Ad man Rick Sittig puts fun spin on spots

A profile of Rick Sittig, ad man behind Energizer bunny, Jack in the Box character, helpful Honda dealer ads

The gig: Rick Sittig is the founder and creative director of Secret Weapon Marketing, a Santa Monica advertising firm. He's best known as the brains behind Jack, the wisecracking, round-headed fictional leader of Jack in the Box restaurants.

Before that, Sittig helped create the widely acclaimed "Energizer bunny" battery ads. He also was behind "Joe Isuzu," the TV pitchman for Isuzu cars and trucks. And his firm launched the "helpful Honda dealer" ad campaign for the Southern California Honda Dealers.

"I think I'm one of the few guys who believes in long-running campaigns," he says. "The reason I like long campaigns is they accrue value over time."

Midwestern roots: Sittig was born and raised in Park Forest, Ill., a suburb of Chicago where "every house was identical except the paint color." His mom was a teacher; his father sold window blinds. "It was as normal as normal could be."

His father didn't seem inspired by his work but did what he had to do for his family, he recalled. "My dad was a funny guy dropped in an un-funny career for 40 years. That motivated me to find something I could be passionate about and use my sense of humor."

The suit didn't fit: Sittig earned a finance degree at USC and quickly snagged a job with Mobil Oil Corp. (now ExxonMobil Corp.) selling engine oil to dealers in South Los Angeles.

Each day, he'd dress in his only suit and drive a Ford Mustang from station to station, hawking engine lubricant to franchise owners. He quit after a little more than a year. "This taught me I did not want to wear a wool suit for a living. I did not want to work for a huge corporation. I did not want to drive a late-1970s Ford," he said. "And I was not into lubricants."

Broke and unemployed: Wondering what he was going to do next, Sittig got his answer at an unexpected place. He went to a party filled with advertising workers who seemed a happy, witty bunch. So Sittig decided to give advertising a shot.

He built a portfolio at a trade school, then knocked on doors offering to work at no pay. After years at smaller firms, he landed at Los Angeles ad giant Chiat/Day, where he created the Jack campaign. "Advertising is a blend of creativity and problem solving," Sittig said. "For a funny guy from the Midwest with a solid work ethic and a business school education, that was right up my alley."

Rescuing Jack: In 1993, hundreds of people were sickened and four children were killed by E. coli contamination linked to undercooked hamburgers at Jack in the Box restaurants.

In the midst of a public relations crisis, the company turned to Sittig for an image makeover. "They needed people to change their perception of Jack in the Box in a hurry."

The answer, he decided, was Jack. "I said, 'What if he was the fictional founder of Jack in the Box and he came back to get rid of management? It would symbolically say Jack in the Box is under new management and give a new face to the company."

The ad campaign reshaped the company's image and ignited sales. Jack in the Box stock, which traded as low as $3.38 in 1994, reached a high of $77.58 this year.

Size matters: When the Chiat firm agreed to take on Taco Bell as a client, it had to let go of Jack in the Box to avoid a conflict. Sittig took Jack in the Box with him as the first client of Secret Weapon.

The company is a boutique firm, with about 30 employees and never more than three clients. "I like being creatively involved in the work. I can do that with three clients. I can't do that with 15."

You don't know Jack: Sittig's voice, deep and measured, sounds strikingly similar to that of Jack. He is reportedly the voice of the burger boss, but he won't say.

Personal: Sittig, 55, lives in Malibu and has a daughter at New York University and a son at Malibu High School.

A new name: For the first 30 years of his professional life, Rick went by the name Dick. But a backstage meeting with the singer Meatloaf changed that.

A friend introduced him to the singer, whose work Sittig had admired for years. "Dick? What kind of a name is Dick?" Meatloaf said. From that point forward, Sittig became Rick. "My God, somebody named Meatloaf is giving me grief about my name. That was the last straw."

It's a change he wishes he had made years earlier. "Here I am an advertising guy and I haven't taken care of my own brand."

Twitter: @spfeifer22

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