Lowe fights to retain its Burger King crown

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Following Burger King Corp.'s public divorce from agency Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide, New York, details emerged about a secret shoot-out last winter that hint at what shops now will vie for BK's $400 million creative account.

In December, the No. 2 burger chain launched a quiet minireview among Lowe Lintas; D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, its field marketing agency; and onetime shop Saatchi & Saatchi, all New York. D'Arcy and Saatchi each emerged with an undisclosed project.


But incumbent Lowe Lintas, fortified with fresh creatives provided by the merger between Ammirati Puris Lintas and Lowe & Partners, was the eventual victor. Prior to its merger, Ammirati was rumored to be in danger of losing the business it had held since 1993.

"There was a minireview that everybody felt at the time was a healthy exercise, and we stayed with the incumbent," said Dennis Malamatinas, former Burger King CEO and now CEO of Priceline.com. "Never at any point were we going to fire [Ammirati]."

"The fact is that we had had some issues with [Ammirati], and we started working together to address issues," he added. "Then the merger took place and the Lowe people came on board."

Lowe Lintas again plans to fight for the U.S. account even while under a four-month termination notice by the Diageo unit. (Its offices handling Burger King's advertising in Australia, Canada and the U.K. are unaffected by the review.)

"I don't think Lowe Lintas has had a turbulent relationship with Burger King," said Lee Garfinkel, chairman-CEO and chief creative officer, Lowe Lintas & Partners U.S., New York. "It's been a challenging but cordial relationship."


BK also apparently will be revisiting the contenders from its minireview. Although the fast-feeder wouldn't confirm participants, it's believed D'Arcy and Saatchi have been contacted by BK representatives. Neither agency could be reached at press time.

Kaplan Thaler Group, New York, also is believed to have been contacted, an executive close with the review said. Executives at Kaplan Thaler didn't return phone calls.

But observers discount both D'Arcy and Kaplan Thaler, since both are part of Bcom3 Group. Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, a sibling Bcom3 shop, handles Burger King's archrival McDonald's Corp. No conflict, however, is seen in the fact that Bcom3's Starcom MediaVest, Chicago, will continue to handle media for Burger King; McDonald's media is handled by Omnicom's Optimum Media Direction, New York.

Another logical contender, TBWA/Chiat/Day, whose Playa del Rey, Calif., office recently lost Taco Bell, isn't in the Burger King pitch, according to agency officials.

Despite denials from the agency, Mendelsohn/Zien, Los Angeles, which handles Carl's Jr., is believed to have been contacted by representatives of BK. And Odiorne Wilde Narraway & Partners, San Francisco, the agency recently hired for Burger King's western markets is considering teaming up with a larger agency to grab the account, an executive familiar with the situation said. Odiorne executives couldn't be reached.

It is still unclear whether the burger behemoth will retained an agency consultant and how franchisees would participate in the review. One agency executive said a consultant in Europe may have the inside track on managing the review, although the consultant couldn't be reached.

"I would imagine some preliminary calls may have been made to some agencies, but to my knowledge no interviews or meetings have been set," a Burger King spokeswoman said.

News of the review also spurred finger-pointing over the chain's poor sales, with the blame being laid on everything from the commercial actors strike, which weakened Lowe Lintas' current campaign, to the growing war between Burger King's franchisees and the chain's transient corporate management.

Lowe Lintas' most recent campaign for BK, the "Got the urge?" effort with sultry voice-over by Kathleen Turner, lost steam after the actress declined to cross actors' picket lines and the executions couldn't be refreshed. "The SAG strike hurt a lot," a Burger King insider said. Without Ms. Turner, "the campaign has no continuity or star power."


Burger King's internal squabbling -- including a franchisee movement to spin off Burger King to a buyer of their choice -- also contributed to turmoil on the account. "The brand might have lost focus or not given proper direction to its ad agency," said Lawrence Jaro, chairman-CEO of AmeriKing, the country's largest Burger King franchisee. "From the franchisees to the company to the ad agency, we all are at fault."

Contributing: Alice Z. Cuneo

Copyright September 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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