Olive Garden Picks McGarryBowen as New Creative Agency

Incumbent WPP's Grey Worked on the Olive Garden Business for More Than 30 Years

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Olive Garden never ending pasta pass
Olive Garden never ending pasta pass Credit: Olive Garden
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Olive Garden has named McGarryBowen its new creative agency of record after a review that began this summer.

The incumbent, WPP's Grey, had worked on the business for more than 30 years. The review was led by Pile & Co.

Olive Garden's parent company, Darden Restaurants Inc., earlier this year reviewed its media business for Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse. Starcom retained the Olive Garden business.

"Though we met with immensely talented agencies, McGarryBowen's proven track record of creatively bringing brands to life across multiple channels within the retail and hospitality industries makes them the ideal partner. We're excited to work with McGarryBowen to continue to build the Olive Garden brand and showcase what we are best known for -- bringing families together over craveable Italian food -- in new and exciting ways," said Jose Duenas, exec VP-marketing at Olive Garden.

"We deeply value the relationship we were fortunate to have with Grey, as well as the significant contributions they have made in helping build the Olive Garden brand," Mr. Duenas added.

Michael Houston, CEO of Grey North America, said, "it has been an amazing 30 year run. We respect Olive Garden's desire to try something new and wish them nothing but success on their future journey." Grey will continue on as agency of record for Darden's LongHorn Steakhouse chain.

Olive Garden has been working on turning its sales around and is showing signs of progress. In September, the chain reported its fourth consecutive quarter of sales growth at longstanding locations.

"Olive Garden is a famous and beloved brand that we are thrilled to be working with," said Ned Crowley, chief creative officer of McGarryBowen Chicago. "We look forward to working together to take the brand and business to new heights."

For McGarryBowen, the win puts it back in the restaurant category. The agency in summer 2014 saw the Pizza Hut account move to Deutsch without a review, after less than a year. The win also gives the shop added relief, along with its recent J.C. Penney win, after what has amounted to a year of account tumult. In January, Wieden & Kennedy landed on the Verizon roster for brand and strategy work. Although McGarry was to remain agency of record on Verizon's wireless business, that has since changed, with McCann Erickson picking up the bulk of the wireless business. McGarry remains on the roster for innovation work, however.

Earlier this year, McGarry and the Sears brand parted ways in the midst of the massive holding company review the beleaguered chain was conducting. McGarry is also now in the midst of a review for the Kraft Heinz business, a move that came after the merger of the two food companies.

Olive Garden spent $155 million on U.S. measured media in 2014, according to Kantar Media, down from $173 million in 2013.

Olive Garden's fiscal 2015 sales rose 4% to nearly $3.79 billion. The Italian food chain accounts for more than half of Darden's restaurants and annual sales and has been a focus area for improvement for some time.

In September 2014, Olive Garden's business was thrust into the spotlight when Darden's largest investor, Starboard Value Partners, issued a nearly 300-page presentation suggesting changes the chain should make, such as serving fewer breadsticks at a time, using less salad dressing and salting the water used to cook pasta. In that document, Starboard called Darden's advertising budget "oversized and ineffective," citing marketing efforts that it said were "focused on high cost traditional tactics such as TV and print." In that presentation, Starboard said Olive Garden's "advertising lacks a value proposition and a genuine Italian focus."

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