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Advertising guru Chuck Porter: ‘We used traditional media in really weird ways’

Chuck Porter believes advertising has got to get better because the audience is getting more sophisticated.


'I really suck at that," Chuck Porter says.

Blunt, friendly, no-nonsense Mr. Porter is refusing to play the part of the advertising visionary. The chairman and partner in ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky is widely recognized as a leading mind in the industry, one part (along with Alex Bogusky) of one of the most important creative teams of his time. But ask him to predict where advertising is headed in 2013, and he'll simply say he sucks.

Mr. Porter believes he has always been much better at understanding what's happening now – and dealing with the future when it comes. So far, it has worked for him: CP+B was named an "agency of the decade" by Advertising Age in 2009, which also named him "agency executive of the decade."

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Mr . Porter is "chief strategist" for Toronto-based ad agency network MDC Partners Inc., which the agency is now part of. And last year he capped off a term as chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.

Next week, Mr. Porter comes to Canada.

He'll be a featured speaker at Advertising Week in Toronto, and The Globe caught up with him ahead of his visit to talk about where advertising is at. And maybe just a bit about where it's going.

In Cannes in 2010, you said that aside from 1998, in the middle of the tech boom, now is the best time to start an agency. A few years later, do you still feel that way?

I do. I've actually been surprised over the last couple of years that we haven't seen more startups emerge. Maybe less so now, but certainly a couple of years ago, all marketers were unhappy. In '08 we had a complete economic meltdown. Everybody tanked, and the economy went to hell, and marketers obviously got nervous. Still a couple of years after that, they were still basically unhappy; they weren't getting the return on investment they used to get. They were worried about all the technological and media changes going on. They were nervous and looking for new solutions. So it seemed to me that it would be a good time for smart startups to start, because marketers were willing to take a risk. ... They were looking for ideas. They weren't necessarily so wedded to their long-term, big full-service agencies. They were probably more willing to experiment a bit. That's maybe a little bit less true now, but it continues to be true. Everybody has to do more with fewer dollars now.

How did the global economic downturn reshape how marketing execs look at advertising, and the work being done? And is it for better or worse?

I definitely don't think it has changed it for the better. Whether it's changed it for the worse is hard to say. Advertising in general has got to get better, because the audience is getting more sophisticated. They have this enormous filter. They're better at ignoring marketers than anyone before them. ... And it's getting more and more critical to get a return on your investment. I always have believed, for 20 years, that next year advertising is going to be better than it was last year. And for 20 years I've been wrong. So yes, I think that, due to all kinds of market conditions, advertising in general is going to get better. And I guarantee you, I'll be wrong again.

What is your definition of great advertising?

First and foremost, it's advertising that people actually notice. Most advertising just goes by, whether it's sitting on a web page or an outdoor board, or whatever it is. ... Technology has made it easier than ever for people to ignore you. They can Tivo you, or multitask. All kids watching TV are on their laptop at the same time. But the other side of that coin is, if they do see something that interests them, they can instantly engage you more deeply than ever before. That's good for storytellers.

Do you have a favourite ad right now?

I'm not supposed to say that. They told me, don't talk about other people's work.

You hired the guy who became the most talked about ad man of his age. What did you see in Alex Bogusky?

I've known Alex since he was 10 years old. His father [Bill Bogusky] was a really well-known designer when I was a freelance writer in Miami. ... When I went to Crispin and it became Crispin and Porter, we didn't have great designers or art directors. In fact I fired them all. I was working with Bill … and I got back these layouts that were the greatest print ads I'd ever seen. And I called him and said 'God, you really uncorked one. These are great.' And he said, 'Alex did them.' He was 22 years old, and I called Alex and said, 'You gotta come to work at this agency.' And he said, [does squeaky young-guy voice] 'OK. I will.'

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Are the qualities you saw in him the same as the ones you'd look for today?

Exactly. Yeah. Exactly the same. He can look at a situation and he's a very original thinker. … Alex was not always right. We had some disasters too. But we had way more than our share of victories.

In your role as 'chief strategist,' you help assess the creative businesses that MDC considers partnering with. What do you look for?

All agencies, including ours, say the same thing. We all say 'Media neutral, blah.' ... Essentially I just look at the work. It's all there. Either it's great or it's not.

CP+B Toronto shuttered last year and was replaced with a new MDC shop, Union – largely because CP+B's client list in the U.S. made it difficult for them to win work here. How's the transition going?

Probably we should have seen that coming better than we did. We knew there would be some [client] conflict issues, but they just became overwhelming. They're doing really well. Union as CP+B were prevented from a huge numbers of pitches. As Union, they're not. It's pretty simple.

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CP+B has done some really definitive campaigns. Domino's launched a new recipe a few years ago by talking about how horribleits pizzas were, and it was lauded for representing a shift toward brutal honesty in a social media age. 'Subservient chicken' for Burger King is cited as an early example of a viral campaign. What is at the heart of trendsetting work?

People have asked me that before, and I've given about 58 answers and none of them are true. I really don't know. We started, we were a little tiny agency in Miami, on the very periphery of the advertising world. We weren't in New York or Chicago or San Francisco. We just grew up creating our own culture. I had never worked at another agency before. Alex [Bogusky] had never worked at another agency before. So we brought zero baggage. I just made it up as I went along. 'This seems like a good idea, let's do this.' We didn't have a huge budget, so we hired kids. … And we had small clients with small budgets. We had to figure out ways of getting attention without money. What ended up being called guerrilla marketing, we were doing a lot of that early on. We used traditional media in really weird ways. We got expertise just doing things differently. ... And it worked out.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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