Why Little Caesars Sent Its $200 Million Creative Account to McKinney

Agency's first work for the longtime Barton F. Graf client is expected in 2020

Little Caesars mascot holding pizza boxes and a phone with McKinney logo
Little Caesars is sticking with humor as it changes agencies from Barton F. Graf to McKinney, but expect more digital and social media campaigns.
Little Caesars, McKinney

Little Caesars is heading into a new brand era.

The pizza chain, a longtime client of the recently eulogized Barton F. Graf, recently selected McKinney as its new agency of record following a review. McKinney will run the account primarily as a shared responsibility across its Durham and New York offices, with its Los Angeles office providing additional support, particularly with social media efforts.

McKinney CEO Joe Maglio said the agency’s ability to tap into expertise across its three offices was “critical” in winning the pitch, adding that its work for clients like Procter & Gamble and ESPN translated into how it positioned its offering for Little Caesars.

“We really focus a lot on their customer at the core,” Maglio said, adding that McKinney’s “true understanding of who their customer is” and ability to translate that into key insights to drive creative put it over the top in the review.

Little Caesars CMO Jeff Klein kicked off the review process after learning that Barton F. Graf would be closing by the end of the year.

“We’re forever grateful to our friends at Barton F. Graf,” Klein said. “This is a review process that wouldn’t necessarily have taken place if they weren’t closing their doors.”

The extensive review began with outreach to about 25 agencies, with the process managed by SRI. Little Caesars formed a committee of six marketers who reviewed reels from each of the agencies, culminating in inviting 10 agencies to its Detroit headquarters.

The pizza chain was looking for an agency that could act as a strategic partner, demonstrate breakthrough creative in an integrated campaign, permeate pop culture and be a good cultural fit for Little Caesars, Klein said.

Over a two-day period, the company spent about 90 minutes with each agency, talking about the approach it would take with the account. “We were pretty confident with all of the agencies at that point that they would do a great job functionally,” Klein said.

At the end of the two days, Little Caesars briefed five finalists for a full day, taking them through historical reels of the company’s advertising and a tour of its facilities, providing an overview of its visual identity, and going through the brand’s media plan, which Klein said is shifting. He confirmed the five finalists were McKinney, Argonaut, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, VMLY&R and No Fixed Address, which remains Little Caesars’ creative agency in Canada.

Little Caesars CEO David Scrivano personally spent two hours with the agencies talking about the company’s culture, the brand’s values and what it means to its customers.

“Then we fed them everything on our menu to help inspire them,” Klein said.

Little Caesars also visited the agencies on their home turf before inviting them back for final presentations before a selection committee with Klein, members of the company’s executive team, members of its franchisee committee and advisory board.

Klein said Little Caesars “saw amazing work form all of the potential partners” and it was a “difficult decision.”

“I could not be more thrilled with where we ended up. McKinney identified with our consumer and showed a tremendous amount of respect for that consumer,” Klein said. “They demonstrated immense depth in their strategic thinking which translated to great creative.”

“Culturally, they felt like a perfect fit,” Klein said. “It became very clear that they shared our values, really respected our customers.”

So who are those customers? “People who have crazy lives” working multiple jobs, juggling work and school or parenthood “and just really need something that’s convenient,” Maglio said, whose go-to is the chain’s “core offering” of the $5 Hot-N-Ready pizza, which has remained the same price for decades.

“And that has a price point where it’s accessible for anybody,” he continued, “because part of the Little Caesars ethos is that every family has a right to pizza night, and that belief is really where everything resonates from.

“Because of their lives, they’re inherently optimistic, this core customer base,” he added. “We loved getting to know a lot of them. They want a respite from the craziness of their lives and humor.”

Maglio described the formula for reaching this audience as keeping the message clear and simple, while providing a laugh that acts as a break in their hectic day. He acknowledged Barton F. Graf as “an iconic agency” and Gerry Graf as “an iconic person in our industry.”

“There’s a certain level of respect that I think everyone in the industry had for Barton and the work that they did, and it’s a bit of an honor to be able to carry on a brand that they did so much breakthrough work for,” he said.

“Our approach isn’t to try to be Barton—because that would be a fool’s errand—but to take some of what they built that people love about the brand and its advertising and build off of that into a cohesive brand campaign that can take the brand from where it is today to a place it needs to go down the road, which is even more integrated communications with this core audience.

“Historically, there’s been a lot of great executions,” said Maglio. “We want more of a thread running through everything.”

Klein said the more integrated approach would include a greater focus on digital and social media assets while ensuring a cohesive brand message runs across all channels.

Don’t expect any change to the brand’s tone or visual identity, however. Humor will remain a key part of Little Caesars, as will its long-running “Pizza Pizza” tagline. In addition to shifting more resources online and additional emphasis on earned media, Klein envisions the brand’s work providing a larger role for Little Caesars’ mascot.

“We have the foundations of an amazing cult brand,” Klein said. I’ve worked on a lot of brands, and there are only a couple that you would see people walking down the road wearing your T-shirt,” an aspect he attributed to Little Caesars’ “amazing visual identity.”

“We’ve got a character that is under-leveraged right now that will allow us to go to some breakthrough spaces in both digital and social,” Klein said. “The tone and fun personality of our brand is something that in an ever [more] serious world can provide release to consumers.”

The onboarding process for McKinney has already begun. Barton F. Graf left Little Caesars with enough work to last through the end of the year, so expect McKinney’s first work for the brand some time in early 2020.

Little Caesars spent almost $208 million last year on marketing and nearly $100 million in the first six months of 2019, according to Kantar Media.

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