As a business consultancy and marketing agency I’ve had occasion to work with many different and mostly great clients. In the biz, you’re not supposed to talk about client relationships other than to say how great your clients are and how lucky you are to work with them. For most of my career that’s actually been true, but not in the case of our agency’s short engagement with Papa John’s from several years ago.
Reading this year about the trials and tribulations of Papa John’s and its founder and former CEO John Schnatter, I have a bit of schadenfreude in watching him and the company squirm. I have an expression I’ve used for years – ‘The fish stinks from the head down’. My team and I never met Mr. Schnatter but the behavior of the specific franchise group lead with whom we did work, was ridiculously unprofessional.
I can’t even say that Papa John’s was a client since they never paid us for anything. Yes I had a problem with that too. The main issue is that the group in charge did not want to work with us but had taken over when the prior franchise group leader was fired. He was the guy that hired us. Doomed from the start? Well in this case yes, but it didn’t have to be that way.
Since this was several years ago and the budget was very limited we initially embraced a 100% digital strategy. That did not fly with the PJ leads and they (on behalf of the very nice 12 or so franchisees), denied a digital strategy in favor of their traditional approaches using broadcast media. Remember that the budget was limited. Very limited. The franchisees themselves were in favor of our approach given the limited budget. They liked the measurability of digital campaigns as opposed to traditional broadcast media. When we resubmitted a plan using some broadcast media, they reluctantly agreed and were ready to proceed as long as our agency worked for peanuts. Naturally we rejected that idea and I resigned the account once this became clear.
The behavior of the PJ franchise group leaders was shocking and disturbing to me at the time. It still is today. The ironic thing is that in meeting with some of the franchisees themselves, I found them to be smart, hardworking and reasonable people who mostly did not realize the heavy-handed approach of Papa John’s until after the fact. We interfaced with the digital team lead at Papa John’s headquarters (by phone and email). Every person we encountered at Papa John’s had an attitude of ‘been there done that. We know better.’ And had zero interest in any new approaches. In my opinion, that comes from the top down (see above). If I sound a little bit bitter it’s not intentional. Had nothing happened with the CEO I’d not be giving it much thought. But things did happen and I feel there’s a connection.
I don’t know the actual culture inside Papa John’s headquarters having never been there. It’s hard to believe there’s much good feeling and team spirit in the organization today. Not listening or being deaf to change has gotten Papa John’s to where it is today. Fixing Papa John’s brand and company will be extremely difficult but I hope for the sake of the franchisees that they find a solution. But that seems a long way from happening.
In the meantime you won’t find me shedding any tears.