Upstart Chases Burger King’s Business

CHI & Partners duels with giants in $300 million review

CHI & Partners is a welterweight in a heavyweight fight: the pitch for Burger King’s $300 million, massively high-profile U.S. creative business.

The 60-person New York shop is facing two global behemoths (McCann Erickson and Saatchi & Saatchi) and a big national player (mcgarrybowen). Even agency co-founder Johnny Hornby knows that his shop is an underdog. Still, with a sugar daddy like WPP Group (which owns 49 percent of CHI), Hornby enters this week’s final presentations with deep resources and royal ambitions.

Indeed, in the meeting that CHI had with BK to reach the finals, it had backup from other WPP agency executives, including Ogilvy & Mather and BK roster shops Wunderman (field marketing) and MindShare (media). Media and field marketing aren’t in play; the leaders of those shops simply presented a united front.

The pivotal question facing CHI is whether BK’s new Brazilian owners, 3G Capital—who didn’t gel with irreverent outgoing shop Crispin Porter + Bogusky—will embrace an upstart in the U.S. that lives mainly on business from U.K. accounts. Also, how will the chain’s American franchisees—a breed not particularly known for risk taking—respond to a relative unknown?

“In a franchisee/client situation, it’s more likely they will play it safe and go with one of the big shops,” says Avi Dan of Avidan Strategies in New York. “I think the days of risk are over at BK.”

Hornby, a Brit and half-brother of writer Nick Hornby, opened modestly in New York four years ago to service Best Buy Mobile—a joint venture between Best Buy and The Carphone Warehouse, a founding account in London. At the time, Hornby soft-pedaled his plans, describing New York as a service offering.

A friend scoffed at such modesty, however, noting that Hornby is wildly ambitious. A BK win would obviously put CHI and Hornby, who declined to comment for this story, on the map. Beyond Best Buy Mobile, CHI New York works on Samsung—another London account—and recently added The Body Shop and a new product assignment from Virgin.

CHI’s New York staff occupies two floors of an open loft space in SoHo, across the street from Balthazar and around the corner from the Crosby Street Hotel. Spray painted graffiti-style on one wall is the sentiment, or perhaps rallying cry: “Work hard and be nice to people”—the obvious product of creatives toiling away after-hours. To service an account like BK, CHI would need at least another 50 staffers, including some on the ground in the restaurant’s Miami home base.

Oh yeah, and playing “nice” is probably not going to cut it.