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A former rock star of the ad world explains why he doesn't watch commercials

Alex Bogusky in the Toronto offices of his former employer, MDC Partners Inc.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

In the world of advertising, where he was the closest thing to a rock star, the departure of Alex Bogusky from the industry last July felt as if Colonel Sanders had declared himself vegan or that Stephen Harper was joining an ashram.

For more than 20 years, Mr. Bogusky injected commercials into the culture for globe-straddling clients such as Volkswagen, Virgin Atlantic, Mini cars and Microsoft. He had helped to revive the fortunes of Burger King with campaigns like "Whopper Freak-

out," in which customers were filmed as they were told that the chain's signature burger had been discontinued. The results were then posted online to astonishing viral success.

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Fast Company put Mr. Bogusky on the cover and called him "the Steve Jobs of the ad world." The trade magazine AdWeek crowned him its "creative director of the decade."

So his goodbye-to-all-that at the age of 47 would already have been news if Mr. Bogusky had simply taken his millions and spent the rest of his days biking around the mountains of Boulder, Colo., where he moved from Miami with his wife and two young kids in 2002. But then he went ahead and turned into a vocal critic of the very form of capitalism he had spent half a lifetime implicitly endorsing. One week before he left MDC Partners Inc., the Toronto-based holding company that owned his eponymous agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, he penned a long blog post calling out companies like McDonald's and Burger King for advertising to children.

It didn't go over well.

"I was actually trying to move into a space where I could agitate the industry, in a good way, with enough distance that it would allow for some new ideas – and force a little bit of, I don't know, shaking the tree," he says over the phone from Boulder, hints of an adolescent surfer dude drawl still hanging around the edges of some words. "It didn't really work that way. It mostly just created a lot of pain for my friends within the [MDC]network. Their clients got upset at the things I was saying.

"So I thought it was better to move completely out."

To be fair, Mr. Bogusky was always something of an agitator. Much of his best advertising played with the forms he was using. Sometimes it even approached postmodernism: Nestled within the ads, you could sense an underlying suggestion that advertising may not have been the most karmically legitimate undertaking.

Which may be why, nowadays, he doesn't miss the traditional ad game. "My relationship with advertising was that I was not that fond of it," he says. "So mostly the way I approached it was to kind of mess with the form. So I was never a fan. I don't watch commercials. I don't, you know, say, 'Hey, check this one out.' I really don't care about that stuff."

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And Mr. Bogusky wore that ambivalence publicly. In 2008, he penned a book that began with a frank admission: "Advertising ranks just above used-car sales in terms of professions that engender trust." The 9-Inch Diet made the case that America was experiencing an obesity crisis partly because of a concerted effort by corporations to increase the food intake of consumers. Its publication was reported to have caused not a little consternation in the offices of Crispin Porter + Bogusky's food and beverage clients.

Now, he's doing his agitating from the outside, without any concern for who will be offended. Last fall, he took the wraps off something called FearLess Revolution, an amorphous project that seeks to spur a new relationship between consumers and corporations. With FearLess – the name comes from Mr. Bogusky's belief that "fear is the mortal enemy of creativity, innovation, and happiness" – he is crowd-sourcing a new Consumer Bill of Rights to encourage companies to operate in a more transparent, environmentally responsible fashion.

In late January, he and a couple of FearLess colleagues launched something called Common, which they hope will be an umbrella brand for perhaps dozens of innovative start-ups that share the transparent, community-oriented, communal values that Mr. Bogusky believes are emerging as necessary ingredients in business success. "We're moving from a competitive advantage to more of a collaborative advantage," he says.

(He'll be talking up Common during a visit to Toronto on Thursday as the featured speaker at the annual MIXX Conference organized by the Interactive Advertising Bureau of Canada.)

And just about every Thursday afternoon, he sits down for an hour of loose chat with an activist, entrepreneur, author or other community-minded individual, streamed live on from his headquarters, a cozy two-story building near the University of Colorado that he calls the FearLess Cottage.

So he hasn't really left marketing: He just happens to be marketing people and companies and causes that have an eye to something other than the bottom line. (In fact, last month he took an even more concrete step back into that world, signing on as the creative director and chief marketing officer with Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection. He says the job now takes up about half of his time.)

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Still, coming from a man who used to have a hand in impossibly slick, multimillion-dollar pieces of eye candy, these broadcasts are almost laughably low-rent affairs. During an interview last fall with the author of the book The Unhealthy Truth about the additive-riddled U.S. food supply, a dog yapped off camera and a FedEx delivery man strolled obliviously into the frame bearing a package.

But over the past few months, Mr. Bogusky has become visibly more comfortable in the role. "Over the years, I'd lost my genuine voice, and it was such a deep need, I guess, to get that back," he says. "Today, I feel more comfortable that I say what I believe."

He often felt, he explains, as though he was operating under a gag order regarding the behaviour of CP+B clients such as Coca-Cola Co., whose recent embrace of sustainable practices he calls "exceptionally weak, if it exists at all. Coke stays just ahead of the culture; it's very different than a progressive company. They're trying to stay just ahead of where they lose customers."

Mr. Bogusky contends that most people operate under a similar gag order, whether it restricts our words, thoughts or actions. "When we walk into our corporate jobs, we look up at the masthead and we say, 'What can I say and what can't I say? What am I allowed to believe in?' And as we walk out the doors at the end of the day, we all encounter a world that maybe in some way we participated in making with our decisions, and we're like, 'Man, I kinda' wish I didn't do that,' right?"

He admits that he doesn't have all the answers: There's no sustainable business model yet for the FearLess Revolution. (He left behind a salary of about $2-million when he quit his MDC post.) Speaking engagements, like next week's gig in Toronto, "help keep the lights on" at the FearLess Cottage.

During the phone call, Mr. Bogusky calls himself a "progressive capitalist," then backtracks, saying he hasn't yet decided to subscribe to that term. Capitalism, he explains, "hasn't always had this form – this form generally is Reaganomics. It's changed over time, and I think right now we're in a period where it's going to need to evolve again."

Democracy has to "finish penetrating capitalism," he maintains.

The new capitalism, he says, "is going to be about a lot of transparency, it's gonna' be a lot about change in expectations from consumers that do business with companies: 'What should I expect from you?' I think we have a very low bar, in terms of what we expect from the people that we exchange money for goods with.

"Capitalism is the most powerful force on Earth – far more powerful than governments are," he adds. "And so to be a good citizen, you need to think of yourself as a citizen consumer, I think. And you need to be cognizant and using the tools that allow you to vote for what you would like to see the world like – both with your dollars and with your votes."

Simon Houpt is The Globe and Mail's advertising and marketing reporter.

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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