Burger King's Klein Disappears Following Ad Woes; Crispin Left Hanging

Last Updated Sep 21, 2009 11:46 AM EDT

The news that Burger King president/global marketing Russ Klein is taking a leave of absence to spend some time "sharpening the sword" (his actual words) is bad news for Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Bad news in the sense that whenever your client disappears, it can't possibly be good news.

Ad Age's report this morning does a good job of listing the issues that face Crispin on the account (the company is at war with its franchisees, CP+B has been asked to tone down its sexy ads, sales have declined), and Klein's vanishing act is yet another on that list.

But look how strange Klein's explanation for his sabbatical is. He told Ad Age:
Simply 'sharpening the sword.' And the bigger the dragon waiting for me when I return, the better. That's all you need to know. Print it. ... Positively, RK.
BK wished Mr. Klein a "speedy return" and then insisted Klein was not being forced out:
"Let me reiterate," spokeswoman Susan Robison said in a statement. "This is a temporary leave of absence and when Russ is ready to return, he will."
Taking Robison and Klein at their words, we must conclude that Klein believes he is facing a dragon he is currently not ready to conquer. Whether that dragon is BK's sales and marketing problems, some other internal corporate foe, or something in his personal life, we don't know.

Separately: BK's last conference call with Wall Street analysts showed some discordance between Klein and CEO John W. Chidsey. They were asked only one question about marketing and BK's discount pricing strategy. Although the question was squarely in Klein's territory, Chidsey answered it. Then Klein added:
But you know to your point, while we are doing that we obviously won't give up on the premium end either so I mean you might call it a little bit of a blurring of the barbell but you know we have this flexible batch broiler and we are able to launch you know products like the XT, like ribs, so you will continue to see us innovate at that end as well. So I don't really think it's a deviation from our original strategy.
But Chidsey got the last word:
It's always been a flex strategy. You know we'll flex premium when we can and we'll flex value when we need to.
It could be nothing, but it looks like Chidsey and Klein don't quite agree on exactly what BK's pricing/marketing strategy is. Either that or they were trying to make their answers as muddy as noncommittal as possible, a time-honored strategy in dealing with analysts.

And finally: It's not clear what Klein's role has been in BK's war against its own franchisees. The federal lawsuit over $65 million in ad funds is ongoing. And, again, Chidsey and Klein were asked about it on their last call at the end of August. Chidsey admitted "it's particularly difficult to bring everybody along when there is the kind of anxiety and fear that there is right now with the economic environment," but Klein didn't say anything.

Of course, if BK agreed to give them their advertising dollars back, that "anxiety and fear" might be eased.
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