Alex Bogusky, Co-Founder, Crispin Porter + Bogusky
How Ad Legend Alex Bogusky Learned to Love the Journey
During a creative career filled with awards and recognition, it took Alex Bogusky a while to realize that none of it mattered unless he loved the work.
“You could win the Grand Prix at Cannes—the next day you’re going to go into your office and look at the same dude across the office and try to think of something. It doesn’t feel any better; it didn’t make you any smarter; it doesn’t make anything any easier,” Bogusky says.
He did, in fact, win the most prestigious award at Cannes Advertising. Actually, under his leadership, the firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky won in all five categories, and became the world’s most awarded advertising agency. Bogusky himself was named Creative Director of the Decade by Adweek magazine, and Fast Company has called him both the Steve Jobs and the Elvis of advertising.
Looking over his many endeavors, Bogusky is a hard person to pin down. There’s a friendly, surfery quality about him, but he’s also gained a reputation as a perfectionist and ferocious supervisor. He’s worked for both car companies and Al Gore’s climate change initiative. He’s overseen iconic ad campaigns for junk food, and the most successful youth-focused anti-smoking campaign in U.S. history. Having left the agency six years ago, he’s now focusing on work with a social responsibility component, supporting multiple creative agencies and a startup accelerator.
But for all of the goals he’s achieved, Bogusky says the happiness he’s found in his career comes from loving the journey—that practice of sitting down with other people and thinking really hard to solve a problem.
“I’ve found that I had to learn to love the process and forget all the goals. Because the goals, as you achieved them, they didn’t really change anything.”
The Race to the Top
The life Bogusky envisioned for himself did not always involve advertising. As the son of a designer and an ad man, Bogusky naturally decided to race motorcycles for a living.
He became a “kind of semi-not-very-successful-pro motocross racer,” although his mother wisely taught him some of the mechanical side of graphic design so he could find work when the racing career inevitably flamed out.
It did, and Bogusky ended up in the family business after all. After doing some work at various firms and freelancing, he ended up in 1989 taking a job with Chuck Porter, who had recently joined an agency in Miami that would become Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B).
“We were fairly terrible. It was terrible,” he says of the early days. Bogusky says they steadily began working their way up the chain of advertising accounts, and essentially overhauling the agency.
“It would have been easier just to start an agency from scratch. Because if you’re a bad agency, there’s so many things you have to unlearn. So much institutional knowledge that you have to unlearn, and it took years and years.”
One key moment in the CP+B’s growth was when the partners realized that, despite having large regional clients, they had become stuck at that level. They made a commitment to take on national accounts, even if that meant a step down in billing.
“That was a hard decision to make in terms of growth and bottom line, but…the small national client has the same issues as a large national client. Once we understood that kind of business, once we had created campaigns in that space, it was really easy to translate those stories to any size national client. It just unleashed our ability to grow.”
The firm would rise to more than 1,000 staff with offices all over the world, and billing more than $1 billion a year. It seemed like overnight success from the outside, but really it was a lot of steady work.
“At some point you lift your head up and you’re like, holy cow,” he says. “I tell people, you gotta be careful because you can’t tell when you’re in it. You don’t realize how much progress you’re making, and so often people get frustrated.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, CP+B was showered with accolades for its work with Burger King (the agency was behind Subservient Chicken, Chicken Fries, and that creepy King mascot), the anti-smoking “Truth” campaign, Volkswagen, BMW, and others. CP+B and Bogusky earned a reputation for some of the most creative and edgy ads of the time, often becoming viral sensations.
‘Change and Creativity are Cousins’
The cliche of the mad, solitary genius struck with blinding inspiration is rarely a reality, and it definitely does not describe the creative process of Alex Bogusky. Instead, his strength as a creator is driven by his trust in strategic planning, embracing change, and unflinching confidence in his own abilities.
First off, the planning component must always stem directly from the business problem the firm is tasked with solving. Bogusky sets himself apart from ad writers who have internal ambitions as playwrights and filmmakers, driven by personal creative vision. Some of Bogusky’s past campaigns may have seemed outlandish, but they were always designed from the starting point of a business need, which also made it easier to pitch them to clients, he says.
“It may have looked like it was challenging, but it was designed to solve an actual business problem that the client really had,” he says. “We were never selling little plays. We were always being creative in service of commerce. And it was easy to sell because the clients could tell.”
