It is generally agreed that the epicentre of US creativity is currently located in Miami, at Crispin Porter & Bogusky. Just ask a client such as Burger King. Or the American Legacy Foundation. Try Mini, Method, Molson or Virgin Atlantic. Or you could put a call in to the latest two brands to motor south and park their accounts at the creative hotshop - Sprite and Volkswagen.
It is the latter - whose estimated $400 million account landed in Miami without a review - that has raised eyebrows, especially at Arnold Worldwide, which had handled the VW business for a decade. Ed Eskandarian, the chief executive of the Havas-owned shop, was quoted as saying the agency knew the car manufacturer's business was "soft" and that: "We weren't sitting there thinking everything was fine. But we were surprised when we got the dismissal call."
VW, one of the most revered car brands in the US, and one which helped kick-start the Bernbach-led creative revolution there in the 60s, had been losing sales. The first five months of 2005 were down 20 per cent on 2004, which, in turn, was down 15 per cent on 2003. And "drivers wanted", the brand's call to action, had lost traction. That the manufacturer was thinking of changing its advertising arrangements was no surprise; that it did so without a pitch was the shock.
According to Jeff Hicks, Crispin Porter's chief executive and president, the agency had been talking to VW for some time. And not only because Kerri Martin, VW's director of brand innovation, was formerly at the BMW-owned Mini, a longstanding client of the Miami shop."Kerri played a part in it and introduced us, because we look for clients that demand great work," Hicks says."But the decision was made by everyone at VW. We met with folks from Germany. Things don't happen on a whim." Certainly not $400 million "things".
More importantly, Hicks says, VW was introducing new models to the market, and new thinking and new blood into its marketing department: "They were ready to find new momentum and nothing was sacred. They wanted a stronger connection. Users and non-users love VW, and you need to build that emotional tension. But you can't fix anything by throwing new ads at it, there has to be momentum coming from different places."
Sprite was another account in the works for some time - Crispin Porter already handled other Coca-Cola products. "The core of this place is young adult marketing," Hicks says. "We understand Sprite's audience because of our work for Truth (from the ALF), which helped this agency evolve."
The agency was founded in Miami in 1965 by Sam Crispin. Chuck Porter joined in 1987 and Alex Bogusky was made a partner in 1989. In 2001, the Canadian-owned MDC Partners took a 49 per cent stake in the company, bringing Crispin Porter into what MDC describes as an "anti-advertising" network of creative agencies, which also includes Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners and Margeotes & Fertitta & Partners.
Hicks is similarly fuzzy when he describes the agency as a collection of like-minded people. "We look for opportunities to help create popular culture," he says. It's a task the agency has succeeded at in the past - its "subservient chicken" online campaign for Burger King was an international phenomenon.
It's hard to find any detractors. While the industry speculated over how long Burger King would last there when the agency landed the account last year, most wish Crispin Porter well with VW. According to Joseph Jaffe, the founder of the new marketing consultancy Jaffe: "Crispin is winning everything under the sun. When you look at the work for Mini, Burger King, Gap and Method, there's a new marketing commonality thread coming out of the shop, which I call common marketing, and which is bigger than just viral marketing."
Paul Lavoie, the chairman and creative head of the agency Taxi, adds: "They've proven themselves with Burger King. No-one expects VW to leave. Although we're competitors, we all support each other. No-one wants them to fail."
That said, some question whether the Miami-based shop is either large enough or suitably positioned to handle an account as big as VW. Hicks says adding staff is unlikely, but won't dismiss the possibility of a few strategic hirings. He explains that the phasing out of the agency's dealings with Gateway has freed up bodies. Plus, there are the staff who worked on Mini - Crispin Porter has understandably, but emotionally, severed its ties with the BMW brand.
Hicks says it was incredibly hard to give up Mini. "We love the BMW people," he says. "Mini has had an amazing trajectory in this country, and they will find someone to create the next chapter. There is a new team there, so this an opportunity to build a stronger connection."
He also dismisses the notion that Miami is too out of the way to handle international business, pointing out that Crispin Porter handles Burger King in Spain. "We've always done global work," he says. "We launched the Mini Convertible in 60 countries. We have more clients in California than in Florida. There were problems initially, but now it's great. It makes clients self-select, because being in Florida is a little more work."
He adds: "Plus, we love a turnaround and a challenge. We're accustomed to working with the number twos and threes in their categories, and that's in the DNA of this agency. VW being in a turnaround situation, and its history of groundbreaking work, is like the perfect storm colliding of all the things we love."