Buyers, shops court Burger King

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As the bidding to acquire Burger King Corp. enters its second round, interest in the Diageo chain is as intense among ad agencies as it is among prospective buyers.

Last week, at least two of the five active bidders for the brand were in Miami looking at Burger King's books, said one executive close to Chief Global Marketing Officer Chris Clouser. In addition to Triarc Cos., which owns Arby's, and Bain Capital, three pairs of buyout funds round out the prospective buyers, the executive said. They are Texas Pacific Group and Goldman Sachs Capital Partners, Apax Partners and Hicks, Muse, Tate & Furst, and The Blackstone Group and Thomas H. Lee Partners. Texas Pacific Group would not comment and the other buyout funds could not be reached.

The nation's No. 2 burger chain has been estimated to fetch between $2 and $2.5 billion.

But even before a deal is sealed, new-business-starved agencies are circling the fast feeder in hopes of getting a foot in the door on the $400 million account. Virtually every large agency with retail and quick-service restaurant experience is seeking face time with Mr. Clouser, said several executives with ties to Burger King.

Known to have little appetite for formal presentations, Mr. Clouser is more apt to visit agencies on site to see the creative departments up close and in action. "Clouser will talk to anybody," said the executive close to Mr. Clouser. "If he gets cut a better deal, he will listen."

Burger King referred calls regarding both its sale and its agency relationships to Diageo, which declined to comment. Mr. Clouser declined to comment.

As Burger King appears to be on the mend with a blitz of new products, including a new Back Porch Grillers burger line and a united franchise organization, what has agencies licking their chops is early speculation that Yum Brands may be a potential bidder.

Yum, parent to five restaurant brands including KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, is not pursuing Burger King, said a Yum spokeswoman. But that hasn't stopped observers from speculating that Yum's lack of a national burger presence, its multi-brand platform and deep pockets could make Burger King a perfect prospect for its portfolio.

Several executives with ties to Burger King also caution not to rule out Yum as a late entry should other bids fall through.

But Mitchell Speiser, restaurant analyst with Lehman Bros., said he would be "very surprised" if Yum showed interest in Burger King considering the struggles Yum has had in turning around its KFC and Taco Bell brands. "I don't think they want to distract themselves with a struggling burger chain."

Apparently, Yum roster agencies already have considered the possibilities. Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, agency for Pizza Hut and KFC, has made attempts to meet Mr. Clouser, according to several executives close to Burger King, although a BBDO spokesman categorically denied that report.

Existing Burger King agencies are angling to make the post-sale cut. Its roster now includes Amoeba, Santa Monica, Calif.; McCaffrey, Ratner, Gottlieb & Lane, New York; WPP Group's VML, Kansas City, Mo.; Bcom3 Group's MediaVest and D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, both New York; Media First International, New York; Interpublic Group of Cos.' DraftWorldwide, Chicago; Campbell Mithun, Minneapolis; and Interpublic's Deutsch, New York.

task force

Former KFC agency WPP's Y&R Advertising has set up a "top secret ... task force to pursue a major global brand," according to a Y&R insider. The global brand was identified by a second insider as Burger King. A Y&R spokeswoman had no comment.

A third executive with knowledge of the Y&R task force said the agency was working to use its ties between WPP Group Chief Executive Martin Sorrell and Mr. Clouser, who have a longstanding relationship from when Mr. Clouser headed marketing for Bell Atlantic and Sprint. Mr. Sorrell referred calls to Mr. Clouser.

"If they've ever worked on Burger King, Coca-Cola or a Tricon [now Yum Brands] brand, they're mugging for a meeting," said a consultant for Burger King. He speculated that the BK marketing chief can take credit for boosting attendance at this week's American Advertising Federation meeting-to be held on Burger King's Miami home turf. As the keynote speaker, "lots of agency executives have committed to go to the meeting just to see him."

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