That’s not to say that they were free from client feedback or changes. In fact, Bogusky is a big believer in embracing change during a creative process—coming from inside his team and outside. Hacking away at scripts or original concepts can often lead to the most successful outcomes, and he’ll frequently make edits right up until the buzzer when it’s time to ship. This embrace of change is an idea we now see everywhere in entrepreneurship through the Lean Startup methodology.
“Change and creativity are very similar. They’re cousins. … The change could come from anywhere and we would make it positive and didn’t fear it.”
Another tip for fostering creativity that follows that train of thought—don’t be afraid to see your own ideas killed. An idea is just an idea.
“You have to have enough respect for your abilities that someone killing one of your campaigns is meaningless. If you get upset about that, you’re suggesting to yourself that you’re not capable of coming up with another good idea. And I refuse to do that.
“Of course we can come up with dozens of good ideas. Millions. There’s no limit.”
A New Brand of Bogusky
There did turn out to be a limit to Bogusky’s days at CP+B. In 2010, he left the agency, sending waves of speculation throughout the ad world.
In his late 40s, Bogusky had taken a sharp turn from his identity as a capitalist kingmaker. He had become more vocally interested in issues like Wall Street reform, consumer rights, food labeling, and public health. Critics were puzzled by the shift and some questioned his sincerity.
But as Bogusky describes it, his departure had been in the works for a long time, and was triggered by a holding company’s acquisition of the firm. When a lengthy earnout process was complete, he saw it as a good time to break and try new things, he says.
“Honestly I’ve always figured—I really enjoy advertising but I never thought I would do it my whole life,” he says. Bogusky does acknowledge that he had grown tired of working for larger clients, and his agency at the time was working with the largest.
“What I loved about advertising is, I love the kind of culture jamming—being part of the changes in culture and searching the culture what’s next, what’s hot. When you’ve got larger clients, your job is to support the status quo, and that’s much less exciting than when we had smaller clients and our job was to upset the status quo.”
While he didn’t truly leave advertising, his work did evolve into something more subversive.
His first gig post-CP+B was working with former Vice President Al Gore to help brand his Climate Reality Project. Even that ultimately proved not adventurous enough, as he struggled to focus on just one campaign.
That led him to his current approach of backing several companies and initiatives on varying levels, often with an underlying theme of advancing social or progressive issues. For example, Bogusky currently has a stake in multiple ad agencies, providing investment and creative guidance. In this phase of his career, he’s worked on campaigns criticizing big soda companies and promoting organic foods.
With CP+B alum Dave Schiff, he helped launch Made, an agency that emphasizes companies that make products in the United States. Made now boasts hip clients like Lyft, Etsy, and The Climate Reality Project, as well as huge businesses like Walmart and T.G.I. Friday’s.
One of his biggest endeavors since 2010 was the launch of Fearless Unlimited, an agency he co-founded to operate in partnership with millennial-focused media company Fusion. Fearless works with corporations, nonprofits, and foundations to create ad campaigns that focus on social change causes, which polling shows are particularly important to millennial consumers.
In his spare time from ad and marketing projects, Bogusky’s an investor and mentor with startup accelerator Boomtown Boulder, which he finds aligns quite well with his advertising expertise. “The ads were what people saw and noticed, but a lot of the creativity was in, how do we change the culture of this company from a culture of failure to a culture of success.”
Bogusky says he finds working with young entrepreneurs exciting in that same disruptive, creative sense that he describes when recalling his best times in advertising. It helped him escape a rut he felt himself sliding into after he left CP+B.
“I wanted to get in the accelerator business because I just wanted to be exposed to the brilliant thinking that young entrepreneurs were bringing forward.”
Bogusky has had a wildly successful, and divergent, career over the past 25-plus years, and that’s led many peers and critics to scratch their heads and wonder what makes this guy tick. But it turns out, it might all just boil down to that one lesson he had to learn about loving the process.
“Eventually I realized, I really just like sitting down with smart people and trying to figure something out. And that was my reward, and the rest didn’t matter at all.”
Actionable Tips From Alex Bogusky
- Don’t be afraid of inviting in outside voices. When advising startups, he often sees people being too protective of their ownership stake, and as a result not bringing in the collaborators needed to make an idea valuable. “Don’t choke this thing to death because you’re so worried about what that percentage number is.”
