Taco Bell clears FCB's `interim' status -- for now

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Taco Bell Corp. has served up the whole enchilada to FCB Worldwide, San Francisco.

FCB was defined as an "interim" agency on the marketer's $204 million account in July, when Taco Bell parted with TBWA/Chiat/Day, Playa del Rey, Calif., and its Chihuahua mascot. Now, however, Taco Bell Corp. President Emil Brolick is said to have become comfortable with FCB and its work.

"They are our agency of record," said a spokeswoman. "We've been pleased with their work thus far and have since removed their interim status." However, an executive close to the situation said Taco Bell is reserving the option of a review at a later date.

According to Taco Bell insiders, FCB has made several moves to gain Mr. Brolick's approval, including placing its Amazon.com creative team on the Taco Bell business.

NOVAK SATISFIED

At the same time, David Novak, CEO of Taco Bell parent Tricon Global Restaurants, has removed himself from the stewardship of the fast-feeder's marketing, according to an executive close to the company, and is satisfied with the agency's efforts. Taco Bell's same-store sales were up 2% for the four-week period ended Sept. 30. At the time Taco Bell hired FCB, the chain's sales were down 6% for the second quarter ended June 10.

Executives familiar with Taco Bell said another factor in Mr. Novak's looser attitude stems from the fact that several operational responsibilities that once fell under the president's domain have been shifted to Tricon headquarters.

EXPECTATIONS CHANGED

Specifically, the chain's product quality and restaurant engineering functions, consolidated under Aylwin Lewis, chief operating officer of Tricon, a new post. The shift didn't sit well with Mr. Brolick, said the executive close to the company; the executive also noted the new president was hoping to stretch his management experience. Mr. Brolick didn't return calls for comment.

"David [Novak] is probably trying to smooth some feathers by letting Emil [Brolick] take charge," said the executive.

The news appears to put to rest, for the time being, expectations that Mr. Novak would consolidate media and other services for all Tricon brands at Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York, to trim expenses. A similar scenario is already being played out with DaimlerChrysler, which is pitting FCB parent True North Communications against BBDO for its $1.4 billion account as part of a cost-cutting move. The pitches for that business occurred last week.

For FCB's San Francisco office, a solid win of the Taco Bell business would give the agency a chance to come up with a signature campaign.

"We still need that kind of calling card campaign," said FCB Worldwide Creative Director Geoff Thompson, referring to the work done at the agency under the late Mike Koelker, the maestro of the Levi's 501 Blues effort for Levi Strauss & Co.

Initially, FCB's work for Taco Bell dropped TBWA/Chiat/Day's talking Chihuahua to focus on individual spots backing single products. Its latest effort, which broke last week, backs the Santa Fe Chalupa and the Baja Chalupa at 99› each.

The work is the first from the new FCB creative team on the Taco Bell account. Group Creative Directors Tom O'Keefe and Matt Reinhard will spearhead a new branding effort expected to launch early next year. The account is now headed by Greg Sieck, exec VP-worldwide account director, previously in charge of the office's Avaya Communications business.

Patrick Kiss, director-business development at FCB in San Francisco, said the office's billings this year top the $1 billion mark. That's up from 1999 billings of $840 million and 1997's high billings mark of $855 million, according to Advertising Age data.

SCORING WITH MLB

The office last week won an anticipated $20 million to $30 million account for a Major League Baseball campaign starting next spring, beating out a number of New York agencies. That win came on top of the $60 million Avaya business picked up in May.

The victories come as True North suffers a stock swoon along with rumors it is being sought after by Omnicom, Interpublic Group of Cos. and even Publicis Groupe.

Mr. Kiss said the agency has won $500 million in new business the past year. Part of the winnings have been offset by the loss of clients, including Palm Inc. and E&J Gallo Winery.

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