Red Lobster Names Publicis Kaplan Thaler Creative Agency

Marketing Chief Says Shop's 'Convention Breaking' Wendy's Work Was Factor in Decision

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Credit: Courtesy of Red Lobster

Red Lobster has named Publicis Kaplan Thaler its lead creative agency.

The move comes two months after the chain put its account into review, a move that was prompted by Red Lobster's impending departure from parent company Darden. WPP's Grey had handled the business since 2010, when it won the account from Richards Group.

Grey, which created the chain's "Sea Food Differently" tagline, did not participate in the latest go-round, but the agency still fields creative for Darden sibling brands Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse. SMG's Spark handles Red Lobster's media.

The review, which began in April, had been whittled down to a contest among four shops: Interpublic's Martin Agency, and indie agencies Olson and Barkley. Pile & Co. oversaw the process.

Mark Gilley, senior VP-marketing at Red Lobster, noted that the chain chose Publicis Kaplan Thaler because of its creative pitches, its existing work and digital and social strategy, the last of which is an particularly important element for Red Lobster as it moves more marketing dollars into digital. He added that the agency's work for Wendy's and its use of spokeswoman Red helped Red Lobster choose Publicis Kaplan Thaler because that tactic "broke conventions" in the fast-food category.

Mr. Gilley said that the chain has been pleased with the current "Sea Food Differently" tagline, though he said it's not certain whether the line will remain with Publicis Kaplan Thaler. He expects the first campaign from the new shop to debut later in the first half of 2015.

Darden said U.S. same-restaurant sales in the most recent quarter increased 2.4% at LongHorn Steakhouse, declined 3.5% at Olive Garden and slid 5.6% at Red Lobster. Red Lobster's U.S. systemwide sales were down 3.1% to $2.4 billion in 2013, according to Technomic, which ranks the chain as the 26th largest in the country.

Darden in December said it planned to sell or spin off the struggling Red Lobster brand, responding to pressure from an activist hedge fund trying to boost the stock price. In May, the chain announced it would sell Red Lobster to private-equity firm Golden Gate Capital for $2.1 billion.

It's unclear what Golden Gate Capital has in mind for Red Lobster. But before the sale was announced in December, Darden CEO Clarence Otis said that marketing spending for the chain would decrease, because as a percentage of sales, "it's floated up higher than is sustainable, and that's going to be a key focus area for the new Red Lobster going forward."

Mr. Otis said then that as the company ramps up digital-marketing capabilities for its brands, "we would expect our television marketing expenses to scale down dramatically."

Red Lobster is the 114th biggest brand in terms of U.S. spending, according to Ad Age's DataCenter. In 2013, the chain spent $156.2 million in U.S. measured media, down from $159.6 million in 2012.

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