- Embrace change, wherever it comes from. Don’t be emotionally protective of your work. “For me the other part of my process was to not get emotionally involved with the work that I was making. If I made something and you killed it, I could not care less.” Instead, recognize that outside change and criticism can result in some of your best work.
- Great product and company culture come before branding. “Everyone wants me to work on branding. Branding doesn’t work until you’ve got everything else working. You can’t just put lipstick on a pig.” A lot of his best work as an ad man involved “juicing the company from within,” or helping companies understand how to see themselves and create a culture of success.
- How to embrace change and use it to fuel your creativity
- Why you need to listen to voices outside your startup and what it could mean for you
- When and where advertising and branding comes in for a business
- How to find opportunities to upset the status quo
- How you can start loving the journey regardless of its highs and lows
Full Transcript of Podcast with Alex Bogusky
Nathan: Hello, and welcome to another episode of “The Foundr Podcast.” My name is Nathan Chan. I am the CEO and publisher of “Foundr Magazine,” and I am your host coming to you live from Melbourne, Australia. What’s been happening in my world? A lot of projects, a lot of products we’re working on, exciting times. Me and the guys found a team, getting heaps of stuff done. Still making that transition from founder to CEO, and still trying to be, you know, learning what it takes to be a great leader. I’m taking it one day at a time, but, you know, things are good.
I will give you guys a heads up, we do have an epic project we’re working on which I’m really pumped about. It’s going to be an amazing body of work. It’s a Foundr coffee-table book with the past, you know, 50 plus back issues that we have rounding up that content and putting it into a brilliantly designed coffee-table book. If you would like to know more about it you can go to foundrmag.com/book, and you can sign up to be notified. It’s a project I’m really, really excited about, and I’d love for you guys to help bring it to life. We’re probably going to crowd fund it, and yeah, it’s going to be a really, really fun project. It’s gonna be an amazing body of work. So that’s what’s happening in my world.
Now let’s talk about today’s guest, Alex Bogusky. This guy is, you know, a bit of a living legend when it comes to a super successful, well-accomplished founder and entrepreneur, but also an advertising executive. Alex used to run and started one of the hottest and most reputable advertising firms in the world. And he ended up giving that up just to, I don’t know, go on a soul-searching quest, or whatever you wanna call it. And he’s just a super smart guy, really, really gets marketing. He’s an investor in companies like Lyft. Really, really smart guy and founder now, and he’s doing some really, really cool stuff.
I feel really humbled and honored to get his time to speak with him. This guy is a serious, serious superstar. I’m just gonna leave it at that. He shares a ton of gold as always. We only bring the gold on this podcast. So yeah, guys, that’s it from me. I hope you’re enjoying these episodes. Now let’s jump into the show. So the first question I ask everybody that we interview is, how did you get your job?
Alex: Which job?
Nathan: I guess the job you’re doing right now. How did it all start?
Alex: The job I have now? I don’t have a job now. That’s the goal, is to not have a job. It’s taken me a long time. But the job I have now is I invest and I advise, so I don’t know how I got that job. I became unemployable after my last job, I guess. I couldn’t imagine working for anybody. So yeah, that’s it.
Nathan: Awesome. So yeah, look, you know, you’re a world-famous designer, marketer, author, consumer advocate. Can you take us back to, you know, your early beginnings? How did it all start out for you? How did you get into, you know, workingin the advertising world? Can you take us back just for the audience that are not familiar with your story?
Alex: My father was a graphic designer and my mom was an art director for some trade magazines, so my dad had a studio with about 25 people. And he and his brother had a studio, a graphic design studio, and it was just sort of a family business. The magazine that would always be around, and “Communication Arts.” Like, those are the sort of magazines that would be on the coffee table in the house.
And, you know, all the friends were other graphic designers, and they’d play games like…you know, they’d come up with fictitious companies and who could come up with the best logo in two minutes. And everyone would sketch and then they’d show their logos and people judged. So it was just what we did.
And so when you’re in the family busines I think, when you’re young, you know, you kind of wanna do anything but the family business. So my first attempt at a career was Motocross, and I became a, you know, kind of semi, not a very successful, pro Motocross racer. And along the way, you know, not really…kind of skipping college, and my mom probably concerned about my employability if things go south, taught me to do what were called mechanicals at the time, which was the production side of graphic design. And so she said, “Hey, if you know how to do this at least you’ll always have a job,” right? And that was really it. At some point I stopped racing because I wasn’t good enough, and yeah, fell back into the family business, essentially.
