Taking on BK takes bravery

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Got the urge to pitch Burger King? Fine. Just be prepared. Granted, juicy $400 million prestige accounts are rare but this one will take confidence, and courage, to go after. And, judging by BK's past record, its new agency may wind up as flame broiled as incumbent Lowe Lintas & Partners Worldwide.

Burger King is building a whopper of a reputation as an impossible client following its repeated shifts in creative and agencies. Its fits and starts, including a succession of faces in the CEO suite and within its top marketing ranks, have left it, once again, floundering for direction. Moreover, BK parent Diageo has thrown in the towel and declared it wants out of the hamburger trade. Its newest BK management team has been dispatched to patch up the leaks, spruce up the numbers and get the business ready for a spinoff or sale. Its franchisee association is in open rebellion and demanding a bigger voice in whatever decisions are made about marketing, advertising and who eventually buys BK.

The situation is dire enough that it's said Burger King demands two campaign concepts at a time from its agency -- anticipating the one it chooses will flop. "They're too used to failure," said an insider. And its new agency's immediate creative horizon may be a pinched one, requiring it to focus on short-term promotional hits to prop up sales and BK's resultant sales price.

The true measure of BK's misery will be how many conflict-free top-flight agencies are willing to pitch for its business in its current state. Lowe Lintas, not blameless in BK's plight, was also not treated with respect at the end. Having tried to assuage the client, and told it was not in jeapordy, BK managers held a secret pitch for the business in December.

But hope dies hard in the agency business. The man who may know BK best, Lowe Lintas Chairman-CEO Lee Garfinkle, will pitch against the odds to keep his shop in BK's broiler. He calls the client "challenging." What an understatement -- and a reminder to other agencies that for some this is a business that may be too hot to handle.

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