By Warren Berger

(Business 2.0) – On a Wednesday morning in late January, as subfreezing gusts blasted the length of Madison Avenue, the temperature was 70 degrees and rising at the red-hot epicenter of the ad universe. Inside the sparkling steel-and-granite Miami headquarters of Crispin Porter & Bogusky, the agency was unveiling pieces of the campaign for its newest client, Virgin Atlantic Airways (very soon to be second-newest, but we'll get to that). At presentations like this, ad executives typically hold up TV commercial storyboards and explain why everyone is going to love this particular dancing cat or flatulent horse.

This morning, however, the presenters from CPB--led by a pregnant woman, a young dude with a flop of unruly blond curls, and a guy with Elvis sideburns--had no storyboards. But they sure had a lot of other stuff, and it came flying from all sides at the three Virgin clients.

There were ads designed to look like those flight safety cards found in airplane seat backs. There were samples of a newspaper comic strip called "The Jet Set," as well as a mock-up for a lifestyle magazine titled Jetrosexual. Neither displayed Virgin's name overtly, but both played off the Virgin campaign's theme, "Go Jet Set, Go!" There was something that resembled an illustrated children's book, though it actually contained bedtime ditties for adults ("Night-night, CFO reclining in 1A. Sleep well, knowing your decisions were admired today.")--the idea being that flight attendants would leave the books on pillows in Virgin's sleeping cabins. And speaking of those flight attendants? CPB wouldn't mind hiring a high-fashion designer to spruce up the uniforms. And how about staging "concert flights"? And wouldn't it be cool to hire celebrities to work as "guest flight attendants"? And by the way, could the pilots fly at a higher altitude so Virgin can claim it soars above the competition? And there's one more thing--well, no, actually there were 160 more, because that was how many far-flung ideas CPB had come up with since starting work on the campaign. "It can be a little overwhelming," acknowledged Virgin ad manager Ralph Bershefsky afterward. "It'd be a lot of work for us to do some of these things--but then again, we'd be idiots not to."

Welcome to advertising as practiced by the agency of the moment. Crispin Porter & Bogusky is as hot as South Beach on a Saturday night, having snapped up every top advertising creative award lately while reeling in prime accounts including Mini cars, Ikea furniture stores, Virgin Atlantic Airways, and most recently Burger King--a $300 million-plus new-business bombshell that was quietly wrapped up the morning CPB was pelting Virgin with ideas.

Hot agencies come and go, but this one bears watching. Working with modest ad budgets so far, CPB has riveted customers' attention with startling guerrilla tactics, unconventional uses of media, and holistic marketing strategies that tie together everything from product design to packaging to event marketing to stuff that can't even be categorized. "Anything and everything is an ad," preaches CPB's 40-year-old creative director, Alex Bogusky.

What the agency uses sparingly, however, is the traditional TV commercial. This is damn close to heresy in a business that grew fat on those million-dollar 30-second spots. Madison Avenue agencies have been promising for years to cut back on their TV habit and provide solutions that address today's fragmented media landscape. But few have delivered. Enter the little outfit from Miami, which has rocked the industry simply by practicing what its competition preaches.

There's no good buzzword for what CPB does (the term "integrated marketing" is meaningless by now), but here are some appropriate adjectives: fresh, radical, hard-to-control, street-smart, mischievous, all-over-the-lot, maybe-the-next-big-thing, possibly-headed-for-a-spill, perhaps-not-ready-for-prime-time. In other words, it's extreme, dude.

Crispin Porter & Bogusky is not quite off the map, but it's pretty close to the edge. From the agency's Coconut Grove offices, you can get to the Atlantic Ocean in minutes--if you're cruising on a racing bike, the mode of transportation for a number of CPB staffers. The location is important for a couple of reasons. First, it enables the agency's young ad creators to windsurf during their lunch hour (assuming they can dig out from under the crushing workload). Also, being far removed from big agencies and big media has allowed CPB to evolve as an independent species. "They're not breathing the same air as everybody else in advertising," observes Brian Collins, executive creative director of Ogilvy & Mather in New York. "Instead of being surrounded by ad people, they're surrounded by artists, music people, and the whole Cuban/Latin/European/gay/South Beach culture."

Alex Bogusky is a homegrown product of that culture, and he looks it. He wears loose polo shirts over athletic shoulders, with long hair coming out from under a skullcap. He has an easy smile (and good cheekbones; he's "swoon-worthy," reports Advertising Age), calls people "bud," and politely asks if you "need a pee-pee break." Bogusky is a onetime motocross racer who's still a little wild: On the way to a local restaurant, he warns that there may be a problem getting in because he and some CPB staffers got into a food fight there.

