A convoy of Burger King executives showed up at Ammirati & Puris' offices March 22 with long faces.
While prepared to tell the midsize New York shop it had snagged the creative work for Burger King Corp.'s $180 million account, the burger chain's three emissaries thought it would be fun to first play an early April Fools' joke.
"Are we going to like this?" agency President-CEO Martin Puris asked when he saw their somber expressions.
"I don't know. Maybe not, but you're going to hear this in person," Burger King CEO James Adamson replied.
Paul Clayton, Burger King's VP-worldwide marketing, then pulled a long speech from his pocket. All the finalists, he read, mechanically, had presented terrific material. The decision, he droned on, was excruciatingly difficult.
Finally, Mr. Adamson jumped in with the climactic sentence:
Ammirati had won the business.
It was a sweet punch line for Ammirati, but eventually the joke may be on the agency if history is a guide.
Bagging the high-profile account, which will boost Ammirati's billings by more than a third to $560 million, was indeed a coup.
And this time, almost everyone connected with the review insists chronically troubled Burger King has its act together. A 6-month-old value menu strategy is in place and seems to be working; most important, it's strongly supported by franchisees. Corporate executives have been unwavering in their commitment to a "back to basics" campaign using as its centerpiece the chain's signature Whopper and its historic flame-broiled advantage.
But in the past decade, a string of big-name shops has watched their excitement about working with Burger King destroyed by those unruly franchisees and inconsistent corporate direction.
For instance, take D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, whose stormy 41/2-year relationship producing Burger King's national advertising has ended. As some consolation, D'Arcy last week kept media buying and field marketing, beating out Ogilvy & Mather and DeWitt Media.
For the creative assignment, Ammirati bested two of the industry's hottest shops, Lowe & Partners and Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer Euro/RSCG.
Burger King's 14-person review committee-including top executives, eight franchisees and Cori Zywotow, director of corporate communications-flew to New York the week of March 7 for the media pitches and stayed through the week of March 14 for the creative proposals.
Originally intending to notify agencies by Friday, March 18, Burger King executives needed the weekend to judge the tough competition, deciding at the last minute to fly back to New York to deliver the news in person.
"I've never had a client give us the news face to face," said Messner Vetere Partner-Creative Director Ron Berger. "For a company that had a reputation for being very difficult, the new management showed they are going to be a terrific client."
Accompanying Messrs. Adamson and Clayton was Barry Conrad, recently promoted to head of worldwide operations. In his new role, Mr. Conrad oversees all marketing, training and development issues. Mr. Clayton reports to Mr. Conrad; Burger King won't fill the role of departed marketing chief Sidney Feltenstein as exec VP-worldwide marketing.
One review insider said going into the final pitches, Mr. Adamson favored Lowe, while Mr. Clayton favored Ammirati.
The agencies that made it to the short list went all out, and Burger King acknowledged their efforts in a page ad that ran March 23 in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. "We tip our crown to Madison Avenue," read the ad, prepared by public relations agency Zynyx Marketing, Washington.
Each of the creative shops expected to spend about $250,000 on the pitch, with Burger King compensating them for about $100,000 of that total.
Originally, Burger King expected the three agencies to produce "ripomatics," rough finished commercials, that would have doubled their expenses. The chain later decided to judge creative from storyboards.
Mr. Berger said his agency used storyboards to present its tagline, "You can have it your way," a derivative of Burger King's most famous "Have it your way" campaign that BBDO Worldwide created in the 1970s.
Messner Vetere spent roughly $75,000 to overhaul its conference room to prepare for the pitch, installing new TV monitors, video equipment, carpeting and lighting. The agency's pitch-led by President Louise McNamee and partners Ed Tedeschi, Barry Vetere and Mr. Berger-lasted an unusually long 7 hours.
Lowe's pitch positioned Burger King as "the place to go for the best-tastingburger," said one of the creative contenders. The agency used footage supplied by the chain's minority agency, UniWorld Group, to create a rough TV spot for the presentation.
Lowe held its presentation in new office space the agency will expand into later this year. All the king's horses were in on the pitch: Lowe Group Chairman Frank Lowe and, from Lowe & Partners, CEO Andrew Langer, President John Hayes, and Vice Chairman-Chief Creative Officer Lee Garfinkel.
