DDB missed chance to keep Bud Light before the ax fell

It has been said one can tell much about a man’s character from the way he handles defeat. If this is so — and we most assuredly believe it to be — then the image that DDB/Chicago executive creative director Mark Gross plastered in the upper left hand corner of his Facebook page speaks volumes.

Though the image of which we speak may very well have disappeared (things can vanish fast on Facebook) by the time you read this, the chiseled Gross had posted there a visual of himself in a tee shirt with a snarky smile and a giant bottle of Miller Lite snuggled against his cheek.  Scrawled across the bottom of the pic is the word “Drinker!”

DDB’s Mark Gross, EVP on Bud LightIt’s impossible to know exactly what compelled Gross — who has for many years overseen the Bud Light account at DDB — to put up this particular visual.  But we have every reason to suspect it had something to do with Anheuser-Busch’s recent move to drop DDB from the Bud Light agency review it is now conducting.

Yes, for all intents and purposes, it is over between DDB/Chicago and Bud Light.  Though Anheuser-Busch has said it will keep DDB on its roster and may throw it some work down the road, DDB will no longer be the agency of record for Bud Light, a relationship that spanned some three decades.

Agency saw A-B departure coming for some time

As we said in a previous column, we knew that relationship was pretty much over for DDB when Bob Lachky left A-B in early 2009.  For the many years that Lachky (himself a former DDB executive) lorded over A-B’s marketing efforts, he protected the agency and kept the relationship going, even when the work started to feel stale and sub par.Bob Lachky, former A-B executive

Newly anointed DDB/Chicago CEO Peter McGuinness rather nonchalantly noted last week that the agency had seen this breakup coming for some time.  Still, that in no way excuses Gross’s thumbing of his nose so publicly at a client that provided him a very comfortable income for quite a long time.

No doubt Gross saw his Facebook gesture as a cute prank that called to mind the frat house humor that was the foundation for so much of the work he and his DDB team produced for Bud Light over the years.   But he should have thought twice before going public with it.

DDB could have acted to keep A-B before the ax fell

Putting aside Gross’s misguided attempt at having a little fun, the loss of the Bud Light business is, without question, a huge setback for DDB/Chicago.  It removes from the shop an iconic brand that could have helped an agency that is engaged in the arduous task of turning around its creative profile.

DDB/Chicago CEO Peter McGuinnessNow DDB’s leaders, chief creative Ewan Paterson and CEO McGuinness, will have to find another brand of similar caliber to replace it.  And that won’t be easy.

What we could never figure out was why DDB didn’t act more aggressively way before the ax fell to deliver some spectacularly fresh creative for Bud Light. But the agency simply wouldn’t abandon the exceedingly juvenile schtick that had worked so well for so long.

Of course DDB has recently been dealing with a client in A-B that has changed in startling ways from what it was as recently as just a few years ago.  Anheuser-Busch used to be the great, all-powerful, proud, flag-waving American brewery, and it spent lavishly on almost all its brands to maintain that daunting image.

But after being bought out in 2008 by global brewing giant InBev, A-B quickly became but another cog in the company’s vast international operations.  The class went out of A-B quickly, and so did the inclination to spend whatever it took on marketing initiatives.

Suddenly it seemed A-B was running on a budget, and if nothing else, that had to be a big shock to Gross and all his Bud Light buddies at DDB/Chicago.

Now A-B will try for a fresh start with a new ad agency, and DDB will try to figure out where it goes from here.

But unlike the recent breakup of the longtime marriage between S.C. Johnson and DraftFCB, the dissolution of the relationship between DDB/Chicago and Bud Light resonated much more emotionally with us.

Bud Light’s first campaign debut – advertising at its finest

We were pulled back in time to a day in the 1980s when DDB/Chicago (then known as Needham Harper & Steers) unveiled the unforgettable (at least to us) “Bring Out Your Best” campaign for Bud Light, then a new brand at the agency.

A cub reporter and marketing columnist at Crain’s Chicago Business at the time, we were summoned to the agency’s offices for the campaign’s debut.  Imagine that!  A reception to herald a new ad campaign.  Something that rarely occurs in today’s diminished ad world.

But what a campaign this “Bring Out Your Best” was.   Directed by the incomparable Joe Pytka, each commercial told the tale of a different athlete from the worlds of football and hockey, among others.  The imagery was breathtaking, the editing superb, and the exquisitely-orchestrated anthem among the most stirring we’ve ever encountered.

This was storytelling advertising at its finest. Unfortunately, as DDB and A-B eventually found out, it was simply too great — and too serious — an effort to drive beer sales for the masses who weren’t particularly interested in the art or craft of advertising.

Client and agency decided a lighter touch was required.  So it was that humor came to Bud Light advertising.

Agency lost something important with end of relationship

The rest, as they say, is history.  There would be more great work for Bud Light from DDB in the years that followed. But little that matched the artistry and craftsmanship of that early “Bring Out Your Best” campaign.

So it’s curtains now for DDB/Chicago and Bud Light.  Whether or not the impertinent Mark Gross and the rest of the DDB clan fully realize it yet, the agency has lost something important with the end of this relationship — something that could have been a helpful shining beacon as the agency struggles to find its own way back to greatness.

Contact Lewis Lazare at LewisL3@aol.com