Jim Ensign

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On March 31, No. 3 pizza chain Papa John's trumped "The Donald" when it ambushed rival Domino's Pizza's play as the sponsor and taskmaster on "The Apprentice." Just days before the episode aired with two teams competing on the Donald Trump reality show to develop winning meatball-topped pizzas for Domino's, Papa John's learned about the episode and shifted the marketing strategy for its own meatball pizza. In response, the Louisville, Ky.-based chain created a 30-second commercial starring Papa John's founder-Chairman John Schnatter in a boardroom asking, "Why eat a pizza made by apprentices when you can call the pros at Papa John's?"

With that spunky commercial and 63-market spot media buy, Papa John's took Mr. Trump and Domino's to product integration school and drove same-stores sales up 8%. It also illustrated the media chops that Jim Ensign, VP-marketing communications for Papa John's International, has brought to the chain since he joined in 2003.

"By being smart and agile, we could be as prominent as our much larger-spending competitor," says Mr. Ensign, 43. "We have to be a little different, a little bit scrappy."

While he credits his boss, President-CEO Nigel Travis, for the original idea of going after the Domino's placement, observers credit Mr. Ensign's leadership with driving the speedy execution.

"Good ideas can always happen but you have to execute them, and he was the one who was able to put it all together," says Andrew Donchin, director-national broadcast at Carat USA, New York.

On March 25, Mr. Travis was reading his online news sites during a conference and spotted the Domino's announcement. He convened Mr. Ensign and Chris Sternberg, VP-community and investor relations. The chain already was planning to launch a meatball pie four days after "The Apprentice" show would air, so they moved up the launch date. They schemed how they could differentiate how Papa John's comes up with its pies vs. the way "The Apprentice" contestants did. Within 48 hours he had agency Zimmerman Partners shooting Mr. Schnatter in a board-room set. Mr. Ensign gathered his media team at Carat to figure out how to get the spot on the air and negotiated with NBC while Carat put together a backup spot plan.

Two days before the March 31 air date, NBC rejected the Papa John's spot out of deference to its Domino's sponsor. However, Carat was able to negotiate buys in 63 markets covering 80% of Papa John's stores. Meanwhile, Mr. Ensign also worked with creative director Kevin Matthews to create a print ad to run in USA Today to back up the promo.

Mr. Ensign has brought a media savvy to the chain that allows Papa John's to leverage its relatively small slice of media dollars compared with its much larger rivals, say observers.

He has served on the planning side of the business for most of his career from his early days on the Coors beer account at Foote Cone & Belding and working on Gatorade after FCB bought Bayer Bess Vanderwarker, through his move to Louisville in 1992, where he joined Doe Anderson.

Over the years, he developed a penchant for creating media combinations that leveraged higher returns than the budget would otherwise accommodate, be it the ambush media play or linking with Research in Motion's BlackBerry to promote online orders. "I like to find other partners who can benefit from us being involved in ways besides our money," he says, noting he uses customer insights to "understand how to leverage the two to make [the result] bigger than the both of us."

"A lot of it comes from him being honest and upfront about what he wants to accomplish," says Brent Hardesty, VP-account director, Carat USA, Chicago, who worked with Mr. Ensign when he was at Doe Anderson "It's great to have a media guy who gets it and understands how you can shift the playing field with media."

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