The winning team from Ammirati & Puris, including Mr. Puris, Executive Creative Director Helayne Spivak, Exec VP Duncan Pollock and Senior VP-Group Director Howard Lesman, put in many late nights and dined on many a pizza during the past few months.
Pizza? Well, Ms. Spivak said, the agency would have eaten Burger King, of course, if it delivered. But the Ammirati team, as well as the other finalists, got a true taste of the business by sending staffers out to local Burger King restaurants to flip burgers.
Ammirati is a shop known for its strategic thinking; after completing a consultancy project on branding for Labatt Brewing Co., the Toronto brewer was impressed enough to give Ammirati $25 million worth of brand advertising in Canada without a review.
This particular strength differentiated Ammirati's pitch. Mr. Pollock said the agency showed the chain an extensive study designed to split Burger King's main customer groups into different segments that could be separately addressed.
Ammirati executives said D'Arcy's "BK Tee Vee" effort ultimately failed because it focused too narrowly on teen-age males, with MTV: Music Television personality Dan Cortese, thus alienating other target audiences.
Declining to describe the specific campaign Ammirati presented, Mr. Puris said that work probably won't air.
"They picked an agency and a group of people, not a campaign," he said.
Although Ammirati's reputation as a purveyor of high-ticket images-for BMW, Compaq Computer, MasterCard-seems an odd fit for a burger chain, it should have come as no surprise that Burger King chose a shop of its size and setup.
When the troubled company announced in October it was pulling the account from D'Arcy, agencies of every size began jockeying to get in the review.
But when Mr. Adamson, the Burger King ceo, assumed hands-on control of the review-after abruptly dismissing marketing chief Mr. Feltenstein midway through the process-he made it clear he wanted an agency whose principals' names were on the door.
"I knew when he visited that we didn't have a chance," said an executive at one of the large agencies that didn't make the final cut. Mr. Adamson, the executive said, told the agency directly he felt the best creative comes from agencies whose principals are actively involved in the business.
Burger King wants to be a $180 million fish in a small pond; part of its dissatisfaction with D'Arcy stemmed from the lack of involvement of top executives, including Chairman Roy Bostock.
The final example of Mr. Bostock's distance from the day-to-day operations of his agency's top account came last fall. Over dinner, Mr. Feltenstein broke the news that Burger King was firing D'Arcy to the unsuspecting agency chairman-just as Mr. Bostock was planning to tell Mr. Feltenstein about the new creative talent D'Arcy was adding to the business.
"Before you do that, you ought to know we're putting the account up for review," Mr. Feltenstein is said to have told a stunned Mr. Bostock.
D'Arcy's creative product had been the culprit; the year-old "BK Tee Vee" campaign was the straw that broke the franchisees' backs.
Of course, D'Arcy was doomed from the start.
Back when D'Arcy won the business in 1989, Burger King CEO Barry Gibbons was fairly removed from marketing issues, giving Exec VP-Marketing Gary Langstaff free rein. Ultimately, Burger King lost control of D'Arcy's creative team, resulting in 1989-91's lackluster "Sometimes you gotta break the rules" campaign, said one franchisee involved with marketing issues at the time.
But Burger King clearly has been satisfied enough with D'Arcy's media and field marketing capabilities to keep that part of the business there.
Joe Mirabile, a Memphis, Tenn., franchisee with 24 stores and chairman of the marketing advisory committee from 1990-1993, said D'Arcy's Brian Hughes, senior VP-associate media director, has done a good job heading Burger King media planning.
In fact, though the eight franchisees on the review committee placed D'Arcy last among the three media finalists going into the home stretch, it impressed them enough to keep the business. "DMB&B went in behind the power curve," Miami franchisee Jerry Ruenheck said. He's also president of the National Franchisee Association and is former president-chief operating officer of Burger King. "But after the presentation, they were in first."
Before the review started, Burger King did a prereview search for a consultant. One prominent consultant, interviewed by the company's marketing team, said he decided against taking the business before Burger King called back. "It was clear this wouldn't be an easy review," he said.
Mr. Feltenstein ended up hiring Richard Roth, who spent 25 years in the ad business at Grey Advertising and Scali, McCabe, Sloves before founding his Chappaqua, N.Y.-based consultancy.
With D'Arcy on notice for the creative part of the account, agencies appealed to Mr. Roth and the Burger King marketing team by letter and by phone. Most of the early favorites, primarily larger shops, gradually fell by the wayside as the review progressed.