Nathan: I see. And how did you end up working? And, like tell us about the story around Crispin Porter + Bogusky, and how all that came about.
Alex: I started working in a local agency for about two years, and then I left that and started working with my dad in his studio, and did that for a couple years. And I went to a conference, and at the conference, the big theme…so this was probably 30 years ago. The big theme of the conference was the death of print, right, maybe 20, 27 years ago. It was all about the death of print.
And so, you know, I’m a print designer and I’m like, “This is not good.” And the thing that was gonna replace print was VHS cassettes. Everyone was gonna watch magazines on VHS tapes instead of flipping through them. And I mean, I don’t know if I was the only person who believed it or if everybody believed it. But I thought, “Man, I gotta get into an ad agency because they know how to do video, and I gotta learn how to do video because print is gonna be dead.” So I knew this guy Chuck Porter that had an agency and I was doing, you know, a bunch of freelance at the studio with him.
At some point he offered me a job, and I didn’t want it, and then I started to re-consider it. And then I started negotiating it, and eventually wound up at what was called Crispin Porter at the time. And Chuck Porter had just joined the agency, but it was called Crispin before that. So Chuck had joined. It was now Crispin Porter, and he convinced me to join and I started as…I think my title was senior art director.
Nathan: I see. And, you know, how long did you work there, and tell us what ended up happening in the end?
Alex: Well, it was not a very good agency. You know, Chuck was talented. He was the creative director or writer, and he had been freelance and then he joined. So, you know, I was employee number 16, and so it was a small agency, and probably maybe the third best agency in Miami, which, you know, at the time, put it way, way down the, you know, whatever the national rankings would be. It was terrible. It was a terrible little agency.
So I was employee 16, and Chuck said, you know, we’d go out for beers. And he’s like, “Well, my buddy Pat Fallon, he’s got this agency Fallon in Minneapolis and they’re just killing it,” right? And I didn’t know much about advertising, but I, you know, flipped through the annuals and I started to learn about it, and started to realize, “Wow, there’s some people that are really good at this.” And found in those early days in the work that they were doing.
So Chuck’s like, “How hard could it be,” essentially. It was a good sell to me, and we just started grinding away, little by little doing more interesting work and kinda finding our voice, and, you know, what we believed in. We grew those 16 people. And I joined because I thought, you know, I think both Chuck and I, it would’ve been easier just to start an agency from scratch because there’s so many things. If you’re a bad agency, there’s so many things you have to unlearn, like, so much institutional knowledge that you have to unlearn. And it took years and years, you know?
We had policies at the beginning, you know, things like if you were to order a desk accessory you could only order. You know, there was shit like that that we built into the culture. But I thought what made it an agency was it had wall-to-wall carpeting, and they had, you know, copiers, and printers, and typewriters. And so to me the infrastructure was so impressive that I thought that that was, you know, the thing. But anyway, it would’ve been easier to start from scratch. So we eventually started to carve out kind of a good local reputation, and then eventually a national reputation.
Nathan: I see. And where did you guys, like, end up, just for the audience to get some clarity? Because you’re a world-famous brand, ad, design guy.
Alex; Yeah, well, that’s nice of you. I think at the time our original thinking was, “We’ll get famous locally, then we’ll get famous regionally and we’ll become national.” And we really got stuck at the regional space and weren’t moving past kind of the local fame and reputation. And we made a decision at one point that we had to get national brands, even if they were much smaller than our local clients. And it was the best decision we ever made.
You know, we were pitching million-dollar national campaigns, or national clients over $5 million regional clients. And that was a hard decision to make in terms of growth and bottom line, but what it did was the, you know, small national client had the same issues as a large national client, you know? And so once we understood that kind of business, once we had created campaigns in that space, it was really easy to translate those stories to any sized national client. And, you know, it just unleashed our ability to grow.
And we eventually, at the time I left, which was about six years ago, he had over 1,000 people and offices all over the world. So yeah, there was a lot of growth. It never felt ridiculous or impossible to manage, or even, like, you know, overnight success, you know? It looks like that to some people sometimes, but it’s true there’s always 10 years of work behind that. So yeah, at some point you lift your head up and you’re like, “Holy cow, I came a long way.”
