Burnett had suggested to United Distillers, London, that consolidating the brand's worldwide advertising with one agency would be a positive step.
"We had encouraged it for some time," said Kerry Rubie, Burnett's group president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
The decision to give Burnett global control still came as a surprise. "We didn't expect it," Mr. Rubie said. "It was more of a hope."
Burnett already had about half of Johnnie Walker's estimated $80 million in worldwide billings, handling the brand in Latin America and Australia. The rest had been split among five other agencies: New York-based McCann-Erickson Worldwide and J. Walter Thompson Co. in Asia; Tokyu, Tokyo, in Japan; WCRS, London, in Europe; and Avrett, Free & Ginsberg, New York, in the U.S.
Frank Ginsberg, agency co-chairman and CEO, said he sees the reasoning behind United Distillers' decision. "This was about taking six agencies and bringing it down to something more manageable," he said.
Mr. Rubie said the move shows United Distillers has developed high confidence in Burnett's ability to build a global brand. The Chicago-based agency also handles ads around the world for Dewar's, United Distillers' other big scotch.
Mr. Ginsberg said he didn't get much advance warning from United Distillers.
"Nobody knew anything," he said. "When I found out about [losing Johnnie Walker], they immediately said, `But you're going to get these other brands."' United Distillers replaced Avrett's Johnnie Walker work with U.S. responsibility for Gordon's gin and vodka, George Dickel Tennessee Sippin' Whisky and four bourbons: I.W. Harper, W.L. Weller, Old Charter and Old Fitzgerald.
Mr. Ginsberg said billings from those brands will "equal or exceed those from Johnnie Walker."