McCann Erickson has handled the restaurant's advertising since 2007.
The next lead creative agency for Applebee's will be considerably smaller than outgoing shop McCann Erickson.
Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which has offices in Boulder, Colo., and Miami, is the biggest of the four finalists for the account. The others are Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners in New York, the Dallas office of Publicis and Barkley in Kansas City.
Total media spending on Applebee's runs around $135 million a year, according to Nielsen.
McCann, a global agency whose New York headquarters has handled the business since 2007, is not defending. The restaurant chain's media account is not in play and remains at UM in New York.
Morgan Anderson Consulting in New York is managing the search, which is expected to conclude next month. Morgan Anderson did not return calls, and the Kansas City, Mo.-based Applebee's declined to comment.