Nathan: Yeah, wow.
Alex: But I tell people, yeah, you gotta be careful because you can’t tell when you’re in it, you know? You don’t realize how much progress you’re making, and so often people get frustrated because it is…look, you could win the Grand Prix at Cannes, you know? The next day you’re gonna go into your office and look at the same dude across the office and try to think of something. It doesn’t feel any better. You know, it didn’t make you any smarter. It doesn’t make anything any easier.
So ultimately you can’t tell people to do this, but in your own journey you find that…or I found that I had to learn to love the process and forget all the goals, because the goals as you achieved them, they didn’t really change anything. What you were gonna do in life and what you were gonna spend time doing was you were gonna sit across from somebody and you were gonna, you know, think really hard. And if you hated that, then you hated your life, no matter how much you achieve. If you began to love that process, then you loved your life, and that was something that, for me, that I could go through.
There as a time where I didn’t enjoy the thinking of the thing. That was just a way to get to some achievement that I thought I needed, you know? I thought I needed this award, or I thought I needed that recognition, or this client. And then eventually I realized I really just like sitting down with smart people and trying to figure stuff out, and that was my reward and the rest didn’t matter at all. But I don’t think you necessarily start there, but for people who…I think it’s important to say because some people might be realizing like, “Wow, I thought everything would change after I got, you know, this Lion, and it didn’t. So now what?” And my thing is like, learn to love the process.
Nathan: So what ended up happening? You ended up leaving and now you’re…you know, why did you leave, out of curiosity? You just fell out of love with the process?
Alex: No, well, a combination of things. Agencies, they sell to holding companies, you know? And we had a really long what they call “earn out,” right? So there’s the moment that you begin the process of selling, and then there’s the earn out. So the way it typically works is a holding company buys a portion, maybe half, maybe 49%, whatever it is. And there’s a period of time where they work towards 80% so they can, you know, file, and since they’re public companies, they need to move towards 80% ownership.
And that process usually is, like, a five-year process. Ours was 10 years, and maybe over 10 years, so it was a long process because, you know, we were on a good roll and we didn’t wanna stop doing what we were doing. And, you know, I probably wouldn’t have been anxious to sell, but Chuck Porter, he’s about 10 years older than I am and he is in a different stage of his life and needed to unlock some equity in the firm and stuff. And so the sale happened, and then over time that 10 years go by and then you don’t own it anymore. And to me, that was a very different feeling.
And honestly, I’ve always figured, you know…I really enjoyed advertising but I never figured I would do it my whole life, you know? In the back of my head there was always this feeling like, “Yeah, I’ll do other stuff later.” And so, you know, when the sale was over, to me it was just an opportunity to try some other things, which I always thought I would do. I’ve always been like that, like, I’ll make these decisions and I barely even know I make them but they’re kinda etched in stone. And I knew I would leave when we were done with this selling.
And then the other thing that had happened was with the growth, which was fantastic, and I really don’t, you know…I never felt like growth and quality were at odds, but near the end there’s not many accounts that are large enough to have an impact on your P&L at that size, so you’re talking about really big companies. And what I loved about advertising is I love the kind of culture gamut, you know? Being part of the changes in culture, and the searching of culture, like, what’s next? What’s hot, right? But when you’ve got larger clients your job is to support the status quo, and that was much less exciting than when we had smaller clients and our job was to upset the status quo. So that, to me, I felt much less alignment with what I was doing and the people I was…not the people, and the clients I was doing it with. It just wasn’t quite as much fun. So, you know, opportunity to switch gears and have more fun.
Nathan: Yeah, awesome. So you’ve done so many award-winning campaigns, and “AdWeek Magazine” has…you got named Creative Director of the Decade. So I’ve gotta ask you, and I’m sure our audience would love to hear, can you give us some sort of an insight around your creative process or anything that can be tapped into that? Now I know obviously it can’t be replicated, but I think people might find that interesting.
Alex: I think most people probably have trouble describing their creative process. A lot of people, you know, like to kinda be inspired by things they read. I was always inspired by things I read, and I noticed that any book I was reading I could tell how it would influence the work. But I didn’t do it for inspiration. I never felt like I needed to load myself up with knowledge of pop culture. I thought that was fairly natural. It might be fiction, it might be non-fiction, it might be marketing, it might be a graphic novel. It didn’t matter.
