Sonic Creative, Media Go Into Play

Sonic Corp. has placed its creative and media assignments into review and invited Barkley, the independent shop that has held them for nearly two decades, to defend, the client confirmed today.

Barkley said it would not participate. Jeff King, CEO of the Kansas City-based agency, said: “In the past 17 years, Barkley has helped grow Sonic from a $700 million regional company to a $3.5 billion national brand. We now turn our attention to the entire restaurant industry and walk away with our heads held high.” No layoffs are imminent at the 275-person shop.

Barkley isn’t entirely sans momentum, however, having just closed a deal to acquire St. Louis marketing shop Adamson, which claims total billings of $30 million.

Still, the client has long been a key agency calling card and is a big spender. Sonic spent $80 million on ads through the first half of 2010 after spending $185 million in all of 2009, per Nielsen.

According to the client, digital media will align with the media specialist agency chosen in the review, while digital creative as well as PR will likely align with the creative specialist agency that wins. Sonic described the process as a “closed review.”

The process should conclude in Q1 2011.

Danielle Vona, CMO at the client, said, “Our desire is to regain momentum now and evolve the brand for the future so we’re well positioned to meet consumers’ needs today and tomorrow. We have a responsibility to explore alternative agencies to either confirm we have the best partner in Barkley or to partner with new agency resources for creative and for media.”

Like many of its fast-food brethren, Sonic has struggled of late, though its numbers have been worse than most players in the category. Company revenue for the nine-month period ended May 31 was $396 million, down 35 percent from the same period in ’09.

Hispanic chores at Lopez Negrete and youth marketing at C3 are not part of the process, nor are local franchisee agreements with media and promo shops.

Joanne Davis Consulting in New York is assisting in the search process.

Sonic has more than 3,500 drive-ins.

The restaurant category has been especially active of late, with Darden recently launching a media search for its $300 million U.S. account, and Arby’s in the late stages of a review for creative chores on its $130 million account.

Several other chains large and small have also shifted agencies and/or launched major campaigns since 2010 began. Some notable moves include Red Lobster hiring WPP’s Grey and Denny’s selecting IPG’s Gotham after separate reviews of creative chores this summer.