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This advertising shop knows Jack

In fact, Secret Weapon was created to handle the burger chain's account. Now it has just two clients and likes it that way.

February 07, 2008|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

Perhaps you've asked yourself: Who is Jack? A fast-food executive whose spherical head had an inexplicable run-in with a tub of melting plastic? A clown with a thing for sirloin burgers?

Dick Sittig and Patrick Adams have an answer. Jack, the Jack in the Box mascot whose head resembles an upside-down ice cream cone, is what got their business, Secret Weapon Marketing in Santa Monica, off the ground.

It's an unusual advertising outfit, and not just because Jack's voice and Sittig's voice are remarkably similar. The industry is in one of its consolidation phases, with agencies buying one another to become behemoths. The independent Secret Weapon, with 25 employees, has by design at most three clients at any given time.

"I have friends who run big agencies, with 20 clients, and there's always a fire to be put out somewhere," Sittig, Secret Weapon's founder and creative director, said recently. "We're right smack in the middle of our clients' business instead of delegating."

Right now, Secret Weapon has contracts with two companies: San Diego-based Jack in the Box Inc. and the Southern California Honda Dealers Assn., whose ads feature dealers going out of their way to be helpful.

Sittig and Adams, the agency's managing director, started Secret Weapon in 1997, when Sittig left ad giant TBWA/Chiat/Day with the Jack in the Box account in tow. He was joined by Adams, a former manager at El Segundo's Team One Advertising, which handles ads for Lexus.

By then, Jack had a long history. In the 1970s, Jack was the clown-shaped head that sat atop the speaker box of the chain's drive-through restaurants. He was reminiscent of the children's toy in which a head springs out of a box. Jack rarely spoke in commercials and appeared with a body only in animated spots.

Then, in a 1980 TV commercial, Jack employees use dynamite to blow up the clown head, telling an elderly woman driving through that "cute was the old Jack in the Box restaurants," and that now, "the food is better at the Box." She agrees, and after sampling the chain's new ham-and-cheese roll, tells the employees to "waste him!"

In 1995, when Jack in the Box, having weathered an E. coli epidemic that killed four and sickened hundreds, needed an image makeover, Sittig and his colleagues at Chiat deemed Jack the appropriate messenger to usher in a new era. They created an ad in which Jack returned, angry at the direction the new owners had taken the company, and blew up a corporate boardroom to show he was ready to clean house and run things differently.

"Even though it was all fiction, people said, 'OK, I guess there's a new guy running the place,' and customers started coming back," Sittig said. The sweet moment for Sittig came nearly two years after that Jack campaign began, he said. Chiat was approached by Taco Bell, and because Chiat couldn't represent competing fast-food chains, the agency decided to ditch Jack in the Box, the much smaller company.

Sittig said Jack in the Box offered him its account if he would start an agency. According to Jack in the Box executives, it was the other way around -- that Sittig offered his services to them. Whichever side is right, Secret Weapon was born. The name, as founders Sittig and Adams describe it, has to do with what they hoped would be their advantage over bigger agencies: brainpower.

Maybe so. Jack in the Box has had 17 consecutive quarters of growth in same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, since 2003. Revenue grew from $1 billion in 1995 -- when Sittig took over the account -- to $2.9 billion in 2007.

"It's beyond the creative aspect; we consider them a strategic partner," said Terri Funk Graham, chief marketing officer for Jack in the Box.

Sittig and Secret Weapon have helped the Jack in the Box character become a cultural icon, whose ads on YouTube draw tens of thousands of page views, and who has his own MySpace page (which informs us that Jack has a wife named Cricket and that his goal is to "rule the fast-food world with an iron fist").

The spots aren't for everyone. "Young men like irreverent humor," Sittig said. "If our target was a 75-year-old woman, we'd be a Hallmark card."

In one recent ad, Jack, wearing a track suit, is playing racquetball with an employee, whom he has chosen to lead the Jack "chicken team." The employee says gratefully, "Thanks Jack, you picked the right guy. I am your chicken man." But while he dons his goggles, he is hit in the gut by a bouncing ball, which causes him to "bawk" like a chicken, to Jack's bewilderment.

In another commercial, a bunch of Jack employees in a conference room giggle uproariously as a colleague gives a report on a competitor's Angus burgers -- they think "Angus" sounds scatological. After Jack details his restaurant's new sirloin burger, an employee, trying to keep a straight face, asks, "Are you saying that people will find our sirloin more attractive than their anguses?"

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