My feeling is the right inspirations are just…they naturally find you. So, you know, I never spend much time thinking about how to be inspired. When it came to the work I really gravitated towards great strategy. And for me, we didn’t have planning for years, and years, and years, and I became a champion of, like, you know, getting planning into the agency. And it was hard, and there were several mis-steps. You know, we’d know the head of planning, you know? It was difficult, but eventually we teamed up with a series of great strategy people. As a creative director, that’s where the ideas flow from. I can work, but I don’t enjoy working without a strategy, and actually I can’t. If there’s no…I’ll often make up the strategy, right?
So for me, it all has to come from strategy, and the strategy has to be in service of the business problem. People would always ask us, “How do you sell such wacky work?” And it was never hard to sell, you know? It was always easy, because although it may have looked like it was challenging, it was designed to solve an actual business problem that the client really had.
So often people, they’re in advertising because they wanna be filmmakers or writers, but they think advertising is gonna be easier, and so they have little movies that they try to sell, or they have little stories they wanna sell, you know? And they try to sell them over and over, and keep trying to find a client who wants to buy, you know, that little play. And we were never selling little plays. We were always being creative in service of commerce, so it was easy to sell because the clients could tell. And they could tell that if you didn’t like this, we’ll, you know, do another one.
For me, the other part of my process was to not get emotionally with the work that I was making. So if I made something and we killed it, I could not care less. I’d be a little sad but usually account people were more bummed out than you were. And part of that was, and we would tell people, it’s like, “You have to have enough respect for your abilities that someone killing one of your campaigns is meaningless. If you get upset about that, you know, you’re suggesting to yourself that you’re not capable of coming up with another good idea.” And it’s like, I refuse to do that. I refuse to think that, “Wow, I can’t come up with it.” Of course you can come up with dozens of good ideas, millions, right? There’s no limit.
So it was less about how I or we would think about any one thing, and more about how we would think about the whole approach and our willingness to really be fearless in that engagement, right? And embrace change wherever it came from. A lot of creatives get so hung up if the client changed something, which to me was always strange. Not always strange, eventually strange. At first I was, you know…I’d get upset, too. But the longer I was in it, the more I thought, “Now if one of us at the table came up with an idea to change it we might love it.” So why do we fear it, when the change…change and creativity are very similar, you know? They’re cousins.
So when a change opportunity came and it came internally, it was considered good news. When it came externally, it was considered bad news. Why is that, and is that right? So eventually we just became so confident that, like, a change could come from anywhere and we would make it positive and didn’t fear it. At first I used to have this…I felt like the best work was the work that was changed the least. And then later, you know, we would win awards for work, and I was like, “That?” Like, I would just remember how many iterations. Not only is it unrecognizable from where we started, it’s unrecognizable from the script that went into production.
And when you realize that that amount of change could still result in something, if you had the right process, could still result in something great, you had to fundamentally change the way you thought. It’s something that it’s a hard way to do when you’re young, but I think that there’s a way for young creatives to kinda open themselves up more quickly, you know, and gain that confidence faster if they’ve got some good mentorship.
Nathan: When it comes to that change and constant change, how do you now when to ship? How do you know when it’s right?
Alex: When you’re out of time. I mean, we had a saying that, you know, the work’s never done, it’s only abandoned, you know? And so that would make clients crazy sometimes, and it would make account people crazy sometimes. But, I mean, nothing is ever really finished. I think most creative people would agree with that, whether you’re making a movie or writing. Like, you can always continue to adjust. But yeah, for us, it’s really…I mean, in advertising you’re lucky in a way, because it’s like you don’t even get to decide what that is, it just happens. But I don’t remember ever being, like, you know, finishing a night at three weeks ahead of the ship date, or anything like that. You always use up all the time.
Nathan: I see. Well, look, let’s shift gears and talk about, you know, FearLess Revolution and all the cool stuff you’re doing there. Because you’ve expanded your role from being, I guess, a brand advocate to being a consumer and social advocate. Can you tell us about that and the cool stuff you’re doing there with that?
Alex: When I first stopped working at the agency, first got a call. It was Al Gore, and he said, which I thought was crazy that that was literally the first person to, sort of, congratulate me. And he said, “Listen, I want a portion of your time, anywhere between a small piece and 100% to work on climate.” And he also said, “Look, you’re gonna transition and that transition is gonna take two years. Whether you go surf every day, or whether you try to work through it, it’s gonna take two years before you, sort of, find your footing again.” And he said, you know, “So you probably shouldn’t work, but you should work with me.” So it was pretty fun. It was a fun conversation. He’s a really funny guy.
