Should Chipotle break down and find the right ad agency?

Chipotle sort of notoriously gave up on ad agencies.

And when they came out with that “Back To The Start” blockbuster, it looked like a brilliant new moment in the restaurant/agency paradigm, and one that did not look so good for Mad Men and Women.

On sunny days, it looks like the great unbundling and total management of the brand by an internal team is working well.

What else have they been doing, though? Well, they have an annual Halloween promotion. Generally the “Boo-Rito” promotion works well enough—certainly the charitable donations to brand-relevant organizations is great. (I am not sure of the punning promotion’s provenance and haven’t tracked down its history: it seems somewhat agency-conceived to me, then self-perpetuating).

It's a pun

But then last Halloween there was this BI-ZARRE video on YouTube which they apparently knew was being done in their name, but has NOTHING to do with the brand as I understand it, and is AWFUL AND NOT FUNNY, and WEIRDLY UNINFORMATIVE, and is in my opinion DAMAGING, and should be immediately stricken from the Tubes of You:

So. Pros, Cons. I love their packaging, which they had some San Francisco design firm do.

But then there was the weird Twitter self-hack, which everyone who loves the morals and mores and vision and aesthetics and methods and design choices and everything about this brand had to sort of overlook.

Then they told Bloomberg they might have to start using beef treated with antibiotics in certain situations to keep up with demand; while it was a pragmatic, nuanced, rational decision, it was easy to have its edges knocked off, and lots of Twitterers were eager to point fingers and go, “Oh, ho, ye high-and-mighty, lookit yerself now.” And when I retweeted a story about the loosening of its antibiotic measures, I got this extremely expert, friendly response:

Myra does not appear to be a bot. She appears to be Myra.

So, staying their current course. But the question that arise from these swings from “Excellent” to “Okay” to “Oops” is, would they be better off with advice from professional communications people?

Depends, of course, on the relationship and talents of the people they choose. But the right relationship would help Chipotle a whole lot: their efforts on the whole seem disjointed for such a put-together brand. Especially as they try to navigate the post-traditional-advertising world of earned media, they can’t always be lucky (as they were with their choice of partners for the bags and “Back to the Start” video).

Cohesion is what people need to feel they really know a brand.

So far, Chipotle’s momentum and the good will they’ve earned through their stance on healthier, less cruel farming has given them some room. But the recent missteps make it clear there is a limit to the good will: a few more oddball antics and ill-advised anti-branded operations decisions, and they may have to go back to the start.

(Wrapping up with a neat little play on words like that is the sort of thing a traditional ad agency writer tends to do, btw, and I feel kinda squeamish and old-world doing it. Which is why I’ve tagged on this meta-commentary. Which is now a creative decision that’s getting to be kind of old school.) (See, Chipotle? Communications is complicated. Might want to get some trusted advisors, or be sniffing around for some, at least.)


Had a Twitter exchange with @heidi_writer, who asked, “Could you address your implication that internal mktg staff are not ‘prof’l comm ppl’?”

So I did, and as I paraphrase what I twittered back to her, I do want to acknowledge, first—there are almost no restaurant brands more devoted to the power of aesthetics, style, and worthwhile content than Chipotle. They’re leaders, and that’s why they have so many admirers. But the inconsistencies cited in this post lead me to conclude that, despite my suspicion that the internal marketing staff are extremely professional communications people, they may be suffering from two things the right agency partner might provide: a cohesiveness of strategy, tone and voice in all materials (no Frankenstein video following the emotionally powerful Back To The Start piece), and perhaps the objectivity that a devoted and involved but exterior perspective can provide—Steve Jobs was a brilliant communicator, but he still wanted the people at Chiat/Day to work with him, and use both their taste and objectivity when crafting Apple materials (and establishing the criteria for a tone that would carry through to everything they did). I’m envisioning that Chipotle—as close to Apple as any brand in the restaurant category—will one day find their version of Chiat/Day.


  1. Thanks for addressing my question, here and on Twitter. By their nature as vendors, agencies do have the ability to maintain an external perspective. So, their role as advisors is hugely important in these areas of communications cohesion and continuity. Is it easier for an internal marketing team, as professional, smart, and talented as they may be, to get wrapped up in one idea, failing to see it in context of a broader vision? Does the balancing act of the agency-client relationship make it easier for the agency to see the big picture? Or are agencies simply more likely to have both long-term, strategic thinkers and creative visionaries on their teams?

    1. I think it’s a little of a lot of that. I think for one thing, I keep trying to describe Chipotle finding the “Right” agency, because just like with marriage, certain businesses work together well—if the Supreme Court says they can behave like people, I’ll run with that. And it’s like Chipotle has been burned in prior relationships, or failed to find the spark, or whatever Dr. Phil/Oprah-like estimation of their previous relationships suits the situation best. So they’re determined to live alone, single, their own island. And that’s fine, but I think it’s not ideal for a business because (a) the right partner can, if nothing else, provide the counsel that Chipotle basically knows is right but can’t accept when they get carried away by whimsy (“No, really, seriously, I wouldn’t have the Frankenstein bust the kid’s pumpkin, and I’d edit out a lot of the first two minutes because it seems kind of pointless and meandering and unrelated to your core brand message and the tone we’ve established that our customers have learned to expect from us”) and (b) a really good agency does attract really smart, talented people who as you suggest are adept at thinking strategically and have creative vision. And if it’s the “Right” agency, they’ll gain Chipotle’s trust, and Chipotle will share with them, and that information will lead to things that Chipotle is too busy with the business of running a restaurant from quarter to quarter to really invest in, even if their internal experts are really good at communicating, too. And by showing trust, Chipotle will inspire fervor and loyalty and above-and-beyond devotion from the team at the Right agency (as opposed to indulgent, mercenary behavior trotted out as a sincere effort to help but is in reality more self-serving than looking for the ultimate answers, which is what happens a lot and is hard to guess beforehand which agency will be mercenary and which will be passionately devoted—and of course, a lot depends on the signals Chipotle gives them). In the end, the analogy to finding the love of your life vs. someone you can tolerate as you raise a family IS PRECISE, EXACT, AND APPROPRIATE in every way (if a little hack, cliché, expected, or stereotypical).

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