SeaWorld fires agency, shakes up leadership despite improved brand sentiment

The brand's CEO, CMO and creative leader have all departed since February.

Despite seeing a long-awaited increase in brand favorability in Q1 2018, according to documents obtained by Campaign, SeaWorld still abruptly ended its relationship with Push Digital – the agency behind its recent popular brand campaign – and massively reshuffled its executive leadership team.

In recent months, travel industry media company Skift has reported that SeaWorld’s CEO Joel Manby, CMO Denise Godreau and Creative Chief Anthony Esparza all stepped down as the brand "enters its next phase of intensified focus on execution and growth," it said in a statement upon Manby’s departure.

Push Digital, which created the "From Park to Planet" spot late last year, was let go nine months before its contract with SeaWorld was expected to end. According to documents obtained by Campaign, brand favorability for SeaWorld increased 7 percent in the first quarter of 2018 – its first improvement in sentiment since July 2016.

The proprietary documents also state that "momentum is slowly turning in our favor."

"Those with a better opinion of SeaWorld increased slightly while those with a worse opinion decreased slightly," it reads, adding that the change may not be massive, but it confirms that favorability is going in the right direction.

The ad, which focuses on saving animals, the planet and the ocean, rose to the top of Ace Metrix’s Top Breakthrough Ads of Q3 2017 for both likeability and attention. This was no easy feat for SeaWorld, which has been struggling to repair its image since the controversial documentary Blackfish came out in 2013. Blackfish dives into the debate around captive killer whales, specifically looking into Dawn Brancheau, a whale trainer who was killed by an orca at SeaWorld in 2010.

It is understood that SeaWorld will continue to carry the "From Park to Planet" messaging even though it cut ties with Push Digital.

"We came up with ‘From Park to Planet’ campaign to stop the bleeding that was happening at SeaWorld for years, and not only did we stop the bleeding, but we increased favorability," said Push Digital CEO Wesley Donehue.

Representatives from SeaWorld did not respond to inquiry for comment.

According to SeaWorld’s Q4 earnings report for 2017, the company is confident about 2018 and is planning its "most comprehensive marketing and communications strategy bolstered by the largest investment in such efforts in the company's history."

Fourth quarter attendance at SeaWorld was down 2.7 percent from the prior year, and full-year attendance was down 5.5 percent, year-over-year, according to the earnings report.