CMO Insights: Risk-taking for the Marketer

an interview with
Terri Graham Board of Directors, Hot Topic Inc

If you’ve been in this business awhile, you have seen many an ad campaign launch strong and then fizzle out in just a year or two. Perhaps this is why I was so bowled over when I heard Terri Funk Graham (at last year’s CMO Club Summit) tell the story of the  “Jack” campaign that is now in its 18th year of productive service for Jack in the Box.  As a student of marketing, I couldn’t help but wonder, how does such a campaign come into being? How do those in charge keep it fresh?  What role does the agency play?  What’s the secret sauce here?

I got the chance to ask Ms. Graham these questions and many more earlier this year and it was then that I realized she is truly a rock star in our industry. During Graham’s long tenure as CMO at Jack in the Box which ended at the end of 2012, the Jack campaign consistently drove product sales, introduced new menu items, helped overcome recessions and bonded with a new generation of fast food consumers.  Graham, as you will soon see, has the courage to take risks not just once but year after year, has the wisdom to stick with one “genius” creative partner and has the curiosity to explore emerging communication channels.  Here is part one of our interview:

Neisser: So tell me how initially the Jack campaign came into beginning back in ’95?
Graham: Well, it came out of the E. coli crisis. So the reality was the company needed to do something to revitalize the brand and make the brand relevant again in the marketplace.  And so it came from a crisis.

Neisser: Which must have been a scary and interesting place to start, right?
Graham: I think that when you’re in a situation like this, you’re willing to put a lot more on line.  And I so I think it actually it drove the ability to take more risks.

Neisser: Really interesting.  So you decided to bring Jack back? 
Graham: Yes, but let’s bring him back in a way that’s relevant and different and will catch attention.  So it was 1995 when we launched Bringing Jack Back.

Neisser: So tell me about those initial ads?
Graham: Well, the very first spot had some controversy around it because it showed Jack coming back.  He had had plastic surgery and he blew up the boardroom because the folks from the boardroom are the ones who blew him up in the ’80s.

Neisser:  I see. A little revenge.
Graham: So he blew up the boardroom and basically reintroduced himself in the marketplace as coming back, better than before with plastic surgery and that he was going to be a big advocate for the consumers. The message was Jack was back and he was going to give fast food customers what they wanted.

Neisser:  So did that seem like an idea that could endure 18 years?   
Graham:  Well, that’s where Dick Sittig, the creative mastermind behind the Jack’s Back campaign, comes in. We constantly challenged Dick to keep Jack relevant, and because he used this sense of humor that was a bit unconventional, described often as irreverent, he kept rising to the occasion and the campaign endures to this day.

Neisser:  So why do you think the ads worked so well?
Graham:  I think what drove the campaign to continue to last is that we tapped into the emotional branding side. I think that often that is not given enough emphasis. We tapped into the emotional side that really gave it a personality that people could connect to.

Neisser:  So how did Jack end up having Dick Sittig’s voice?
Graham: That was actually by accident. That wasn’t planned. When he did the initial pitch, it was in his voice and then when we finally went to casting, we had the actor and we’re putting everything together that we’re looking at all kinds of different voices and the problem was everyone liked Dick Sittig’s voice more than anything that was put in front.  So we decided to go with his voice.

Neisser:  What does it take to keep a campaign like this together for so long?
Graham:  I think there are a couple of things to consider. One is I was always willing to take a risk. So we were unapologetic about who we were. Dick Sittig would present things that would make us feel uncomfortable.  But we knew that it was going to grab attention that it wasn’t going to hurt the brand as long as we were true to who we were. And so it was a combination of being unapologetic about who we were. It was about allowing great creative work to be done. I am not a believer in dealing any sort of pretesting of advertising. We never did anything of that nature. I also think that approval by committee is the death of a campaign, you end up with mediocre work. And, I think that, we truly trusted each other in our work and I think that’s also what helped build that campaign. And so we would constantly challenge each other to keep it relevant.

Neisser:  Very few CMO’s are given permission to take risks.  You must have had a lot of management support?
Graham:  Yes, I had full support and I had permission. Linda Lang absolutely let me run with it and she always backed it. And, there would be situations where I would come up and say, “okay, I have got one that’s going to rile up some folks, prompting phone calls, e-mails and potentially, this all will need to be discussed in the board.” And she would say, “okay, is it worth the risk? And I’d say, “yes.” And she’d say, “I’ll back you, but you need to stand tall.”  So I would have to do all the explaining in the boardroom anytime something went a little astray.

Neisser: What do you think were some of your most risky efforts?
Graham:  Running Jack over  — that was a trying moment. We were essentially putting the most — the biggest brand equity that the company had, Jack, and putting him on the line to see if people cared because if they didn’t care that he got hit by a bus, we were going to be in trouble. So that’s when we had Jack Get Hit By a Bus and of course it proved out to be quite a success and that was in 2009.

Neisser: So how did this part of the campaign unfold?
Graham: We only showed the ad one time and it was on the Super Bowl. And then everything went basically digital and social from there. That was our way of stepping into the whole social media area. So all of a sudden it got millions of views on YoutTube and it was talked about all over the place. We had amazing press and impressions on that. And, we had people sending cards and teddy bears and everything that — flowers, everything that you could imagine for Jack’s recovery. And then we created a storyline. We created multiple ads that followed up afterwards that talked about how he was doing and it became a campaign within a campaign.

Neisser:  So what about the hallucinating kid who sees Jack on his dashboard?  That must of stirred things up.
Graham:  Yes it did. We really wanted to focus on selling our 99-cent tacos. And there is a real following to those tacos. And young people, after they’ve gone to the clubs tend to head to Jack’s for their tacos. And so we played off of that, if you will. And so we had, you know, a young guy in a van come up and he wanted to order as many as 30 tacos. And needless to say, that got quite a bit of attention.

Neisser: Did you end up selling a lot of tacos?
Graham: Everything that we did we also did with the premise of generating sales and driving traffic. I mean we didn’t do funny ads just for the sake of doing funny ads. Our goal was always to drive traffic to the brand. And that’s exactly what we start out to do and that’s what we accomplished each and every time. So in that case, we certainly sold a lot of tacos and we got a lot of buzz about tacos.

Neisser:  You know, I think you told the story of how on that one, some protestors were showing up at your corporate headquarters?
Graham: Yeah, and I turned on the sprinklers. Yes, then the true story — we were going to have protestors and media show up and at the time we had grass all around our corporate headquarters. And it was in the afternoon. And so my way of stalling that was we became a water park in the afternoon and we turned on the sprinklers and we didn’t have any protests that showed up at all the rest of the week!

FYI, After a 22-year run at Jack in the Box, Terri Funk Graham recently joined the Board of Directors at Hot Topic Inc., is working with The CMO Club as the Chairman of its President’s Circle and is consulting for HOM Sotheby’s Realty.  Fellow CMOs can meet Terri in person at the upcoming CMO Club Summit in NYC. 


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