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IHAVEANIDEA.ORG > creatives >  Chuck Porter
Chuck Porter
Chairman of Crispin Porter + Bogusky
MDC Partners

chuckinside Chuck PorterServing as the creative advisor for the MDC portfolio of entrepreneurial marketing communications companies and whose work, led primarily by Chuck’s own agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, has consistently got the attention of the industry, attracted some of the best talent, the most prestigious awards and achieved some of the most remarkable results for a wide variety of clients. Simply by offering an alternative to the traditional agencies and networks with their rigid structures, standardized processes, and geographical client focus, Chuck has fostered outstanding creativity and network autonomy that have led his agency and the MDC network to an unprecedented growth rate during these turbulent times for the ad industry.

What you’ll read below is an interview we did with him prior to his agency winning the 2005 Clio Agency of the Year which won one Grand, four gold, two silver and six bronze Clios. Hopefully you’ll see how he values instinct, talent and imagination. Enjoy.
ihaveanidea: In 1997 you launched the Truth campaign and all of your peers have credited it as being probably the most effective social marketing campaigns ever, why do you think they felt that way?

Porter: It was.

It’s not a matter of them thinking that. It’s not a matter of opinion.

“If any of us in this agency actually go to Heaven it’ll be because of that [Truth] campaign.”

If you look at the numbers, middle school smoking during the first four years of that campaign when it broke nationally went down fifty percent and high school smoking went down twenty-four percent. So this is not a matter of them thinking it was good, the fuck’n thing worked. It was an amazing campaign.

If any of us in this agency actually go to Heaven it’ll be because of that campaign.

Why it worked? I think the reason it worked is because I think that we dug hard enough to find a strategy that would actually work. Cause nothing had worked before.

When we first got that account we looked at it really really hard, and we said, ‘okay now what are we going to do here to actually’ I mean, for a high school kid a cigarette is the perfect product. They can rebel, they can say ‘I’m in control of my own life, I’m in control of my own self’ without getting a tattoo or piercing. It’s a transitory thing. But still they’re in control of their own body and if they want to hurt it they can. So it’s a great great product.

Nothing, for a long long time, since the mid sixties, when the surgeon general’s reports first started coming out and there was a big drop in smoking, since then no communications effort had ever moved the needle at all. And the reason is because most of them were saying ‘don’t smoke’ or ‘wait until you’re older.’ Which if you say that to a teenager the first thing they’ll say is ‘fuck off!’ So it’s absolutely counterproductive.

In our planning effort we tried to get to something that would work, and it was very frustrating. At one point we said, ‘we should just give them their money back, cause there’s nothing we can do here.’ And finally we came to this insight that teenagers are naturally rebellious.

It’s not a matter of them thinking that. It’s not a matter of opinion.

“The most valuable thing I learned freelancing is how to make a lot of money in a short period of time. I mean literally that’s the most valuable thing I learned.”

They rebel against their parents, they rebel against their teachers, they rebel against policeman, they rebel against authority, they rebel against middle-aged white guys in blue suits. That’s what they do. So why don’t we give them someone else to rebel against these god dam tobacco companies, who are marketing to them and who are manipulating them and getting them to buy and use a product that’s not good for them, cause they don’t give a shit, all they want is the money. It’s the perfect thing for a teenager, ‘these people are exploiting us! They just want our money.’ So that was the insight.

Truth was never about not smoking. Not one single truth spot ever has said ‘don’t smoke.’ It was about don’t get manipulated. And I think that’s what made it successful. I think that we found maybe the only strategy, or certainly a potent strategy to actually do something.

ihaveanidea: You freelanced for like seventeen years. What was the most valuable thing that you learned during those years that you could not have learned in an agency? As a creative that is.

Porter: The most valuable thing I learned freelancing is how to make a lot of money in a short period of time. I mean literally that’s the most valuable thing I learned.

