It's easy to blame a Chihuahua, but Taco Bell's got bigger woes

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It's easy for critics of Lee Clow's brand of creativity to accuse his agency of putting entertainment value ahead of advertising effectiveness.

There are times when it's hard to argue the point -- the infamous (and highly entertaining) toys spot for Nissan comes to mind. But in the case of Taco Bell's dismissal of TBWA/Chiat/Day, it's the wrong place to look.

That's not to say agency-world rivals aren't eagerly pointing in that direction. "Chiat/Day doesn't sell stuff," one shop boss said last week. "America loved the dog, they just didn't buy the tacos."

Say what you want about the Chihuahua, but Taco Bell's woes go deeper than the dog. True, early ads downplayed the food in favor of laughs, but the dog made Taco Bell exceedingly hip in the eyes of the teen boys most likely to wolf down 99 cents burritos. The icon also had a real connection to the brand since the dog lived for the taste of Taco Bell.

As with McDonald's, Taco Bell's challenges extend far beyond advertising's abilities. The chain needs to provide quality food in a relatively clean, relatively friendly environment. It also needs to stand out in an increasingly crowded, increasingly cutthroat category where Tricon's chains suffer from murky brand identities.

Still, when change is needed, it's always easy to blame the advertising and shoot the agency, and that's precisely what Tricon chief David Novak did last week. There's little backlash when the agency is Chiat/Day, since it long ago (unfairly) became the poster child for the entertainment-effectiveness debate. Everyone assumes they know why the shop got shot.

Besides, firing Chiat/Day is old hat for Novak. In late 1986, he joined Pizza Hut as the head of marketing. The chain's advertising was then handled by Chiat/Day. And though the work was well-regarded, it wasn't popular with franchisees, who preferred product-and-promotion spots. Seven months after Novak joined Pizza Hut, a Chiat/Day ad for the chain featuring Roseanne Barr won best of show at the Andy Awards. Three months after that, the agency was tossed. "Since new management has been on board, it's been mutually frustrating," Jay Chiat said then.

The circumstances this time are similar. Chiat/Day's work for Taco Bell hit a pop-culture chord but failed to resonate with franchisees because ads didn't scream loudly enough about cheap taco combo meals. And six months after Novak added Taco Bell to his portfolio, the agency was bounced.

If Chiat/Day has been twice cursed by Tricon chains, FCB has been twice blessed. The agency created Taco Bell's "Run for the border" theme and held the account until 1994, when it moved to Bozell. In 1997, creative moved from Bozell to Chiat/Day and field marketing returned to FCB. With Chiat/Day's ouster, FCB has been given another shot at the whole account.

Give FCB credit. After it lost the account in '94, the chain could have badmouthed it former client and chased other fast-food accounts. But the split was amicable, and FCB kept a foot in Taco Bell's door for years. Its patience and loyalty paid off. The same thing happened a few years back with DDB, which was content to play a supporting role on McDonald's for years until the client figured out on its own that a change was needed and restored DDB's top billing.

At a time when agency-client splits are often contentious (Chiat/Day's Tom Carroll lashed out at Taco Bell's decision in early press accounts last week before falling quiet) and sometimes litigious, FCB's loyalty is both quaint and admirable.

"We were certainly looking to leverage that [field marketing] experience," FCB chief Brendan Ryan said last week. "Very often, if you have a good relationship with a client and the parting is not acrimonious, it's a great strategy to stay in touch and help out. It does make it relatively easy for them to say, `Jeez, these guys know our business.' " And to hand over the whole enchilada.

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