McGarryBowen loses Bud Light to Translation

Of course it was too good to last. The (too) amazing roll that McGarryBowen/Chicago was on has come to a crashing halt.

Just months after MB was awarded Bud Light, the holy grail of American beer advertising accounts, parent Anheuser-Busch InBev snatched the account from the Chicago shop Monday and handed it to Translation, a small, primarily multicultural shop that also joined the Bud Light roster late last year to handle Bud Light brand extensions, including Bud Light Lime and Bud Light Platinum.

Not so coincidentally, the Bud Light agency shakeup comes just months after MillerCoors, the nation’s second largest beer purveyor, also shook up its agency roster, dumping DraftFCB/Chicago.  Without a review, MillerCoors moved the Coors brands to a local startup shop called Cavalry, while Saatchi & Saatchi/New York got the Miller Lite business.

But back to the Bud Light shakeup.  What the huge loss for McGarryBowen suggests, at the very least, is that it’s not easy to do great beer advertising that is creatively engaging and that also moves lots of cases of beer.

In the wake of this disaster for McGarryBowen, the question has to be asked:  Was MB in way over its head on Bud Light?  And a second, related question must be posed:  Is Anheuser-Busch marketing honcho Paul Chibe, who ordered up Monday’s abrupt agency shakeup, also in over his head?

Had MB earned right to its spectacularly fast growth?

First, let’s deal with the McGarryBowen question.  It can be dangerous when an agency grows too fast. And there’s no question McGarryBowen’s growth here in Chicago (and in New York City) over the past several years was nothing short of meteoric.

MB/Chicago opened initially to handle Chase advertising and Walt Disney theme park business. But the shop soon got everyone’s attention when it started picking up business from packaged goods giant Kraft Foods, a company looking to dispense with its old-fashioned, formulaic advertising in favor of something a bit more contemporary.

In the early going, McGarry did indeed help Kraft shake up things with some work for Miracle Whip that positioned the product as something way more more than a boring sandwich spread.

But somewhere in between Miracle Whip and Bud Light, MB/Chicago got new business momentum unlike anything seen in this city in quite some time. As the agency added more and more accounts, including Sears, the questioning from many observers grew ever louder.  Why McGarry?  Had the Chicago shop really earned the right to enjoy this much good fortune?

The answer, as we now know, is “no.”

McGarryBowen/Chicago simply has not lived up to what seemed to be some genuine early promise. Nowhere is that failure more evident than in the shop’s recent work for Sears, an ailing retail behemoth for which McGarry has delivered some eye-poppingly bad, at times downright stupid, work. 

Chibe undoubtedly pressured to improve slowing sales

Paul Chibe, A-B’s marketing honchoSo that brings us to the second question we posed.  If MB/Chicago wasn’t a truly topnotch creative shop and had no major previous experience in the beer category, why did Chibe award McGarry the plum Bud Light account in the first place? 

When he took the A-B job more than a year ago, Chibe, a former Wm. Wrigley Jr. chewing gum guy, suddenly found himself trying to orchestrate a marketing game plan for America’s largest brewery even as beer sales were slowing — in part because of growing pressure from a raft of craft beers that have been gaining popularity with each passing month.

No doubt under pressure from InBev bean counters to improve Bud Light numbers, Chibe felt he had to do something fast.  So, like Andy England, his marketing counterpart at MillerCoors, did recently, Chibe simply decided to do something drastic. He completely upset the apple cart and gave Translation all the Bud Light business.

The move Chibe made Monday will, at the very least, buy him more time, even as one has to wonder if Chibe really knows what he’s doing in the world of beer.  Chewing gum it ain’t. We certainly would not be the least bit surprised if we woke up one day six months or so from now and discovered Chibe was gone — just like Michael Francis, the former marketing guru at JCP, suddenly disappeared when things turned bleak there recently.

Translation has former Draftfcb beer account man aboard

Steve Stoute, Translation’s CEOSo what of Translation, the ad agency with offices in New York and Chicago, that now has its big shot at glory?

The work the small shop has done in recent months for Bud Light Lime and Bud Light Platinum is slick. Much of it has a smooth, easy-to-digest music video vibe. Which is not surprising, given that agency leader Steve Stoute is a former music industry guy.  But groundbreaking?  Not really.

Now Translation will have to demonstrate that it really can handle the challenge. Stoute talked with a certain cocky confidence Monday about his agency’s ability to get the job done.

And he just might.

Ever so quietly, Stoute brought on board last month Sean McGrath, a former beer account executive at DraftFCB/Chicago.  McGrath worked closely at Draft with Marty Stock, who spearheaded the huge MillerCoors account there before the business exited. 

Stock left Draft to head up the new Cavalry/Chicago shop that is handling Coors.  Now McGrath, too, is back in the beer business at Translation’s Chicago office. By all accounts, both Stock and McGrath know the beer business well. So McGrath will undoubtedly be a huge help to Stoute on Bud Light.

Chibe is now betting big on Translation.  But it’s still only a bet at this point.  An earlier bet obviously didn’t work for Chibe. Just exactly what the eventual payoff will be this time around remains to be seen.

Contact Lewis Lazare at