Pour On The Pitch

At most ad agencies, August is a month for long weekends. But for the folks at Leo Burnett Co., all thoughts of a social life evaporated last summer with a single phone call that plunged them into Pitch Mode. H.J. Heinz Co. was launching a new ad campaign, and had invited Burnett and four other agencies to audition for the $50 million account. They had just three weeks to prepare for the account review, a grueling process that turns sleep into a luxury. But as accounts change hands more frequently, Pitch Mode is fast becoming a way of life. "In this business," says Burnett executive VP Mary Bishop, "it's what you do."

Lately agencies have been doing it all the time. Fueling the fickleness: cost pres- sures, a shortage of fresh ideas and job-hopping marketing execs who hire new agencies to get a fresh start. Companies may hire investment bankers based on their reputations, but before hiring an ad agency they want to compare roughed-out commercials from several contenders. "Agencies are being crushed by the amount of work that's expected," says consultant Lee Anne Morgan.

For the agencies pitching Heinz, the challenge was adding some zip to the ketchup biz. For most of the '90s Heinz boosted profits by slashing ad spending and raising prices. The result: since 1988 its market share has fallen from 52 to 46 percent. New chief executive William Johnson is determined to halt that slide. Inside headquarters, executives still speak a strange language of "host foods" (stuff you put ketchup on) and "ketchup occasions." The trouble, analysts say, is how to grow in a mature market like ketchup. Johnson's answer: with edgier ads, "the opportunity is there to grow."

For Leo Burnett, the Heinz account was an equally big opportunity. The venerable Chicago agency is best known as the creator of the Marlboro Man and the Jolly Green Giant. But in 1997 it suffered when it lost big chunks of business from United Airlines, McDonald's and Miller Lite Beer. So Burnett retooled, splitting departments into more nimble teams. Critics say the agency is still too stodgy, but by last fall Vidal Sassoon, Allegra and Fila had signed on. Winning Heinz would be especially sweet. In the '70s the agency created a famed Heinz campaign backed by Carly Simon's "Anticipation." Burnett resigned the account in 1994 when Heinz cut ad spending, so regaining it would be like giving an old friend a makeover.

Before the September pitch, Heinz execs briefed the contenders. Their key directive: target teenagers and give the brand personality. After poring through research, Burnett's team hit the streets, taking teens to diners to study how they used ketchup. The adults asked esoteric questions to find the brand's "essence." Example: if ketchup was a TV character, kids said, Heinz would be the Fonz. They concluded kids think the Heinz brand is mildly cool, but it doesn't loom large on their radar screens. As the team probed kids' subconscious ketchup cravings, creative partners Michael Straznickas and Dave Reger brainstormed, discarding a "Beavis and Butt-head" spoof as passe. Slowly they settled on a scheme highlighting Heinz's iconic bottle by using simple visuals and offbeat copy. The goal, says managing creative director Lisa Bennett: "To give Heinz ketchup a voice... a personality. Kind of like a friend." In one spot, a diner grasps an inverted bottle while a narrator muses on the holdup: "It's not like it's putting on makeup or getting dressed, but it does seem to need some time. Whatever it's doing." Yes, even ketchup advertising can be edgy and ironic.

For the first round of pitches in Pittsburgh, the Burnett team bought salt and pepper shakers and tablecloths to make the bland hotel room look like a diner. When Burnett showed storyboards, the response seemed positive, especially for spots showing how kids could customize their food using ketchup, adding as much or as little as they wanted. "What Burnett did particularly well was capture, in words, music and images, teenagers' desire to control their world," says Gary Stibel of the New England Consulting Group, which helped Heinz with the review. Heinz execs decided to eliminate three contenders, narrowing the field to Burnett and rival TBWA Chiat/Day for a second round. "You hear you're moving on [to the finals] and it's 'Yea!' " says Burnett's Bennett, "but then you hear you're up against Chiat/Day and it's 'Oh, no'."

TBWA Chiat/Day is a powerhouse. "They're slick, California... much flashier than Leo Burnett," says industry consultant Jack McBride. Its Taco Bell work has made Chihuahuas the hottest dogs on the planet. Even though Heinz execs seemed focused on teenagers, TBWA suggested including adults, too. "We felt they needed to be a little broader," says agency chief Bob Kuperman. His team constructed spots in which ketchup was painted into existing pictures, alluding to certain meals' being incomplete without ketchup. The tag line: "It's got to be perfect."

On the morning of the final pitches in London, Burnett's team set up a hot-dog stand in the lobby and lined the escalator walls with ketchup labels bearing catchy slogans. Upstairs a team had constructed a diner in a conference room with bar stools, a counter and a window manned by a short-order cook. Burnett's team showed film of the ads they'd storyboarded in the first pitch, and gave a fuller sense of how the campaign would work globally, one of Heinz's key demands. When Heinz called to award them the account a week later, Burnett's team celebrated with a party that lasted 10 hours. Over at TBWA Chiat/Day, the news hit hard. "We've never put a campaign together that's won such internal acclaim and then lost," says Carl Johnson, head of the New York office. What went wrong? "It's always hard to get a very clear understanding of why you lost. At the time you're so depressed you don't give a s--t... Months later, I still don't know." In fact, participants say, Burnett won because it stuck closer to a teen-focused strategy, its ads seemed better developed and its team appeared more cohesive. "You pitch something, you lose it, you move on," responds Kuperman.

After winning the account, Burnett tweaked and refilmed the spots, which began airing in test markets last month and will go nationwide early this fall. As befits global ads, there are no recognizable actors, allowing foreign voice-overs and translated slogans to be dubbed in. One spot calls Heinz "the rude ketchup" for taxing diners' patience; two others focus on teens' desire for control by showing ketchup smothering fries "until they can't breathe" and highlighting its ability to make food taste "ketchuppy... and even more ketchuppy." All the ads focus on the bottle and the ketchup's thickness but avoid traditional product-touting or slogans, which might turn off media-savvy teens. Print spots show ketchup bottles with punch lines ("Will work for food." "Can't help broccoli.") replacing Heinz's traditional label. Later ads, hints CEO Johnson, may tout "new usage ideas" for ketchup (Heinz execs say the red stuff is great on pizza, grilled cheese and potato chips). Persuading the world to "ketchup" new foods may be a tough sell. But if Burnett can't do it, rival agencies will happily compete for the job.