Risky business

Leslie Root isn't afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

Leslie Root isn’t afraid to ruffle a few feathers.

Since taking the marketing helm at Burger King Canada in 2001, she’s become a pro at fielding (often ridiculous) complaints about her provocative ads. The 43-year-old remains unfazed – pleased, actually – and thinks the complaints mean the ads are getting noticed.

Besides, her target, 18-34s, isn’t represented among the irate callers. In fact, since she revamped BK’s Canadian marketing strategy, the brand’s share of its target has improved significantly. Furthermore, three of the edgy new TV spots were shortlisted for Lions this year in Cannes, and two of her campaigns have been picked up in other markets. She has a new campaign up her sleeve, too, set to launch this month.

When Root took over the brand, one of her first missions was to narrow the target. ‘We were trying to be everything to everyone – that was inefficient, impractical and clouded our position,’ she says. She decided to zero in on a younger consumer and re-positioned Burger King as a hipper brand. ‘I thought the brand had tremendous potential, but had been under-exploited.’

TV was deemed the best way to communicate a new brand identity. But Root was working with a limited budget. How to make the most of it? BK had an AOR for English Canada and one in Quebec at the time. So, she consolidated all business with Montreal-based bleu blanc rouge.

‘They’re sensitive to the dynamics of the Quebec market [as well as] the rest of the country,’ she says. ‘And, they have great people among the rank and file…. It’s the people who are working on your business daily who really make a difference.’

So far, the BK corporate heads seem pleased with the results. ‘She’s a fast study, she has the ability to align around the vision of the leadership,’ notes her boss Russ Klein, Burger King’s global marketing officer, who was behind the ‘Wake up with the King’ work done by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, featuring the BK mascot lurking outside a man’s home to hand him his breakfast.

Klein made his own approach clear to Root a few years ago. ‘I always say it’s more important to be provocative than pleasant,’ he says. ‘But, you still have to be purposeful – you can’t just set your hair on fire to get attention; you have to advance your agenda.’

Within weeks of this meeting, Root sent Klein a new TV spot. Klein was blown away: ‘It was great work – very topical.’ The ad, which Klein says he can’t get into details about, was deemed too racy to run. But, he says it’s a great illustration of Root’s firm grasp on the kind of work BK strives for: ‘Some folks think I’m the pinnacle of risk-taking – and she made my palms sweat.’

It also helps that Root knows what she wants and, more importantly, knows how to convey that. ‘It does your agency no good to just say: ‘I don’t like this,” Root explains. ‘You need to be extremely explicit.’ Bleu blanc rouge CD Gaëtan Namouric likes her hands-on style: ‘She’s my creative director!’ he jokes. ‘She pushes us every time – it’s nice to see from a client.’

Root’s passion for the work developed at an early age. ‘When I was really small I wrote commercials in my head,’ she recalls. ‘I entertained my [fellow] Brownie troops with mock commercials.’

Her recent ads are considered entertaining, too. Last year’s campaign to promote the Western Angus Steak Burger (which Root launched during the Mad Cow scare to show solidarity with Canadian beef farmers), centred on a man’s, um, close relationship with a cow. One spot even implied a man was in bed with a cow. (The animal’s presence is implied with moos and tail shots.) This campaign, which was picked up in the U.K., elicited numerous complaints – mostly

from older people concerned that they endorsed bestiality.

And last year’s campaign for the Extreme Whopper was equally humorous. Now set to run in the U.S. and shortlisted at Cannes, it featured dedicated Whopper eaters undergoing surgery like having their mouths enlarged to enhance their burger-eating abilities. Namouric recalls when he was developing the creative for the Extreme Whopper spots, his colleagues said: ”Wow, she’ll kill you.’ But, she was really happy – she accepted it immediately,’ he says. ‘She’s risky.’

For her part, Root thought it was a no-brainer: ‘The beauty of the ads is that it’s a dead simple idea: It’s about a big sandwich; it concentrates on one benefit.’ Again, Root received a few irate calls from people concerned the spots were in poor taste. But she’ll take complaints over running bland ads any day. And she’s not alone in sparking a few protests – her American counterparts have been getting calls from people concerned that the ‘Wake up with the King’ spots are ‘creepy,’ and that the mascot is a peeping tom. ‘It’s all completely tongue-in-cheek,’ she says.

Root should know what flies in fast food. She has agency-side experience as a SVP group account director at BBDO (in Toronto and Vancouver), where A&W was her primary account. Before that, she spent seven years as national advertising director at KFC Canada.

‘I’m sort of a fast food hag,’ she jokes. ‘I love the speed, the quality of the competition and the sensitivity to marketing.’

She regularly meets with her franchisees, who were leery of building a relationship with her at first. Root recalls that when she first introduced herself, one of them said: ‘I don’t want to know your name, because you’re going to be gone right away.’ That comment has stuck with her, and she made it a point to demonstrate her commitment: ‘I’m here for the long haul.’

Five Questions

Favourite current TV show:

The Sopranos – because it has despicable characters that you

can’t help but like, despite your

better judgment.

Favourite movie:

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – you’ve got to love Nicholson. Plus, it was the first R- rated movie I got

into underage, making it that much more memorable.

Marketer you admire the most:

Andrew Brandt of the LCBO [currently the chair and CEO]. He reinvented the brand.

Most useful business book:

Truth? I hate these books. The best ideas aren’t isolated. The best experience is life experience.

Favourite commercial of all time:

A MasterCard spot wherein during the baseball season Bostonians had been asked what they would give in order to see the Red Sox win the World Series. The spot ran after the Sox won so, in the ad, a collection agency has come to collect whatever the fans had pledged earlier in the season. The coup de grace occurs when they come to collect Dennis Leary’s left testicle.