Dick Sittig has an alter ego named Jack. The creative director at advertising agency Secret Weapon Marketing in Santa Monica, Sittig has directed 400 television commercials starring the ball-headed chief executive for Jack-in-the-Box Inc. Since Secret Weapon took over the account in 1994, sales at the San Diego-based restaurant chain have tripled to about $3 billion. Secret Weapon only has two other clients: Southern California Honda Dealers and Clear Wireless, a mobile Internet service from Sprint in test phase in Portland, Ore. There's a rumor around the ad world that it is Sittig's voice you hear as Jack in the commercials. He won't discuss it, but there is a strong similarity in timbre and inflection. Sittig met with the Business Journal in the company's game room, which features a basketball hoop and bikes for employees, to share his thoughts about his career trajectory, the future of advertising and why he originally named his agency the Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Co.

Question: When did you first consider a career in advertising?

Answer: I was studying finance and economics at USC. In a marketing class, we had to create an ad. I remember really liking it.

Q: Why didn't you switch majors?

A: I asked my professor, "How do I get into advertising?" When I told him I was a junior, he said it was too late. Fortunately, I didn't listen.

Q: What was your first job?

A: I graduated and worked for Mobil Oil as a sales rep selling Mobil products to gas stations in South Los Angeles. I was a square peg in a round hole. Soon I was unemployed with $32 to my name.

Q: How did you get into advertising?

A: I was moving into a studio apartment, and the guy who was moving out was in advertising. He invited me to his housewarming party. Everybody there was in advertising. I asked how to get into advertising and they said I needed a portfolio. I went to night school and put together a portfolio.

Q: Then what happened?

A: I got an offer to work at a small agency for $100 a day, but then the guy called back and said he couldn't hire me because I had no experience. I said I would work for free, and if he liked my work he could pay me. He put me to work writing radio spots on the Mitsubishi account. In a few weeks I went from having $32 to having several hundred dollars.

Q: When did you know it was the right move?

A: One year I got a profit-sharing check from Mobil Oil for 17 cents. I got a check from that little ad agency for $100 for a day's work. I made photocopies of both checks and framed them together as a reminder of what direction my life should take.

Q: And then?

A: I was at Dailey & Associates for five weeks, Ogilvy & Mather for five months, BBDO for two years, Della Femina/Jeary & Partners for a few years and then Chiat\Day for eight years. That's where I created the Energizer Bunny.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the Energizer Bunny?

A: The idea was "What if the battery lasted so long, you couldn't demonstrate it in one 30-second TV ad?" So the bunny would keep going into another advertiser's time, which of course was really media time that Energizer bought and we filled with fake advertising for the bunny to interrupt.

Q: Why was the bunny such a hit?

A: The bunny was likable because he interrupted bad commercials. He was doing the audience a favor and was on their side by mocking the sorry state of most TV ads. We also hoped that he would work his way into pop culture and that anytime something kept going, the bunny would be referenced, and that turned out to be true.

Q: What was Jay Chiat like?

A: Jay Chiat was a beautiful, complex guy. When I went to New York, he was kind enough to take me to Giorgio Armani and buy me clothes so I could fit into the New York business culture. He invited me to his house in the Hamptons. But unlike me, Jay didn't like stability. He looked for ways to keep people on their toes and disrupt things. He loved to get them uncomfortable, thinking new ideas. He would yell at you if he thought your ideas sucked.

Q: Did you invent the character of Jack-in-the-Box?

A: No, the company had the clown mascot for a long time. It was the speaker box for ordering food, but that icon was blown up in 1980.

Q: Exploded? Literally?

A: Jack-in-the-Box thought it appealed only to children and they didn't want that. They had a TV campaign where they asked people if they should blow up the clown. Enough people said yes and they strapped dynamite to the clown and blew it up on television.

Q: How did you enter the picture?

A: When we brought Jack back, he was CEO of the company. He went into the boardroom and blew it up. He exacted revenge.

Q: Asserted control?

A: Right. Ever since December 1994, Jack has been the CEO and spokesperson for Jack-in-the-Box.

Q: Do you do the voice for Jack?

A: If you go on the Internet, you may see places that say that. I can't confirm it.

Q: What did you want to accomplish with the "Hang in There Jack" campaign?

A: We treat Jack like episodic television. The audience feels familiar enough with the characters to tune in every week, but you have to strike a balance between familiarity and newness. This campaign was the moment to recapture our audience based on the old adage, "You could be hit by a bus tomorrow."

Q: Did it work?

A: Four million people came to HangInThereJack.com to check on his condition. Twenty-thousand people left messages.

Q: Were you surprised?

A: I wasn't surprised about the outpouring of comments. We've spent 15 years having fun with this character and building an audience. If you add up all the money spent over those 15 years, there better be some good will. We would have felt terrible if had shown a spot on the Super Bowl and everybody yawned.