So we re-branded the Climate Alliance and Climate Reality. We launched a web program, or web moment, a streaming web broadcast called “24 Hours of Reality.” At the time when we first did it I think it was, like, the most viewed live web stream event of all time. And they’ve done it since then and got even bigger as they’ve done it every year since. So I spent a bunch of time doing that, and it was fun but it was hard. And it was really difficult for me coming out of an agency where as creative director you’re thinking about lots of different problems for about 15 minutes at a time, right? And then you go onto the next thing, and the next thing, and you kinda loop around, right? But, you know, you’ve got dozens of clients and you’ve got lots of projects. So your time is cut into these little bits, and it’s some sort of form of professional ADD. And it would be a problem anywhere else, but in that role you’re well compensated for not being able to focus very well.
And then I’m in this role and it’s like every day I’m thinking about climate. And it was hard for me, and it was not really a good fit. So after about two years I had helped them transition, find a new creative director, you know, build out the rest of the organization, and sort of, you know, that moved on. But I realized I need to move from problem to problem. I’ve spent too much time doing lots of different things and I’m gonna need to build that into whatever it is I do.
So a big part of that has been kind of my approach, which is not to be an operator in things but to be an investor and an advisor into things that I do. So find great people who, you know, I know, I love, that I wanna work with, and they will operate and I will provide, hopefully, a little bit of vision, and some investment, and ongoing advice. So that’s how I’ve tried to, kind of, use the same skill set, but use it in a different way. And that’s shown up through a lot of tech start-up work that we do.
And alongside the tech start-up work, it was a long answer to get to it…but alongside the tech start-up work, I’ve also helped launch a few agencies. FearLess, which was kind of my, you know, personal…I don’t know, it’s essentially a blog, right? And where I would do work with non-profits, that’s transitioned into an actual agency at this point. That is a partnership with Dagny Scott and Leslie Freeman, who ran insights for me at CPB, and they’re, like, the most fantastic strategy people I ever worked with.
So I knew they wanted to do a thing, and I’m like, “Man, you are gonna be successful. I would love to partner with that.” And that’s what FearLess has become. And the focus there is on social problems. They both worked on Climate Reality with me, you know, with Al Gore. Dagny became probably, I don’t know, one of really a great advisor to Al and continued to work with Climate Reality at FearLess. But they also have clients like Annie’s, which, you know, makes mac and cheese and little bunny crackers and stuff, the organic company. So there’s kind of a spectrum of things that they work on over there.
And then Made Movement, which is another agency, they were launched a couple years before FearLess, and Made Movement’s focus is American jobs. So that’s another creative director, you know, great friend, Dave Schiff. He and I used to meet in the mornings and, like, “Hey, what’s a good idea for an agency?” And try to come up with a lot of smart things. And fail, you know, try to come up with smart ideas and fail. I’d come up with them, but no passion, right? And one day he looks at me and is like, “You know what I’d love to do,” one morning. “I would love to just work on made in America stuff.” And I’m like, “Well, you know, then you should always do what you would love to do, because you’ll be more successful doing what you would love to do.” And he was like, “But it’s the dumbest business model ever.” And I’m like, “You know what? It’s like,” I guess you could say.
And so that’s been fantastic and they’ve grown like crazy, and I think they’re, like, 80-some people now. And they do everything from, sort of, a Harley-Davidson, which you’d expect, but then a lot of food, which, you know, creates a ton of American jobs. So that’s their focus, and it’s an interesting social play because when things are consumed close to where they’re made it creates jobs, yes, but it also is a smaller carbon footprint. So it’s a really interesting way to get at, like, that conscious capital as a piece, but a little bit differently than the way they look at it at FearLess.
And then other than the agencies I helped create a tech accelerator here in town called Boomtown. And, you know, we’re lucky that in Boulder we’ve got a tech accelerator called Techstars, which I think was launched…maybe the first accelerator. And so we’ve got a, you know, big brother accelerator in town to look to, and it’s super fun. We’ve run about 30 plus companies through the accelerator at this point. We’re on our second. And you know, but even right now, I’m here right now and we’re selecting companies for the next cohort.
