Sonic Preps for PR Review in Wave of Fast-Food Account Shakeups

Independent Barkley, an 18-Year Partner, Is Incumbent

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Sonic is preparing for a PR-agency review, Ad Age has learned.

As a first step, it has issued a blind conflict check, which means it is circulating a document that masks the name of the client. The document indicates that it is a QSR brand and that an RFI is coming; Ad Age has discerned the client initiating the review is Sonic. Joanne Davis Consulting is supporting the review, according to industry executives.

Just under two years ago, the company moved its ad and media business from independent agency Barkley to Omnicom's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and Publicis Groupe 's Zenith. At the time, Barkley retained Sonic's PR and national cause business. But now it's unclear whether the Kansas City-based shop, which has worked with the QSR chain for over 18 years, will participate in the PR review. Barkley recently spun off its PR capability into a separate group called Crossroads, which counts Applebee's and Lee Jeans among its clients.

Ms. Davis referred calls to the client, which said in a statement: "Sonic confirms that it is conducting a closed agency review for consumer PR. Consumer PR is currently handled by Crossroads (formerly Barkley PR). Potential agencies were sent blind conflict check emails by our consultant. Upon receiving responses, Sonic will issue an RFI to select agencies."

Mike Swenson, president of Crossroads, said, "Crossroads is going to decline to be involved in the review for Sonic's PR business. We have had an incredible 18-year run together and it feels like the right time for both organizations to move on."

A spokeswoman for Sonic added: "Consumer PR had not been reviewed at Sonic for 19 years, and we felt it was time to review that piece of the business."

The review comes less than a year after Sonic appointed James O' Reilly, a Yum Brands vet, as chief marketing officer. He replaced Danielle Vona, who had led Sonic's earlier agency reviews.

It also follows a recent wave of reviews across disciplines in the quick-service restaurant category, including Applebee's and KFC on the PR front, as well as Taco Bell digital, Taco Bell media planning and Wendy's digital.

Sonic spent $138 million on measured media in the U.S., according to Kantar Media. During its fourth-quarter earnings call this month, Cliff Hudson, chairman and CEO, said: "In fiscal 2013, we expect to build upon our fiscal 2012 initiatives with a continued focus on new and differentiated products combined with iconic creative and a layered day-part promotional strategy to drive consistent same-store sales growth. This in turn is expected to drive further margin expansion."

An initiative by Goodby reintroduced the brand's humorous spokesmen, T.J. Jagodowski and Peter Grosz, to the campaign in February after a PR ploy had them asking for their jobs back.

The chain opened in 1953 in Shawnee, Okla., as a hamburger and root beer stand called Top Hat Drive-In. Today, Sonic operates more than 3,500 drive-ins.

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