Sonic and Barkley End 17-Year Run

Indie Agency Thinks It's Best to 'Move On'

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CHICAGO ( -- Another long-term agency-client partnership bites the dust.

Drive-in restaurant chain Sonic and its agency of 17 years, Barkley, are parting ways after Sonic launched a review of its more than $100 million creative and media account. Barkley was invited to defend but declined.

"We've had an incredible partnership for 17 years, and in that time we've been working with them, they've grown from a $776 million regional company into a $3.8 billion national brand," Jeff King, CEO of Kansas City, Mo.-based Barkley, told Ad Age. "In the time we've worked with them, they've tripled their restaurants and doubled their average unit volume, and together we created one of the most iconic ad campaigns in the history of the category -- it garnered higher awareness in the category than brands outspending them 10-1."

That's not enough, though, for Barkley to try and keep the business -- a choice that's likely easier for the agency because it's independent. "We've decided not to defend," Mr. King said. "Based on our experience in these situations, we feel like our energy would be best spent on focusing on the future of Barkley. Honestly, we just think it's in Barkley's interest to move on."

That decision is likely to lead to lost revenue and possibly reductions among its more than 300-person staff. Said Mr. King: "They're a big client, but they're not our only client. I do anticipate we would be somewhat smaller in the future, but that all depends on what happens in the next few months." Sonic in the first half of 2010 spent $64.5 million on advertising, according to Kantar Media. The company in 2009 spent $155.5 million, and $132.2 million in 2008. Sonic's Hispanic agency, Lopez Negrete, and its youth-marketing agency, C3, will not be affected by the review.

According to a statement released by Sonic, the company is "exploring separate groups of agencies that specialize in media planning and buying, and in creative development. Digital media will align with the media specialist agency, and creative for digital media as well as public relations will likely align with the creative specialist agency." Barkley handled both media and creative during its tenure, and was invited to participate in the review.

This split is one of several longtime client-agency partnerships that have suddenly ended. Dr Pepper Snapple Group in September moved creative duties for its 7Up brand from WPP's Y&R, San Francisco, to Dentsu's McGarryBowen without a review -- marking the end of a 40-year relationship. Interpublic Group of Co.'s Carmichael Lynch in August resigned its Harley-Davidson account after 31 years. And Arby's in August parted with its agency of record, Omnicom's Merkley & partners, after a six-year relationship. Prior to Merkley, Arby's spent 17 years with Doner Advertising.

Interestingly, the account loss comes as Barkley has acquired St. Louis, Mo.-based Adamson, a 40-person agency with expertise in consumer packaged goods. It is Barkley's fourth acquisition in three years and its second in 2010. Previous acquisitions include Ripple Effects Interactive, PR agency Boasberg/Wheeler and design firm Blacktop Creative.

Among Adamson's clients are Nestle's Purina, Hain Celestial organic packaged foods and Pabst Brewing Co.'s Old Style beer.

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Contributing: Rupal Parekh

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