Questions for Jeff Benjamin, CP+B’s Interactive Head

Jeff Benjamin

“The site is the campaign.” That’s how Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s interactive creative director, Jeffrey Benjamin, describes the unique work his group did in 2004.

Benjamin led creative on several of the most talked-about online campaigns of 2004. They include the “Subservient Chicken” site for Burger King, the MINI USA robot-from-car-parts hoax (a.k.a. “interactive fiction”) and a confessional site for Method.

Each of these campaigns drove traffic by creating an immersive experience that rewards users for interacting. Each is among last year’s stealthiest and most playful marketing efforts. And each consisted mainly of a Web site, with little to no additional advertising.

“It’s so interactive that you have to participate with it to get something out of it,” said Benjamin, describing the goal of these sites. “But when you do participate, you get something magical. The brand experience is customized to you.”

Benjamin recently spoke with ClickZ about CP+B’s unique client Web sites, what “media agnostic” really means, and where he expects interactive to go in 2005.

Q.CPB’s responsible for some of 2004’s excellent interactive work. To what do you attribute that?

A.It’s weird that interactive hasn’t been around that long but had become a really tired medium. So we approached interactive differently in a couple ways. First we made sure our work had real advertising concepts. For the last couple years the interactive medium has been saturated with work that’s mostly great design, fancy animation and programming — but no real thought to the experience of the concept. Finally this year we and other places have woken up and are thinking about the work differently and a lot harder.

Something else that’s helped us do great work is that we have everyone thinking about interactive. We don’t treat it as a specialized medium that only a few people are capable of grasping and coming up with ideas for. It’s just another advertising medium that needs great ideas. So at CP+B everyone in the creative department is responsible for the interactive work we do. And I think that has given way to some of the real fresh thinking we’ve seen in the work.

Q.At what stage of the client relationship are you called to the table?

A.From the very beginning, interactive is at the table. At CP+B there’s a media agnostic philosophy. It doesn’t matter what medium a great idea lives in. So when we’re initially thinking about campaigns we aren’t really thinking about television scripts or print ads. It’s about generating great ideas… We find the medium they live in later. It’s an approach that starts from the top. If people are sending [Executive Creative Director] Alex Bogusky television scripts as we first start thinking about a campaign, he doesn’t even read them. He wants to see the ideas and then new approaches to bringing those ideas to life.

Q.What do you think 2005 will hold from a creative standpoint?

A.I think we’ll have the freedoms we had this year. Maybe even more, because clients are much more excited about interactive than maybe at any point before. They’re finally starting to see the promise of the Internet and just how powerful an advertising medium it is. And this trust and excitement will allow for better and more innovative work. I think we’re going to begin to see interactive start to take new shapes coming out of the monitor and into other parts of our lives through kiosks, interactive projections. In many ways 2004 had been about building momentum and creating an environment for the great work that will happen in 2005.

Q.What are you working on right now?

A.We’re working on another story told through Web sites, except unlike the MINI Robots, which was fiction, this one is real. We’re working on interactive for clients who haven’t done interactive yet. We’re doing work for a client who only wants to do interactive — and all of this work has led to us needing to hire people. So recruiting interactive creatives and programmers is one of our priorities at the moment.

Q.How do you go about building a site like Subservient Chicken?

A.It’s a bit of a production, especially in terms of copywriting. You’re basically trying to solve for infinite. It’s a challenge coming up with a response for everything. Subservient Chicken was the first time somebody did something like that with audio or video clips, but the idea’s been around for years. The IM bot and the AI [movie] Web site used it. With Subservient Chicken, we came to the realization that ‘hey, instead of pulling text fields, why don’t we trigger video clips?’ And it worked. There’s got to be a bigger idea behind it, and there’s got to be some focus to it.

Q.Do you expect to keep using the call-and-response Web site format in client campaigns?

A.It’s not like we’re saying, “Oh, this worked last time. We’ll do it again.” If it makes sense in the future, sure. But it’s a lot of hard work. You can’t do it half-assed. It’s going to be obvious if it doesn’t work.

Q.Did Subservient Chicken lead to new business for the agency?

A.It definitely got other clients of ours interested in doing interactive work.

Places appreciate our media agnostic thinking. It’s about the ideas. The cool thing is, and this is especially the case with Subservient Chicken, the reason clients like it is they get so much exposure. There was a two- to three-month period where Burger King was mentioned more times [in the news] than in its history. That’s something you can’t buy.

Q.Are your viral campaigns completely dependent on blogs and media coverage for success?

A.Internet media’s different than TV and print. Do we rely heavily on blogs? Yeah. It’s the only medium where the people are the media, and the masses are going to help communicate your message from one person to another.

It’s not that we’re just relying on word of mouth. We’ve done things to promote sites other than just seeding them. We recently did something for Borders [where] emails went out to all customers. The idea is we’re going to get it into people’s hands, they’re going to get excited about it, and then tell friends and family.

Really, what is viral? It’s just a successful ad. That should be the goal for anyone doing interactive. It’s so good, you’re just going to pass it on.

This is the case with Subservient Chicken. It’s so interactive that you have to participate with it to get something out of it. But when you do participate, you get something magical. The brand experience is customized to you. You have a different experience depending on what you confess. If you come and do nothing, it’s not as interesting.

Q.Describe a day in the life of Jeff Benjamin.

A.I haven’t had time to go out and buy a car yet so every morning begins with either a cab ride to work or me begging a producer to pick me up. Once I get there it’s a lot of hard work. It’s a lot of crazy hours, but it’s definitely worth it. I work at a place filled with talented people who have an excitement and passion about interactive that I haven’t seen or heard of anywhere else. Including places [that] only do interactive.

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