Bogusky seems genuinely surprised that people as far away as France (where CPB won top honors at last year's International Advertising Festival) are paying so much attention to his agency. When the conversation turns to a couple of advertising's most revered creative stars, Dan Wieden of Wieden & Kennedy and Jeff Goodby of Goodby Silverstein & Partners, Bogusky confides, "You know, I'm not sure those guys even know who I am." He then tells a story about sitting down to lunch with the two men a few years ago and feeling like the child at the table who is ignored by the grown-ups.

Maybe these are the scars of a young ad junkie who labored in obscurity for years in a marketing backwater. Until recently Miami was not on the advertising community's radar. Bogusky's partner Chuck Porter, a native of Minneapolis, originally drifted down there so he could windsurf every afternoon. To support himself, Porter wrote freelance ad copy, "usually by the pool." In 1988 he was offered a spot as a creative director at quiet little Crispin Advertising. He cut back his pool time and got down to business.

The first thing he did was hire Bogusky, a 24-year-old art director whose work on earlier freelance projects had impressed him. The young motorbike racer and the middle-age windsurfer clicked. Both are high-energy types, with loads of charisma and mischievous senses of humor. But while Porter seems carefree to the core, beneath Bogusky's sunny demeanor lies an ambitious, fiercely competitive spirit. "Alex plays advertising like an extreme sport," says former agency creative director Sally Hogshead. "He is fearless."

During the early 1990s, Porter and Bogusky's agency (Crispin cashed out) produced ads that swept local award shows--not that the ad world cared what people thought in Miami. But locals still admiringly recall a Sunglass Hut billboard featuring a gigantic pair of shades and the headline "What to Wear to a Nude Beach." To promote a local homeless shelter, CPB put ads in the damnedest places: on shopping carts, trash dumpsters, park benches. Clients in Miami had small ad budgets, so "we found ways to cheat a little and still get noticed," Bogusky says.

Major ad clients remained oblivious, however, and by 1993, Bogusky was growing frustrated. He and Porter began to butt heads, and eventually the senior partner decided to step back and let Bogusky run the creative department. Life promptly became much more intense at CPB, insiders say, with Bogusky putting rigorous demands on the staff and rejecting (sometimes harshly, according to sources) ideas he thought weren't up to snuff. "I felt like I had to push people," Bogusky says. He and Porter agreed that the agency had to get hold of a brand that could draw national attention.

In 1997 such an account finally came to CPB, although it wasn't a national brand. In fact, it wasn't a brand at all, until CPB turned it into one.

The Florida teen antismoking campaign "Truth" became a prototype for the strategy CPB would later apply to consumer brands like Mini and Ikea. It all started with street-level research: Agency staffers went out at night with videocameras and talked to local teenagers. CPB learned that conventional antismoking appeals--"This will kill you"--made rebellious kids want to smoke even more. Cigarettes tapped into teens' desires to establish identities, be associated with brands, and take risks. For the antismoking campaign to work, CPB had to push these same buttons harder and turn teenage angst against the tobacco industry. To do so, however, Bogusky couldn't use conventional marketing such as slick TV commercials. Only guerrilla-ambush tactics could promote an "anti-brand" that kids could latch on to. Bogusky named the brand "Truth" and even created a corporate logo for it.

CPB scattered the "Truth" logo across Florida on posters, leaflets, T-shirts, stickers, and other gear. The firm rented trucks and trains to traverse the state, staging impromptu live events and parties where "Truth" swag was disseminated. The agency also organized various stunts that bordered on harassment--teen activists placed crank phone calls to tobacco marketing executives and showed up unannounced in tobacco company lobbies, with some of these stunts videotaped and used as gritty, low-budget TV commercials. The "Truth" website served as information central for the whole campaign. And it worked: Between 1998 and 2002, smoking among middle and high school students in Florida declined an average of 38 percent. Eventually the infectious campaign moved beyond Florida when the American Legacy Foundation opted to use "Truth" as the basis of a national campaign, partnering CPB with Boston agency Arnold Worldwide. That led to big-budget Super Bowl commercials, though the beauty of "Truth" was its grassroots origin--which showed that CPB could build a popular movement around an unknown brand, using any and all available means.

"Truth" begat the Mini campaign, one of the most celebrated marketing efforts in recent years. The story has been widely told (see "Most Innovative Campaign" in "The Business 2.0 Sweet Spot Awards," May 2002): Tiny British car is introduced in the United States with equally small ad budget. Decision is made to launch the Mini with little TV--a first in modern-day car marketing. CPB generates buzz by putting Minis in all kinds of weird places: inside sports stadiums as seats, on top of SUVs, as centerfolds in Playboy. Street props are created, including a coin-operated children's ride in the shape of a Mini. There are Mini games, Mini booklets, Mini suitcases, Mini placement in movies--and last and perhaps least, a few Mini commercials that almost never air. By the time the car is introduced in spring 2002, the buyer waiting list is six months long.

Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of CPB. The agency turned down buyout offers from the Madison Avenue holding companies that control most of the advertising business, but it did sell a 49 percent stake to a Canadian company, MDC Partners. Meanwhile, Ikea, Molson beer, and Virgin Atlantic all came south looking for some Mini magic. And soon, big old Burger King followed.

How does CPB do it? There are no hard and fast rules, but there are some soft and loose ones (see below). For starters, the agency swings for the fences on each new brand assignment--going beyond cute slogans to try to start a consumer movement behind the brand. "Truth" was a mobilizing idea, as were "motoring" in a Mini and joining "the jet set" on Virgin. These are "much more than just clever ad ideas," says Rosemarie Ryan, president of J. Walter Thompson in New York. "These are big brand ideas you can build a community around."

The inspiration often comes out of group brainstorming sessions known (not affectionately) as "gang-banging." Bogusky will sometimes throw 10 or more people at a problem, letting them grapple until a winning idea emerges. "It can be frustrating, but it definitely keeps you on your toes," says former employee Dave Clemans. Every idea must pass through Bogusky for approval.

Once a central theme is in place, the ad making begins--and this is where CPB really turns the process upside down. Ordinarily, agencies make ads to fill existing holes: a magazine page, a 30-second slot on Friends. Hence, copywriters and art directors instinctively start by sketching ideas for print ads and TV commercials. But CPB begins with a blank slate. "What if there were no TV and no magazines--how would we make this brand famous?" Bogusky demands. If someone tries to bring him a TV commercial idea right away, he says, "I won't even look at it."

In the search for ads that can take any form, suggestions come from everyone--including media and account services people, who are kept out of the creative loop at most agencies. The goal is to figure out the best places to reach the target audience and the most interesting vehicles to carry the message, even if those vehicles have to be invented. For Molson, the agency wanted to trigger conversation among men in bars. CPB did it by stamping individualized barroom pickup lines on the labels of the beer bottles; each label became a new kind of billboard.

This leads to another CPB difference: "We get in the client's kitchen," says director of account service Jeff Steinhour (he and president Jeff Hicks are the agency's third and fourth partners). In other words, CPB often sticks its nose into things unrelated to advertising: Molson, for example, had to revamp its bottling process to accommodate those custom labels. Similarly, the agency persuaded Mini to rewrite its lease agreement to match the tone of the overall Mini campaign. What does CPB know about car leases? "Nothing," Bogusky admits, but that doesn't stop him from trying to ensure that every consumer "touchpoint" (a term Bogusky likes) conveys the same message as the ad campaign.

Of course, if you push your way into the kitchen, you'd better be able to stand the heat, and CPB is about to feel what it's like when you cozy up to a flame-broiler. The Burger King account is unlike any the agency has dealt with: bigger, more bureaucratic, and downright nastier. Burger King has fired five agencies in the past four years, earning a reputation as a client that won't let its ad partners produce good work and then blames them for the results. "When I heard about CPB winning the Burger King account," one Madison Avenue executive says, "I felt a little sad for them."

Burger King, which has been losing market share, is looking to CPB to find "a holistic way to connect with our core consumers to build a strong, consistent brand message," says chief executive Bradley Blum. CPB's Hicks says, "They've come to us for help with everything, not just commercials. We're now redesigning anything we can get our hands on." That includes signage (CPB plans to post a customer "Bill of Rights"), drive-through areas, employee uniforms, even ketchup packets. CPB has brought back the company's 1970s theme "Have It Your Way," and its first TV campaign hits that unique brand attribute hard. In the ads--done in the deadpan style of the hit (and hip) British comedy The Office--workers compete to order the coolest customized hamburgers.

The partnership is off to a fast start, but whether it will last is uncertain, given Burger King's track record. "The question is, how much of an appetite for risk does Burger King have?" says J. Walter Thompson's Ryan. Ogilvy's Collins thinks the appetite may be large enough. "Burger King knows that if they don't do something great with Bogusky, they will embarrass themselves," he says. "So I think there is some hope there."

Meanwhile, the sheer size of the account may alter CPB. The agency had been producing about $250 million of advertising annually; Burger King will double that. The staff of 170 will have to expand quickly, and it seems unlikely that Bogusky can continue to approve every ad, although he insists that nothing will change.

The industry's titans are watching closely and, yes, they now know exactly who Alex Bogusky is. "I think it will be a good thing for everyone if CPB does well," says Jeff Goodby. Dan Wieden takes a similarly sporting attitude toward the agency run by his former junior lunch partner. "They've turned guerrilla into an art form, and it's working," he admits. "Did I mention I hate them?"

Warren Berger writes frequently about advertising and marketing for Business 2.0.