Porter joined the Crispin Agency in 1988 as Creative Director and Partner after a long career as an award-winning freelance copywriter. The agency was renamed Crispin & Porter, and within three years it had doubled in size and been named as one of the top 15 creative shops in the country. Today the agency has approximately 800 people, with offices in Miami, Boulder, Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, London and Gothenberg, Sweden. CP+B’s clients include Best Buy, KRAFT, Domino’s, and Charles Schwab. The agency was selected by Advertising Age as Agency of the Decade in 2010. In addition to his role at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Porter is Chief Strategist for MDC Partners, CP+B’s parent company. At MDC, he identifies and assesses potential acquisitions and serves as a consultant to member agencies. Porter grew up in Minneapolis and graduated from the Journalism School at the University of Minnesota and also went to the law school there.
Reese: A question I ask all the creatives who’ve agreed to take part in this virtual round table is: how does a big idea feel? Do you recognise it immediately when it arrives?
Porter: In my experience, it varies dramatically. Someone might come into the room and say: “What would happen if Burger King stopped selling Whoppers?” and instantly you say, “Wow, that’s an interesting way of talking about the brand – that could be big.” Other ideas percolate for a while. We had an idea, also for Burger King, called “The Subservient Chicken”. It was a guy in a chicken suit you could control online by typing instructions. “Chicken the way you like it,” was the inspiration behind the campaign. It was one of a few ideas we batted around for a while. But it went massively viral – it was huge. I wish they were all instant “wow”, but in my experience, they’re not. Sometimes you come up with an idea you think is going to be gigantic, and the response is just so-so. Other things seem kind of interesting, but they explode.
Reese: To get to the big question, how important is music in your work?
Porter: Oh, it’s huge. Music creates emotion. On the wall in my office there’s a quote from Plato from about 350 BC which is: “There is no learning without emotion”, and one of the easiest ways to evoke emotion is with music. Scent is actually easier, but it’s hard to get your audience to smell something. Getting them to listen to music is the next best thing. No matter who you are or where you live, I guarantee I can play a piece of music to you that will take you back to when you were 15 years old.
Reese: So how do you communicate music? I know it can be frustrating when creatives talk about music with composers and sound designers. Are there methods that have worked well for you?
Porter: The shortcut I use is “it’s going to feel like”. This should “feel like” The Beach Boys, or this should “feel like” Beethoven. If you can come up with a piece of music that evokes the atmosphere you’re trying to create, that’s the easiest kind of shorthand.
Reese: Do you use mood boards or examples, or do you just talk about the emotion you want to evoke?
Porter: When you’re talking to a composer, to be able to express the mood you’re trying to create, giving them some examples of pieces of music you both know is a good place to start. You might end up somewhere very different, but it’s a good starting point. Of course, some composers are such absolute naturals that you don’t even need to tell them anything: they read a script and they already “hear” it.
Reese: What is a perfect composer for you?
Porter: In my view the perfect composer is one who thinks exactly like I do. (Laughs.) I compare it to film editors. For over a year you work with about 50 film editors, and one of them instantly gets what you’re talking about; they seem to connect with you. Some composers are the same: you can give them a very cursory description and they just instantly hit it.
Reese: How do you evaluate the effectiveness of music? Is there a process?
Porter: There is a process, and I think it depends on the audience and the product. I’m old, so the music I love is unlikely to be what an audience of 19 year olds relate to. You need to find talented people who are in the demographic that you’re talking to and have them evaluate it. That’s the only way I know how to do it.
Reese: There shouldn’t be more formal testing? Something less subjective?
Porter: I trust talented people more than I trust testing. The amount of testing you need to do depends on your confidence in the creative team. If you believe your creative team are going to create something wonderful and magical, you don’t need testing.
Reese: Should you be able to listen to a brand? In the way that Intel, Nokia and Coca-Cola have distinctive sounds? Should a brand be audible?
Porter: That’s a really interesting question. If you can play me the first seven notes of a piece of music and it brings a brand to mind, that’s probably a good thing for the brand. But particularly among audiences now, surprise is a wonderful weapon. If a brand can surprise me with what they sound like, rather than me knowing in advance, there’s huge value in that…It depends on the brand and the situation. I can certainly see why a musical identity might be useful. It goes back to the old days of jingles. Even if you didn’t love them, you could remember them.
Reese: Most brands have a graphic chart. Should they have a sound chart too?
Porter: You’re right in saying that most brands have a graphic guide, a way of saying “this is what we look like”. But I’m not necessarily in favour of that. There are advantages to it, but I think maybe surprise is the new consistency. Take Burton snowboards: they change their logo every month. According to classic marketing, that’s the world’s worst idea, but people embrace it. MTV started that – the principles of their onscreen identity remained the same, but it was constantly changing. So I think a whole generation has grown up with this idea that brands can change, can astonish you. It’s also a harder process to make a music style guide. With a graphic guide, you print a book. With music you’d need a disc, a recording of some kind. But the idea is really interesting.
Reese: Do you see a change in how seriously we take music and its impact on consumer buying decisions? After all, in a traditional TV spot the music is almost an afterthought. It’s tagged on at the end.
Porter: That’s the traditional way, true. But it’s not always the case. There are examples wonderful work that has been created by doing it the other way around: taking a famous song like the Beatles’ “Revolution” and putting images to it. In a similar way, not so long ago, filmmakers began to use existing songs rather than an original soundtrack to underpin the emption of a movie. One great song can make a movie. At my agency, for certain types of products, music is pre-eminent. We pay a lot of attention to it. In any case, I think that when you pay more attention to the music you end up with better work.
Reese: Music is a great unifier. No matter what age you are, you respond to the Beatles, for example. I think that’s why the right music can transform a good piece of work into something great.
Porter: This conversation has reignited in my mind the fact that we need to pay more attention to that. You know, the very first big award I won when I was a kid – 23 or 24 – was a slide presentation, still pictures of a couple on a beach. It was actually kind of corny, but the music was great: Memories, by Barbara Streisand. I got the award – but it should probably have gone to Streisand.