I use to have a partner, Rick Green who was a terrific writer. We had a little creative boutique with a couple writers working for us. And we used to have a game to see who could make a thousand dollars soonest, earliest. We would get to a point where we’d be coming in at 5:30 in the morning, so by 9 o’clock, ‘I’m done. I made my grand.’ It was great because you learn to be very very fast. You learn to work very fast.

Probably a really useful learning experience was that most of the time your first solution is the best. Most of the time it is.

And I’ve seen it at this agency since the day we started. When we’re pressed, when we have no time, when we have a lot to do, when there is enormous friction and pressure, by far we do our best work. And Alex and I wouldn’t say we’ve tried to artificially create that, but we’ve probably tried to artificially create that. That pressure and that time sensitivity.

I think that’s probably what I learned as a freelancer.

To a degreeI also probably learned techniques for selling work. Cause as a freelancer that is really important, even though you get paid for re-writes, it’s boring.

ihaveanidea: Is there anything uniform between all the MDC agencies, is the creative process being similarized?

Porter: MDC does not manage agencies.

MDC doesn’t try to influence agencies in terms of the way they work, or the clients they take, or the people they hire or any of that stuff.

What MDC tries to do is find really smart people running agencies and partner them and let them run their agency. So I think there are similarities just because they are like-minded people. Like Zig is a lot like us, just cause they think a lot like we do. It isn’t anything that MDC does, other than find people that think like us.

I mean the answer is, in part yeah there is like-mindedness, but it’s not because of MDC. It’s because those are the kind of agencies that are attracted to this network.

The network though, is almost not really a network. It’s really a partnership of all these agencies. And people go back and forth. We hire people from Cliff he hires people from us. We work together.

When Cliff is pitching something that we might know something about, we talk about it. When Zig was pitching Molson we talked to them about what we thought about Molson, what we thought about beer and stuff like that. So we help each other and we talk to each other.

Sometimes, you know liketwo or three people from here have had to move cause their husband or boyfriend or girlfriend or whatever it was got a job in New York or whatever, and they’ve all gone to work for either Cliff or Kirshenbaum, because it’s like ‘yeah we want one of those people, cause they’re probably good.’ So there’s that kind of relationship, but there isn’t an MDC way of thinking at all, I hope that there never is, cause it’ll end up sucking. You just can’t institutionalize that.

ihaveanidea: I remember hearing that you disliked focus groups, why is that?

Porter: I think focus groups are good for certain things. I think they can help you in coming to a potent strategy. I think they can help with that. I think that focus groups can be good for product research, to see if they like something to eat or the way a car looks or whatever. I think focus groups can be useful for that. I think focus groups, in terms of focus grouping creative is a disaster. Because they’ll all say what you think they should say.

They just don’t work.

We do one-on-one, where I think people are more honest. And the other thing we will do is affinity groups, like a family or a bunch of friends, because I think you get more honesty because you can’t bullshit you can’t pretend that you’re an architect if you’re really a scuba diver, so there’s more honesty. But generally speaking, I think that focus groups for creative are terrible. They’re a terrible, horrible thing.

“Everybody here is evaluated on the quality of work their clients do.”

But when we’re trying to find things out about an audience. If we’re trying to find things out about insurance brokers, you know, getting six of them together and talking about what they think aboutthat’s useful.

ihaveanidea: Stefano Hatfield wrote an article a while back where he said the account executives at Crispin Porter + Bogusky are the most passionate he’s ever seen about getting good work through, more than anywhere else. Why is that? Did you just luckily find a whole bunch of great AEs lying around?

Porter: I think that’s why people come here, don’t you?

If you’re an account person and you wanna work here, you probably want to work here because you want to do great work. And also that’s the way you get ahead here.

Everybody here is evaluated on the quality of work their clients do.

They’re not evaluated on how much money they make, they’re not evaluated on how much their clients like’emwe’ve had account people and their clients loved them and the work was shitthey’re evaluated on how good the work your client is doing.