Q: Why did this bus accident occur at the same time as a rebranding?

A: When he came out of the coma, it seemed a natural time to unveil projects like a new logo, renovation of restaurants and additions to the menu.

Q: Why did you need to recapture your audience? Had you lost them?

A: When the campaign started back in 1994, all the competitive advertising was very similar jingles and happy people eating food. A lot of food and not much story. To stand out, we had to be different, so we did a lot of story and a little food.

Q: Where's the problem?

A: It worked at the time. We were irreverent at a time when there wasn't much irreverence. Fast-forward to today and everybody's irreverent Burger King, Carl's. We needed to stand out again, and "Hang in There Jack" did it.

Q: Where did the Secret Weapon Marketing name come from?

A: The legal name of the firm is still Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Co. When it came time to form an agency, I didn't want to name it after myself, the tradition in advertising. I wanted the clients to be famous and us in the background. I thought, "We're their secret weapon."

Q: Why Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Co.?

A: I thought we should be really secret, so we needed a false name. Our original offices had the Kowloon sign on the door and a false front in the lobby.

Q: What happened?

A: We were too clever by half. When we started entering award contests, it confused the judges. City health officials came by to inspect our refrigerators.

Q: How did it end?

A: We went to Stuttgart for a meeting with Porsche. These German guys couldn't understand why they were talking to the Kowloon Wholesale Seafood Co. about the launch of their new SUV. On the plane ride home, we decided to call ourselves Secret Weapon Marketing.

Q: Have you always worked in Los Angeles?

A: Yes, except for two years when I headed the Chiat\Day office in New York. Soon after I came back to Los Angeles, we pitched the Jack-in-the-Box account.

Q: How did you start your own agency?

A: Taco Bell came to Chiat\Day and said they would give the agency the advertising account. At the time, Taco Bell was much larger than Jack-in-the-Box, so Jay Chiat said yes. But then they had to shed Jack-in-the-Box because an agency can't represent competing companies.

Q: What was the turning point of your career?

A: Jack-in-the-Box asked me to start an agency and they would be my first client. Jack-in-the-Box took a chance on me. That was huge.

Q: Was Jack your only account for a long time?

A: We had project work for Porsche, and during the Internet boom we had an online insurance agency. But Jack was always the mainstay.

Q: Other agencies win and lose accounts, but not you. Why?

A: It was during the Internet bubble that a new business model occurred to me: We would never take more than three accounts. Typically an agency has 15 to 30 accounts. The principals at the agency are fielding 15 sets of phone calls and 15 creative teams, putting out fires, trying to save accounts. I didn't want to replicate that model.

Q: So what's your model?

A: By limiting myself to three clients, I am involved in actually making the ads. Clients like it because they don't get lost in the shuffle. I like it because instead of racing around the country, I go home and have dinner with my family.

Q: What's made you successful?

A: I can tell you with absolute certainty: It's the discipline that comes from growing up in the Midwest and a business school education and also having the DNA of a smart aleck. I was the class clown sitting in the back row, the wiseacre. If you can combine business acumen with the creativity of the class clown, it works in advertising.

Q: What is the lesson for other people seeking a career in advertising?

A: If you're just the class clown, people will not trust you with their billion-dollar business. If you're the analyst, you're never going to get noticed and break through the clutter. Anyone interested in advertising needs both those traits.

Q: What would you want to tell business people about marketing?

A: It's rare that any product is clearly better than anything else in the market. So the challenge is to develop a preference in the mind of the consumer. And there can't be a preference until there's a difference. So differentiation is step one. That's difficult for CEOs to grasp.

Q: How so?

A: Safety lies in doing what has worked before. Sometimes that's called "best practices." No one gets in trouble for following best practices. But it takes you away from differentiating yourself. And without difference, there can be no preference.

Q: Some people believe the 30-second TV spot has lost its effectiveness. Agree or disagree?

A: They're right in that there are a lot more ways to reach people than television. So if you only do television, you're missing a lot of opportunities. But people who say television is dead are the ones who can't do television well. It has been the core of the Jack campaign since its inception.

Q: What's your advice for CEOs who feel they know their product and just write their own advertisements?

A: People who write their own ads are like the people in courtrooms who act as their own lawyers. It's just as rare that it ever works.

Dick Sittig

Title: Creative Director

Company: Secret Weapon Marketing

Born: 1958; Park Forest, Ill.

Education: B.S. in business, USC

Career Turning Point: Jack-in-the-Box asked him to start an advertising agency

Most Influential People: Ayn Rand, author; Lee Clow, chairman of

Personal: Lives in Malibu with wife, two children and a Labrador-poodle mix named Wally Dynamite

Hobbies: Tennis, boats, travel and snowboarding

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