NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Wendy's has thrown its $300 million marketing account into review, as the burger chain's chief marketer, Ken Calwell, pushes to improve marketing in all arenas, from creative to multicultural to media buying.
The wide-ranging search comes amid a turnaround effort for the fast-food chain, which merged with Arby's last year and has been struggling to keep up with competitors such as McDonald's, Burger King and Taco Bell -- all of whom have managed to stay afloat or even grow during the recession.
All eyes are on Mr. Calwell, who returned to the restaurant chain last summer after a stint at Domino's Pizza. He worked at Wendy's during a boom period between 1998 and 2001.
In an interview with Ad Age, he said the past several months have been spent on initiatives such as strengthening franchisee ties and product innovation, and now Wendy's is ready to evaluate its advertising partners.
"One of the secret weapons we always had was a strong relationship with our franchisees. ... In the last [few] years, that had not been going the right way," Mr. Calwell said. "We're working very hard on that."
The chain has also finalized a "two-pronged" marketing strategy that focuses simultaneously on value products and premium products. Wendy's has "a record number of tests in market this year already. ... We've always had a line of value items," Mr. Calwell said, but "we need to take the premium image of Wendy's up."
"Even during tough times, there are folks out there that are looking for premium product quality, and they are less price-sensitive about it," he said.
The ad-agency review will begin in earnest next month and will be conducted in two phases. The first will focus on finding a lead agency that can bring together Wendy's advertising, media planning, digital and restaurant-activation responsibilities. The second phase will center on multicultural marketing, media buying and public relations.
Mr. Caldwell said Wendy's is open to the possibility of consolidating the marketing efforts with one strong, full-service national agency or parsing out duties among several smaller specialty shops. The marketer already has compiled a "core list" of agencies it plans to brief in mid-June and intends to finish the first phase of the review process in August.
In addition to Kirshenbaum, all other key incumbents on the account have been invited to participate, including MediaVest, shopper-marketing agency Saatchi X, Vidal Partnership and PR giant Ketchum.
Trouble finding its way
It's safe to say that in the past few years, Wendy's has had trouble finding its way with its marketing. Mr. Calwell's predecessor, Ian Rowden, was responsible for tapping Saatchi & Saatchi as Wendy's lead creative agency, and that move proved disastrous. The agency's now infamous "red wigs" campaign was met with mixed reaction from consumers and divided franchisees, who were put off by the strange humor of the spots (Mr. Rowden later went to work for Saatchi as its Asia-Pacific president).
In early 2008, Wendy's shifted the bulk of its creative advertising to Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners. To its credit, the shop quickly delivered franchisees the product-centric campaign they were looking for, but the work clearly hasn't done enough to move the needle.
In a statement, the fast feeder said: "Wendy's current 'Waaaay Better' national advertising campaign, led by Kirshenbaum Bond, has helped to stabilize sales trends and has improved branding, awareness and recall since its introduction in early 2008. With this foundation, Wendy's is focused on further strengthening its marketing voice."
"We are very proud of the work that we have done for Wendy's, as well as the relationship we've developed with the brand and its people over the past year and a half," MDC Partners-owned Kirshenbaum said in a statement. "We have every intention of participating in the review, and it is our goal to continue to build this wonderful brand."
Agencies will no doubt be clamoring to get their hands on the Dublin, Ohio-based marketer's account. Wendy's, which merged with Arby's last year, spent a total of $305 million on domestic measured media in 2008, according to TNS Media Intelligence.