A few days before Colorado lawmakers assembled on the steps of the capitol to unveil their job-creation proposals, the global downturn made its way to Boulder. Crispin Porter + Bogusky, the largest advertising agency in the state and AdWeek’s 2008 Agency of the Year, cut 60 jobs, a lot of them here in this famously well-off, progressive and eco-friendly university town.
Although Crispin isn’t reporting the number of Boulder workers it sent packing, the layoffs are just the latest blow for the Colorado advertising and public relations industry.
The Crispin layoffs are more powerful evidence, if any more were needed, of the magnitude of the broadening economic crisis. This time it’s not just Rustbelt autoworkers on the street; it’s the people at the top, too, the big spenders who are also the long-term job creators. Although it has been easy to write off the crumbling careers of profligate bankers and hedge-fund managers as mere just rewards, the crisis that has come to the ad industry here underlines the need for political thinking that looks beyond tax cuts and road construction.
In August, McClain Finlon Advertising in Denver, the largest independent agency in the Rocky Mountain West, laid off 30 and shuttered its 26-year-old business. Then, last month, Denver’s Schenkein public relations agency shut down after thirty years of representing some of the state’s biggest clients, including Western Union, Frontier Airlines and Coors.
And now it’s Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which expanded from Miami to Boulder in 2006. Crispin is an icon of the so-called weightless post-manufacturing U.S. economy. Lauded for high-concept brand development, the agency has consistently run ahead of conventional wisdom, launching enormously successful campaigns in the last few years that have eschewed mass media in favor of web video and online social networking, which depends more on creating distributable buzz than on making a favorable impression.
“Advertising budgets are being reduced in virtually every industry…These are extraordinary times and we hope that we will not have to do this again,” Crispin announced in its one-paragraph press release Thursday.
In an essay for AdWeek in March, Crispin Co-Chairman Alex Bogusky wrote that “the U.S. economy is not powered by manufacturing; it’s powered by creativity…” and that he was relieved to discover the city of Boulder shared that belief. Crispen Porter + Bogusky expanded to Boulder mainly because the lifestyle in Boulder would help attract talent reluctant to move to Florida, Bogusky told Media Post. The move also demonstrated the agency’s forward thinking — that it had embraced network mobility over the traditional power of a big city address. “We’ve learned that location is fairly meaningless for the way we work,” Bogusky said. “We’re already fairly virtual, so it will be a very exciting experiment.”
The experiment worked. Bogusky moved to Boulder with 50 Miami employees. The firm now employees roughly 900 people and brings revenue to Colorado from a roster of national clients. Indeed, last year Crispin succeeded against the odds in expanding its client base and increasing revenue 15 percent to $140 million. What’s more, as Advertising Age points out, Crispin’s clients are among the few still turning a profit.
Even in a harsh economic climate… Crispin’s clients are holding up well. Sales of Coke Zero are seeing double-digit increases despite overall declines in the soda category, customer traffic in Burger King restaurants has hit a 10-year high, and even an automotive client, Volkswagen, eked out a 0.2% increase ahead of 2007 sales through the third quarter — a minor miracle given the slump in total car sales last year.
Smart Boulder officials viewed Crispin as an engine of long-term sustainable growth. City representatives including the mayor welcomed the agency despite strict city ordinances restricting growth, reasoning that the high-profile agency would attract similarly low-impact businesses in related creative and communication industries. If city officials hadn’t already scaled back expectations, at least for the short term, Thursday’s layoff’s surely did the trick.
A laid-off Crispin employee who asked to remain anonymous said he was shocked when he got the news and not just because he was one of the people being asked to leave.
“Sure, the mood was definitely down in the office because of the economy, but business was coming in… I really don’t think anyone saw this coming except the decision-makers. It just shows that no one’s immune.” He said he moved to Boulder for the job. “I like it here but, you know, there’s no other real agencies here to apply to… Maybe San Francisco? I don’t know.”
Crispin is an empire built on a particular kind of “2.0” approach to its work, the maverick brand Crispin has worked its own ad magic to cultivate. Crispin executives are bloggers and new-media personalities. Crispin campaigns push clients to the edge. The agency puts a premium on a workplace style that includes Domino’s pizza on demand, free snowboard rentals and “disruptive thinker travel” in the form of a Wi-Fi-equipped biodiesel company bus that runs regular routes around Boulder. But in the weighty retro-business of laying off workers, Crispin played it old school. The now-former employees received no warning. They came to work in the morning, were informed of their redundancy and then escorted by security to the door.