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An Ad Agency’s Formula for Outrageous Creativity

Batting .300 in baseball is considered a good step toward Hall of Fame consideration. Crispin Porter + Bogusky chairman Chuck Porter credits that kind of hiring average with honing the agency’s winning edge.

“Historically over the past 20 years, about one out of every three people we thought were going to be great turned out to be great,” the 65-year-old Porter tells SUCCESS. “I’ve never worked with other agencies, so I hate to compare, but I think we do better than most.”

“Better than most” has enabled the outfit USA Today called “the ad world’s most talked-about agency” to grow from a wobbly Miami infancy more than 24 years ago into an influential, award-winning industry power, crowned Agency of the Decade by Ad Age in 2009. Its often-radical work—for clients from Burger King, Microsoft, Domino’s and The Gap to its groundbreaking Truth anti-smoking campaign—has made it a leading voice in the advertising world. (Porter is the last of the original nameplate. Crispin left the business in 1993. One of Porter’s most prolific hires was the brilliant Alex Bogusky, who Fast Company in 2008 labeled “the Steve Jobs of the ad world.” Bogusky retired in 2010.)

Ask the self-effacing Porter what makes him successful, and he’s quick to reply, “Hey, if you can figure that out, tell me, ’cuz I’d be interested in knowing that.” When pressed, he credits criteria born of necessity in the agency’s early days as the foundation for its ongoing success.

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<p> “From the very beginning, our hiring criteria have been: Brains. Talent. Passion. Curiosity. Experience. In that order,” he says. “That’s what we’ve always hired for. When we were little, we couldn’t afford to hire people with a lot of experience. We learned to find entry-level people or people with little seasoning yet who we believed were going to be great. Maybe we learned instinctively how to find those people. That remains essentially our same criteria.”</p> <p> The process begins with assessing how smart somebody is, Porter explains. “I don’t know if there is a secret formula that helps figure out if someone is talented,” he says. “I think it is one of the few areas in the world where experience really matters. After you meet a hundred people and begin to assess them, you get better at it, and you can review your track record and judge the impressions people made on you and whether they were successful.”</p> <p> The company has a good track record to look back on. The trade press has named it Agency of the Year 13 times. Last year, CP+B received the Interactive Agency of the Year award at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, the third time the agency has won the award since 2005.</p> <p> Porter is also chief strategist for the agency’s parent, MDC Partners, the world’s ninth-largest marketing communications holding company. MDC employs about 1,200 people, with offices in Miami, Boulder, Toronto, Los Angeles, London and Gothenburg, Sweden. </p> <p> The man who has spent the lion’s share of his life tapping into a creative vein with prolific results professes to have no clue about how he does it. “I think the biggest difference in me today from when I started is that I don’t think I know everything, and when I started I thought I did,” Porter says. “It’s taken me quite a while to understand that other people know stuff, too.”</p> <p> Porter, a casual man usually decked out for public appearances in dark jacket, jeans and loafers, grew up in Minneapolis, graduating from the journalism school at the University of Minnesota. When he speaks, his hands often dance in front of his face, punctuating his sentences. He often laments he squandered 16 years as a (successful) freelance copywriter. Sharing a Miami office back then with two other freelance copywriters, he used to compete by seeing who could be the first to make $1,000 each day.</p> <p> But one day, Porter says he got a wake-up call from his pregnant wife, who asked him: “You’re 39 years old; don’t you think you should get a job?”</p> <p> Enter Sam Crispin, a longtime account man who started his agency in 1965. Porter began writing for Crispin’s accounts in 1971. Crispin had launched a Miami shop in the early 1980s to handle local and regional advertising accounts. For seven years, Crispin tried to convince Porter to join him and bring creative in-house. Finally, over Red Stripes during a business trip to Kingston, Jamaica, Porter agreed to join him in 1988. They decided to add only clients who would view the shop as a full partner and not a project vendor. A year later, Porter recruited Bogusky, and the agency pursued a goal of producing “the most talked-about, written-about advertising in the world.” They began measuring everything they did in the office by asking: “Does this help us get there?”</p> <p> “We try to get attention with no money, and swim upstream—which means the closer you get to the product, the more you can do for the client,” he said during a presentation at last year’s Cannes Lions festivities. In presentations, Porter uses the agency’s Burger King work to illustrate the strategy. Market research showed that most BK customers ate the fast-food retailer’s products in the car. Bogusky came up with the idea of BK selling a “chicken fry” offering (chicken prepared like french fries) and worked with BK test kitchens to develop the product. It launched with a humorous NASCAR campaign.</p> <p> <iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="410" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/X7DntILNDig?rel=0" width="560">