“There’s more than just metrics, there is also what’s going on in the world.”

So if you live in a culture like that, the only way you’re going rise is to be really crazy about the work.

ihaveanidea: And the work is judged on the number of boxes moved at the store, awards and

Porter: Partly success, not really so much awards, but partly success and partly how famous it becomes, how much it resonates within the world, if it becomes a part of popular culture.

Cause a lot of times it’s very very hardif you look at an idea like Subservient Chicken it’s very hard to measure sales that resulted from that, but it’s not hard to measure attitude and hits and stuff like that.

There’s more than just metrics, there is also what’s going on in the world.

Is there buzz?

ihaveanidea: What’s most different about the model at Crispin Porter + Bogusky for creatives specifically?

Porter: I think the thing that’s the most different here is that all writers and art directors who work on a piece of business do everything. They do direct mail, they do websites, they do TV commercials and I think that that’s a little bit of a different model. I think that there are agencies where these guys make the commercials, and these guys do the newspaper coupon ads. We don’t do that.

And I think the other things that is different is, umm maybeI don’t really know, cause I don’t really know much about other agencies.

The reason we’re different is cause neither Alex nor I ever worked at another agency, we just came here and made it up as we went along. So we just created all the rules. So I don’t know. It’s hard for me to tell. But I know from what I have heard that there are a lot of agencies where there are people who only do TV, that’s what they do. They go to Santa Monica, they shoot spots, and they go to Cannes and get awards. And that’s cool, but that’s not who we are.

ihaveanidea: What do you do when you’re not working here?

Porter: Well I go and buy agencies for MDC, which is an interesting job too.

We started this agency in ’88, which is a long time ago, and before that I had been a freelancer for a long long time, I’ve been to a lot of client meetings. I don’t really want to go to anymore, you know what I mean?

I mean I love it here and I love the culture here and I love to hang out with the people here, but in terms of the day-to-day doing the work and the client relationships and stuff, it doesn’t I’m not as excited about it as I use to be. And so this MDC thing is kinda interesting.

I mean the whole idea of trying to build a big partnership with the same kind of culture that this agency has is a real cool thing.

So it’s interesting.

ihaveanidea: Do agencies ever call you looking to sell?

Porter: Agencies call us all the time, but the thing is I don’t really want to buy an agency that’s for sale.

ihaveanidea: So what do you look for?

Porter: Really the only thing is the work.

It was interesting cause I was talking to an agency in London the other day, that Miles has had a conversation with and the guy said to me, This is so interesting cause when I talked to Miles, cause he’s talked to everybody, it’s a hot agency and he’s talked to every network and they all want to buy him, and he said, You know, MDC is the only one that ever said when I said, ‘Do you want me to send you some numbers?’ they said, ‘No. Send us the work first’. Which made me feel good. Because everybody at MDC gets it, it’s not just me. They’ve all bought into it and they’ve become true believers.

ihaveanidea: So Miles is about the work?

Porter: Totally. Totally.

I mean Miles is about making money. Period.

But what Miles has come to believe, which I believe is true, is that if you do good enough work, that gets good enough results, the money will come.

Especially in the landscape, the way it is now, because more and more marketers are dissatisfied with what they’re getting. They’re looking around.

ihaveanidea: Do you have a favourite restaurant in Toronto that you and Miles like to go and hang out at when you’re there? Lee’s Palace? The Wheat Sheaf?

Porter: There’s a place right on Avenue Road, it’s like about four blocks north of the Four Seasons, a little place downstairs, a little Italian Place, I can’t remember the name of it. It’s a terrific little joint. We’ll go there sometime.

Interview by
Jay H. Thompson
jay@ihaveanidea.org
VP of Stuff
ihaveanidea

Interview by:
Ignacio Oreamuno
ignacio@ihaveanidea.org
President
ihaveanidea

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