Some, like Tatham Euro RSCG, Chicago, were automatically out; Burger King told Chairman Ralph Rydholm that Tatham's role as a finalist in the Hardee's Food Systems review-just wrapping up when the Burger King review was announced-disqualified the agency.
Despite the big billings, others, like Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston, and Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein, San Francisco, declined invitations to pitch the account; one agency said it wanted no part of the "client from hell."
Lintas, New York, initially so eager to pitch the business that it took out a page ad in The Miami Herald asking Burger King for a chance, had to bow out fast after discovering a conflict: sister agency Fahlgren, Parkersburg, W.Va., handles $50 million worth of local McDonald's Corp. business.
O&M, rumored to be an early favorite thanks to a rank of former J. Walter Thompson USA executives who serviced the account in the '70s and '80s, didn't make the final cut on the creative side. But that didn't stop the agency from pitching several creative ideas during its media presentation.
"They were saying, `We're here if Burger King needs us,'*" review committee member Mr. Ruenheck said of O&M's creative proposals. Robert Norsworthy, O&M senior VP-director of field operations and one of those former JWT executives, said his team included creative ideas only to show the agency's ability to integrate creative into local marketing.
"We were somewhat optimistic going into the review, but the longer it went on, the less optimistic we were," Mr. Norsworthy said.
Another member of the review committee said O&M might have made the cut for creative pitches had it made use of Chicago office President Tom Hall-a former JWT executive who wrote the 1977 tagline, "America loves burgers, and we're America's Burger King."
JWT itself quickly faded away; the agency's White Castle and ShowBiz Pizza Time accounts prevented it from pitching Burger King's creative business, and the agency was eliminated from the media portion in January.
Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, New York, still Burger King's agency for kids advertising but rumored to be in danger of losing that account to Ammirati, summoned its top talent to bid for the interim and creative business.
Burger King was unimpressed enough to award the interim assignment to its minority agency, UniWorld, and leave Saatchi off the list of creative finalists.
The review took a surprise turn when Mr. Feltenstein was dismissed on Dec. 20, a month before the allegedly planned departure of consultant Mr. Roth from the review.
Even now, Mr. Feltenstein's abrupt dismissal remains somewhat of a mystery. He's said to have agreed with Mr. Adamson's penchant for smaller agencies, and along with Mr. Roth he was the first to propose unbundling the account. "Sid set this review up right," said one review committee member.
One Burger King marketing insider described Mr. Feltenstein as the "fall guy" for last year's unsuccessful dinner basket program, which angered franchisees and delayed conversion to the value pricing strategy that has since raised customer counts and same-store sales.
In an effort to prove himself a friend to franchisees, Mr. Adamson replaced Mr. Feltenstein with the less objectionable Mr. Clayton, many theorize.
"Jim [Adamson] is courting the franchisees, to say the least," said the marketing insider. "But there had to have been some precipitous, watershed event to fire [Mr. Feltenstein] midsearch."
All Mr. Feltenstein, reached at his home, would say about his ouster was: "Jim and I agreed it would be better if I left."
With Mr. Adamson leading the review, he was free to choose a "lean and mean" shop that would mirror his vision for the corporate headquarters staff.
Ammirati hopes it's that shop.
"We worked really hard at trying to understand and really subscribe to their back-to-basics approach," Mr. Puris said. "If we could've chosen the best time in the last decade to get involved with them, this was it."
But is it? Ammirati is about to link arms with a company that last month announced major corporate cutbacks; beginning in April, Burger King will eliminate 600 of the current 1,200 corporate jobs worldwide, redeploying 250 of those people in the field. The net job loss will be 350 at a company that has already scaled down significantly during the past few years.
Mr. Adamson's wholesale changes demonstrate there is more to fix at Burger King than the marketing dilemma. And a lot of it echoes a familiar refrain for the No. 2 burger chain: Operations need to be improved, stores need to be remodeled and some sandwich ingredients need to be upgraded.
"There are a lot of in-store operating problems-menu proliferation, speed of service, cleanliness and courtesy," said James McLamore, founder and chairman emeritus. "All of these things need to be fixed before we can get the advertising fixed."
But fixing the marketing, a particularly public problem, would yield instantly visible results.
"I would say we have to get consistent in our brand delivery at the store level," Mr. Clayton said. "But Ammirati's first challenge is to deliver creative that communicates our back-to-basics approach."