And I should say, I love…for me, everything I loved about advertising, so much of what our success was is the ads were what people saw and noticed, but a lot of the creativity was in, how do we change the culture of this company to a culture of failure to a culture of success, right? How do we show this company how incredible they are, how we see them, how their biggest fans see them, and let them see themselves that way, right? And the success really was in those moments, you know? That juicing the company from within, and that ability to fire them up and make them ready to win again. That was a lot of the turnaround that we would do, but that was behind a lot of it.
And then the ads would be the obviously a huge part of it, but they would also be the most obvious and front forward-facing piece of it, so that would get all the attention. But as an agency, as an organization we were really good at helping your organization figure out what it should and what it shouldn’t be doing. And when you get to work with these start-ups that are two people, they’re four-people teams sometimes, it’s really cool to do the exact same process. And that’s why, you know, I loved that.
And it’s also fun to do again in a space where there is a lot of disruption, you know? I do enjoy that, hey, what’s next for culture, you know? Let’s upset the big guys and let’s change things up and see if we can’t do it better.
Nathan: Yeah, look, that’s awesome. Look, Alex, really, really appreciate your time. I could talk to you all day, man, but we have to work towards wrapping up. I have a couple more questions, and that’s just around, you know, you’re an investor, you’re advisor. You’ve got this seed accelerator and, you know, you’re focusing on internet, mobile, software. I’m curious, you know, what are the things that you’re seeing that, I guess, these early-stage start-ups aren’t doing, where they’re struggling? What advice do you see yourself constantly giving?
Alex: That’s a good question. You know, it’s not that consistent, but one of the things that’s nice is…so when I stopped working in advertising, one of the things I swear I felt my brain calcifying, like, was a period where I just felt like I was getting dumber and dumber every day. And to even have that challenge, I mean, in advertising it’s really fun how challenged you are by new ideas all the time. And so, you know, for me, I wanted to get in the accelerator business because I just wanted to be exposed to the brilliant thinking that young entrepreneurs were bringing forward, right?
And then realizing that there’s so much stuff that I know that I don’t even know I know that to me is kind of obvious and a no-brainer, they don’t see, right? So it can be around culture, it can be around team building, it could be around marketing, it can be around…you know, everyone wants me to work on branding, but branding doesn’t work until you’ve got everything else working, you know? You can’t just put lipstick on a pig. So everyone thinks of me as, like, “Oh, this will be my, you know, logo and copy guy.” Not everyone, but, whereas really, you know, where I’m gonna help is in product.
And in advertising we built a lot of product usually to bigger clients, digital product. In an accelerator you’re building, you know, a digital product from scratch and you are a very small companies with a very tough path towards customer acquisition, right? And if I launched something for Burger King and it goes viral, terrific. If it was less viral they didn’t go out of business. At this stage if you don’t build your product in such a way that your product itself brings in one person, and that one person converts to two people, then you’re kinda dead.
I think some early stage entrepreneurs and others don’t see it as dramatically, and they also don’t, you know…certainly they can’t have as much experience with product because, you know, I was just sort of tasked with doing it hundreds of times a year. So that product knowledge, and that wealth of seeing a lot of different things tried is probably where I think I add the most value. And then the other is, and this is a strange thing, but financially I’ve done really well, and I’m so lucky in that, but I’ve never owned more than 20% of anything, all right?
And so many early-stage people get really hung up on what percentage they own of a thing, and they don’t bring in the right partnerships and help that can take it to the next level because they’re just too tight, right? They’re just too worried about their personal percentage, and basically they starve their idea because of it. And my advice is always like, look, having 80%, 90% of a thing that’s not worth much, it’s just not a good idea, you know? Like, don’t choke this thing to death because you’re so worried about what that percentage number is. It’s all about creating value.
So that’s a space where if you have a little bit of experience you can explain that to folks. But, you know, I don’t know but you can imagine what it’s like where it’s just, you know, rooms full of brilliant 26 year olds who have incredible technology but maybe don’t know how to do some of the simple things, like open a bank account. So sometimes you can help with the most obvious stuff.
Nathan: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for your time and I’ll be in touch. And hope you have a great day, great weekend. I’ll speak to you soon.
Alex: All right, thanks a lot.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Alex Bogusky
- Checkout Crispin Porter + Bogusky
- Connect with Alex Bogusky on Linkedin
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