Small agency. Big client.
Boston's MMB succeeds where larger ad firms stumble, putting a fresh face on Subway's Jared ads
Jerry Cronin (above), an ad co-creator for MMB, keeps his head down to stay out of window reflections the video camera may pick up while filming a Subway commercial in Slidell, La. In the background, New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush walks down the steps of a pool. In photo below left, Bush and Jared Fogle prepare for another scene. (Sean Gardner/ Getty Images for The Boston Globe)
Should Jared stay or should he go?
That was the question MMB faced when the boutique Boston firm became the ad agency of record for Subway restaurants two years ago. Jared Fogle's message had grown stale, and other ad firms had tried unsuccessfully to jettison the pitchman who famously lost 245 pounds eating Subway sandwiches.
"He's done that, it's over," MMB president Fred Bertino recalls thinking. But getting rid of Fogle had its risks too; his message, which he had been espousing since 1998, helped make Subway one of the biggest restaurant chains in the country. MMB decided to keep Fogle but with one caveat, says Bertino: "Let's use him in a different way."
"A lot of agencies wanted to put a bullet in Jared. He wasn't cool. He wasn't hip," adds Joe McCarthy, an MMB cofounder who has since left the agency. "We tried to do some fun things with him."
Indeed, Fogle, 30, has been reincarnated in more than 30 MMB ads. In some spots, he's a brassy consumer advocate who takes jabs at McDonald's and other competitors by examining grams of fat and calories in rival offerings. In others, like the one expected to debut next month, he'll reprise his role as regular dude - sans weight-loss message. Fogle will appear alongside Reggie Bush, the New Orleans Saints football player, who plays himself, famous athlete, to Fogle's average Joe. The message: People of all stripes can lead active lifestyles - a theme broader than talking about dieting.
At first glance, MMB might not seem capable of tackling such a big campaign. Fast-food restaurants are notorious for requiring agencies to churn out ads again and again, any time a menu item is added or any time franchisees complain about a restaurant's current set of commercials (which is often). MMB, with its staff of between 50 and 60, is not part of the five global publicly traded holding companies that dominate the ad industry, and depends on Subway for just under half its annual revenue. In its time, however, MMB has created commercials for the Milford, Conn., sandwich emporium that have resonated better than those from bigger firms, and its campaigns have lent Subway a more aggressive edge.
Subway is MMB's largest account ever, says MMB managing director Chad Caufield, who oversees the account, though he declined to specify its financial value to the agency. Subway spent about $357.7 million on ad time in 2006, according to TNS Media Intelligence.
While privately held Subway doesn't release financial results publicly, "we have seen sales jump because of the advertising," says Ted Wirth, director of creative services for Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust, which oversees marketing for the chain. Subway's 2006 US sales of about $7.7 billion put it behind only McDonald's, Burger King, and Wendy's, according to Technomic Inc., a Chicago food-service consultancy, but its sales growth for that year was bigger than any of those burger rivals.
Before the chain latched onto MMB, ads featuring Fogle talking about losing weight had begun to drift. In 2003, Subway's franchisees and executives at its ad agencies were pushing to try something new, even wild.
The result? TV commercials sporting a guy in a cheerleading tutu telling viewers it was OK to eat indulgent food elsewhere if they made Subway part of their regular routine. The ads were head-scratchers; viewers could not comprehend them easily. Subway quickly dumped the well-regarded agency that created them, Minneapolis-based Fallon Worldwide. But matters grew worse when Subway turned to another big name, San Francisco's Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, and didn't hit it off there either. In addition to lackluster commercials, Subway was developing a reputation as a mercurial client.
The kooky cheerleader "was really abstract and not appropriate," recalls Chris Carroll, who oversaw marketing for Subway and brought MMB on board in 2003 to do project work for the chain. (One notable effort featured Herman and Sherman Smith, weight-losing twins from New Orleans.)
Franchisees and ad executives kept saying, "We have got to evolve it. We need cutting-edge," says Carroll, now chief marketing officer at rival sandwich chain Cosi Inc. "What Fred convinced us was, 'No you don't. You're a very simple brand, and you need to ground yourself.' "
Originally known as McCarthy Mambro Bertino, the agency was founded in 2001 by Bertino, a veteran of Boston ad shop Hill Holliday, and his partners. The group consisted of "a couple of big agency refugees who wanted to get back" to the business of devising marketing strategy, says Caufield of MMB.
They didn't want to parachute in once in a while, he said, just to glad-hand a client while junior staffers did the bulk of the work. MMB has done work for Boston Beer's Sam Adams and liquor conglomerate Allied Domecq in the past, and current clients include ESPN, Jiffy Lube, and Harvard Business School. One Boston-area ad executive says agencies around the city are stunned by the volume of Subway work from MMB and describes the firm as a place where every executive wears many hats.
It's just this sort of working environment that has made smaller ad agencies a hot commodity in the advertising world. A number of big advertisers, including Coca-Cola Co., have found creative success with smaller firms. They tend to be nimbler, while big counterparts get distracted with managing offices around the globe. Even so, MMB has avoided the typical small-agency pitfalls. "There are precious few independent agencies that really are run by adults," says Joanne Davis, a veteran marketing consultant who helps advertisers select agencies and has worked with Subway. At MMB, "top people are working on the client's business, and they don't seem to be immature and brat-packy."
As it grows, Subway is bound to keep the firm busy. Best known for its slogan "Eat Fresh" and use of Fogle, Subway has moved into new foods - not always with messages about eating healthy. Caufield says ads with Jared are only one part of a much larger effort that involves about 45 national ads a year for Subway. One MMB campaign featuring comedian Jon Lovitz asked consumers to think of Subway as an option for dinner, not just lunch. The sandwiches featured in the ads are definitely heartier than those Fogle eats.
"What our competitors are trying to do is say, 'Hey, we're healthy, too,' but when you dig underneath it, they're really not that healthy. We have to defend that fact and that perception vigorously. At the same time, consumers want to indulge every now and again," says Tony Pace, chief marketing officer of the Subway Franchisee Advertising Fund Trust. "Jared is certainly important to us, but he's not the entirety of what we do."
MMB must also push beyond its limitations. Advertisers need more than just ads; they need specialists who can devise smart placement of ads in TV shows and other media, as well as a digital strategy. Because fast-food chains demand so much work of their ad agencies, many retain several firms, not just one.
MMB executives say they have brought more of Subway's digital business on board, and have no intention of watching the account go elsewhere.
Besides, one key Subway customer really likes their work. "I don't have a rock-star image. I didn't have anything crazy. I think it's important to remember that," says Fogle.
MMB wants "to put me in a good light, and we can have fun with it, but at the same time make sure we can maintain the integrity of what I've done."