Can DDB pull off miracle to save Bud Light business

It looks as if this busy summer of 2011 will be remembered as a time when some of the Chicago advertising industry’s most iconic client/agency relationships finally splintered and broke apart.

First came the collapse of the nearly 60-year marriage between DraftFCB and S.C. Johnson.

Though it has been threatening to happen for a couple of years, it also now appears that DDB/Chicago and Anheuser-Busch’s top-selling Bud Light could be headed for divorce court too. 

The relationship between DDB and Bud Light stretches back to the early 1980’s, and the brew’s rich history with the agency extends over some of the local shop’s brightest — and darkest —eras.

Anyone who has been closely examining the tea leaves regarding the relationship between DDB/Chicago and Bud Light (and the brew’s relatively new global parent InBev) already knew the once airtight bond between beer brand and agency had grown increasingly tenuous.

There were a couple of years recently when DDB seemed to be fully in charge of the Bud Light  brand, and other years when A-B let other agencies, most notably Cannonball in St. Louis, take near full control of the advertising.

But, in truth, a seminal moment in the Bud Light-DDB marriage came when Bob Lachky, a former DDB staffer and the longtime marketing honcho at Anheuser-Busch, put down the advertising reins (whoa!!!!!!) at the brewery and quietly departed in early 2009.

Without Lachky around, savvy observers knew it was just a matter of time before it all fell apart between Bud Light and DDB, to whom the marketing chief showed remarkable loyalty.

Now that parent Anheuser-BuschInBev has admitted it is ready to  shake up the Bud Light agency roster, it’s only an acknowledgment, really, of what had been going on for some time.

Still, perhaps ill-advisedly, DDB is participating in the review as the presumptive incumbent, a move that probably makes only marginally more sense than DraftFCB deciding to defend its S.C. Johnson business after the home products company told the agency on Christmas Eve last year a review was commencing.  If that wasn’t a none-too-thinly-veiled hint at the bad news to come, I don’t know what would be.

But now it is DDB’s turn to face its fate and see if it can pull off the miracle that eluded DraftFCB.

New CCO needs a creative breakthrough to save the account 

DDB’s CCO Ewan PatersonThe Bud Light review comes a year after the coronation of Brit Ewan Paterson as DDB/Chicago’s new chief creative officer.  If there were any real hope of salvaging the DDB-Bud Light relationship, we would have thought Paterson would have made that his primary mission in his first year on the job.

But if he indeed was focusing at all on saving Bud Light, Paterson appears not to have done enough. 

If the top-selling Bud Light officially severs its ties with DDB or leaves the relationship hanging by the very slimmest of threads, it will hardly go down as a major triumph on Paterson’s report card.

DDB’s chief creative has been busy in recent months flooding DDB’s creative department with some of his Brit pals, who no doubt have a different take on beer advertising that may not encompass the frat boy humor that has — mostly for the worse — driven the DDB Bud Light creative for so many years.

Perhaps Paterson is counting on his newly-arrived buds (no pun intended) to come up with the creative breakthrough that could save the Bud Light business for DDB. Certainly we would be the first to welcome a truly fresh creative concept, as beer advertising across just about every major brand out there has grown incredibly stale the past couple of years.

If, however, Bud Light makes a clean, full cut with DDB, it may ultimately be in everyone’s best interest.  DDB will simply be forced to hunker down and redouble its efforts to turn around a shop horrendously shaken in recent years.

It’s possible another client, such as MillerCoors for instance, could throw some business at DDB.  But unless DDB has something really special to offer a MC, the brewery would be foolish to take the bait just because the agency has so-called beer category experience — a lame reason too often offered up when an agency switch is made.

Yes, experience matters.  But we say go with the shop that can offer some truly fresh creative.  Truly, mind-bogglingly unforgettable.  Why settle for less in a category as high-profile and advertising budget-rich as beer?

Former DDB creative reflects on Bud’s ‘Stone Age’ strategy 

Which leaves us with just enough space to offer up a few fond memories from an ace Chicago creative who was fortunate enough to have worked on the Bud Light account at DDB during happier times.  That creative would be Vinny Warren, who now runs the hot Escape Pod/Chicago boutique shop.

Last night Warren posted on his blog a remembrance of his days working on Bud Light: “(Bud Light) was great fun to work on, but it was made difficult by the brand having the stone age strategy of ‘what would you do for a Bud Light?’. 

“Everything you thought of and idea you had was immediately met with an ‘oh we did that three/five/seven years ago!’ reaction. Or ‘the brewery doesn’t like spots with epileptic penguins.’ So it could be a mind-bendingly difficult assignment to come up with anything fresh for.

“But the good thing was I was being paid to do this and had nothing else to occupy my time. Working on Bud Light was a great training ground for a lot of creatives, myself included.  If you did a Bud Light spot the whole country would know about it.  This prospect would frequently cause me to wet myself.”

‘Nuf said, we think.

Contact Lewis Lazare at