“I’ve always thought that all you can really do is come into the office and try to do something really brilliant today,” Porter says. “Forget about tomorrow or yesterday. Focus on doing something terrific or the very best you can do right now. I believed that when I first started. I never really said, ‘Here’s where I want to be in five years.’ It’s always been a very immediate thing. I have a dog trainer who told me a few days ago that dogs live in the moment. I thought about it, and said, ‘Frankly so do I.’ I believe if I do what I’ve been doing right now really great, everything else will take care of itself. I felt that way the day I started in this business, and I feel that way today.”

Porter allows that he believes pressure and friction create better work than relaxation, and staffers note an ever-present edginess pervades the shop. The agency’s website spells out its mantra this way: “CP+B is a factory. A factory that makes advertising, interactive, branded content and products. There is no assembly line. All the work is custom-designed and assembled by hand.”

Although he no longer does many agency interviews—he has talented, experienced people who handle that today—his early approach at CP+B was simple: Spend a lot of time talking with applicants, trying to assess whether someone is smart, talented, passionate or has that curious gene that makes them want to learn about things.

“This may sound like a cliché, but the biggest mistake you can make in recruiting talent is to look for someone who is not going to be a threat to you,” he says. “I think a lot of executives still do that. One thing I’ve always tried to do is assume everyone we hire is just as smart as I am and to treat them that way. From a managing perspective, we tend to say, “You’re just as smart as I am. Here’s the problem. Go solve it.” Most of the time people will surprise you by how good they are.”

He allows he tended “to surprise applicants more than they surprised me,” he says. “I would ask them questions that they really didn’t expect, like asking a really buttoned-up applicant what the average rainfall was in the Amazon Basin, as a way to assess people and how they react.

“You pay attention to what they’ve done, and what they’ve done in school. But in the end, those things are less important. I used to say our ideal candidate had high SATs and low GPAs. They tend to be underachievers in school who happen to be real smart. People whom we like and who succeed here tend to have a pretty good sense of humor and tend to take themselves not terribly seriously. They tend to be very curious, want to learn things and have a broad array of interests outside of work, even though they may work 80 hours a week.”

As it has grown dramatically, the agency also has tried to stay true to another practice born during its infancy—to promote from within unless it’s absolutely impossible.

“Periodically, it is impossible, and we have to go outside, but we try to find the people we need within the agency,” Porter says. “It’s on a case-by-case basis. We are expanding globally right now, and we don’t have anyone in our organization who has that experience and those contacts, so we’ve had to go outside to find the right people. When I no longer wanted to be president of the agency, at that point we had 50 people, and I didn’t think we had anyone inside who was the right person for the job. So I went outside and hired a guy who had just gotten his MBA. That remains a rare occurrence. Of the top people in our organization, however, the vast majority of them started here.”

During the 20-plus-year journey, those who have stayed the course have “learned humility,” Porter says. “We have a lot of smart people with a lot of very big egos. I don’t put all that much stock in experience, but one of the things experience does teach you in our business is a lot of times the other guy is right. One of the things we’ve learned over the past 20 years is maybe to listen a little harder and to allow that they might be right—that the way they think to solve a problem might indeed be the way to go. That’s made us a more mature, effective agency.”

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