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On the menu at Papa John's: Yet another CMO (for those keeping track)

By Published on .

Brandon Rhoten
Brandon Rhoten

Papa John's, eager for "urgency and agility," has once again started to search for a new chief marketing officer, just a year after its newest one joined.

Brandon Rhoten, who came to Papa John's on May 31, 2017, will depart May 25, CEO Steve Ritchie said during a conference call with investors late Tuesday. Ritchie will lead marketing in the interim as the struggling chain looks for, as he put it, a new marketer who has the skills to execute "with urgency and agility."

Ouch.

In case that sounds familiar, here's what Ritchie had to say way back in May of last year when hiring Rhoten: "He is a disruptor in the quick-service restaurant industry, and we are excited for him to further enhance Papa John's brand relevancy and quality positioning across our marketing channels globally."

Rhoten joined Papa John's after six years at Wendy's, where he is credited with building a lot of the burger chain's social savvy, including the 2017 #NuggsforCarter phenomenon.

And here it looked like Rhoten was doing some of the right things. It was Rhoten who led the No. 4 pizza chain's search for a new creative agency last year. Papa John's dropped Grey to hire Laundry Service. In February, it tapped Olson Engage for PR duties.

With those kinds of changes, things were starting to maybe, possibly, potentially look a little brighter for the beleaguered pizza chain. But, of course, there were the founder's comments about the NFL's weakness last fall, which then led to neo-Nazi tweets to deal with, not to mention the ongoing push by Domino's to dominate the industry, the renewed energy at Pizza Hut under new marketing leadership. This year, of course, Papa John's and the NFL abandoned their sponsorship deal, paving the way for Pizza Hut to step in, and, well, we could go on. But it's clear: There was a lot to digest, and Papa John's doesn't have time to waste.

CMO tenure is notoriously short, but this is short even by those depressing industry standards. And, lest we forget, CMO tenure at Papa John's hasn't been too long lately. In 2015, CMO Bob Kraut left Papa John's after less than two years in the job.

"As we continue our journey to revitalize the brand, we are making the change in the chief marketing officer role," Ritchie said late Tuesday.

Rhoten's research and analysis, Ritchie said, helped Papa John's understand its challenges and helped the team develop "a comprehensive strategic plan." Rhoten, though, now won't be part of the plan he was leading.

Last summer, Rhoten hoped Papa John's marketing would begin to further differentiate its brand by the end of the year. "It's not going to happen overnight," Rhoten told Ad Age then.

Of course, that was in simpler times. Ritchie was appointed CEO in December after founder John Schnatter was pushed out of that role following his controversial statements about sales weakness being tied to the NFL's weak ratings. Ad Age said Rhoten was a CMO to watch in 2018. (So, were we right?)

The announcement of Rhoten's departure coincided with a steeper-than-anticipated 5.3 percent drop in first-quarter U.S. same-store sales and a lower profit than analysts predicted. Papa John's is predicting that things will perk up in the second half of 2018. Sure, it admits the first quarter was weak. But that weakness was consistent with its expectations, it said Tuesday.

Papa John's appointed a new CFO, Joe Smith, in April. Smith, however, has been with Papa John's since 2000, so here's betting he gets to keep his job a bit longer than Rhoten.

Shares of Papa John's slid following Tuesday's report. The shares were hovering around $58 before the results, and by Friday morning had fallen to $53.48. The shares traded around $80 when Rhoten joined the chain last May.

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