports a pair of gold wire-rimmed glasses, a look that put him somewhere between a philosophy professor and John Lennon. “He’s in perpetual optimization,” Nadal had once told me. “Every month, he has a new haircut, he changes his facial hair, his watch.” I was reminded of one creative director who described Bogusky this way: “He’s a combination of believing something and being so good at selling it that you can’t tell the difference between the two.”

“I don’t think we’re good at being selfish,” Bogusky had mused to me on one of those idyllic Boulder mornings. “Most of humanity, we’re total rookies at being selfish and being narcissists. Because if you’re really good at narcissism, you get to the point where that rookie kind of selfish doesn’t even exist. A really excellent narcissist would be a really powerful tool for saving the planet. If everyone was a perfect narcissist, there would be nothing to worry about because we’d automatically fix everything and our purchases would be so benign. It’s not self-absorbed, it’s just knowing what’s good for self. Let’s say that steaks, scotch, and lots of cigars are what you put in your body — that’s a rookie-narcissistic move. That’s where we’re uneducated narcissists. But as we perfect our narcissism, it comes around where you’re actually doing things that feel like sharing, that feel like connected behavior.

“I told my friend this theory, and he said, ‘You may be the most narcissistic person I know. It used to piss me off, and now I’ve come to be okay with it.’ “


About the author

Danielle Sacks is an award-winning journalist and a former senior writer at Fast Company magazine. She's chronicled some of the most provocative people in business, with seven cover stories that included profiles on J.Crew's Jenna Lyons, Malcolm Gladwell, and Chelsea Clinton