A-B InBev Taps FleishmanHillard for Corporate PR in U.S.

Omnicom Group Takes on Assignment Previously at Interpublic

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The Anheuser-Busch Budweiser Eagle atop the St. Louis brewery's Building 3.
The Anheuser-Busch Budweiser Eagle atop the St. Louis brewery's Building 3. Credit: Courtesy of AB InBev

Anheuser-Busch InBev has selected Omnicom Group's FleishmanHillard to handle corporate reputation PR in the U.S.

The incumbent agency for corporate work was a dedicated group within Interpublic dubbed 3PM that has used talent from PMK-BNC and Weber Shandwick. Weber and 3PM will continue to handle brand PR as well as "several pieces of our corporate work," according to an A-B InBev U.S. spokeswoman.

The brewer put the account into review in May, seeking an agency "to develop and execute a robust corporate reputation plan in 2016," according to a client-to-agency brief obtained by Ad Age. The assignment has a PR budget of $100,000 to $120,000 a month, according to the document.

"Our business and list of assets is already substantial, but we are not strategically making the most of what we have from a reputation standpoint," according to the document. One objective listed in the brief is to "refine [a] long list of company assets to determine which can efficiently bring the most impact to our stakeholders."

"Anheuser-Busch has tremendous heritage and a wealth of assets -- in terms of our brands, partnerships, community engagement and indeed our people -- that, when taken together, provide a rich corporate narrative. We want to be more proactive in telling that story in the U.S., focusing on fewer things, but doing so in a bolder and more compelling way," Gemma Hart, the brewer's U.S. VP for communications, told Ad Age in an email. Ms. Hart joined the brewer several months ago after previously working forBrunswick Group, a corporate relations advisory firm.

"We're thrilled to have won this. Anheuser Busch is an iconic American brand name," Fleishman CEO John Saunders said. "It also has had longstanding association with St. Louis, and in the past, FleishmanHillard was an agency of record for A-B, so we are really pleased to be back working for them again." Weber Shandwick did not immediately respond to a request for comment. FleishmanHillard will handle the account out of its New York office.

The May 6 client-to-agency brief stated that A-B InBev faces "macro headwinds." The document describes several reputational issues for the brewer's U.S. subsidiary, including a "complex supply chain" and "decreased favorability in the rise of craft beer." Although A-B InBev markets its own craft brands, such as Goose Island, the rise of smaller craft brewers has eaten into the market share of larger brewers in recent years. The brief also alluded to "extensive regulatory interest" stemming from a global merger, without going into specifics.

A-B InBev is awaiting final regulatory approval for its proposed $104 billion takeover of SABMiller. The brewer stated last week that the merger was on track to close in the second half of 2016. Regulatory clearances have come in 16 jurisdictions, including South Africa, which gave conditional approval last week, the brewer stated. The U.S. has not made a ruling. Citing people familiar with the matter, Bloomberg reported last week that the deal is poised to get the go-ahead from the U.S. Justice Department.

The agency brief does not call on the U.S. PR agency to work directly on the merger. To date, communications have been handled by the brewer's global team along with Brunswick.

But the merger has put a new spotlight on A-B InBev in the U.S., including in Congress and in mainstream media coverage. Some lawmakers have sided with the craft beer industry leaders who are asking regulators to put restrictions on A-B InBev before approving the merger.

"Consumer choice, not producer power, should determine what beers go on the wholesaler's truck and the retailer's shelf," Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., stated in a recent letter to Department of Justice Deputy Assistant Attorney General Renata Hesse. "In light of what I have heard, I want to make sure that ABI's conduct, either on its own or in the context of the ABI-SABMiller transaction, will not stifle the growing competition that craft brewers provide."

Her letter references media reports about a voluntary distributor incentive program that A-B InBev has offered to some distributors. The program "offers some independent distributors in the U.S. annual reimbursements of as much as $1.5 million if 98% of the beers they sell are A-B InBev brands," the Wall Street Journal reported late last year.

In late May, Reuters reported that U.S. regulators are looking at the brewer's distributor incentive program as part of the antitrust review of the merger.

The Brewers Association, which represents craft brewers, has taken issue with the program. In a June 2 op-ed in the New York Times, Brewers Association President Bob Pease called on the Justice Department to require that A-B InBev "modify its anticompetitive incentives to distributors to not deliver other brands of beer."

The brewer has defended the incentive program. Ms. Hart told Reuters in May that "our voluntary incentive program clearly does not prevent or inhibit other brands from getting to market."

In the U.S. it is not expected that any major brands will change hands as a result of the SABMiller takeover. That is because Molson Coors is assuming SABMiller's 58% stake in the MillerCoors joint venture in a deal that is conditioned upon the closure of the A-B InBev-SABMiller deal.

For Fleishman , the A-B InBev win follows on the heels of the agency snapping up the Quaker Oats PR business. It was a positive development for the agency, which has had a tumultuous time late last year and in the first quarter with executive departures, layoffs and account losses.

Mr. Saunders told Ad Age in May that the agency was in a position to make more investments and provide staffers with additional resources "thanks to tough decisions that were made," which included "eliminating certain roles." He also told Ad Age at the time that March 2016 was the "finest month in the history of the agency."

Contributing: Lindsay Stein

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