"In order to ensure continued future growth of Stella Artois across the world, InBev will organize a pitch for the global Stella Artois creative account," InBev said in a statement. "Our relationship with Lowe over the past 25 years has been unique and very successful, and they have been a key partner in achieving continued growth of Stella Artois across the world."
A spokeswoman for the Interpublic Group of Cos. agency confirmed the split, and said Lowe, though invited to pitch the business, will not defend the account.
Waving goodbye to Stella -- a marquee brand for Lowe, which also handles creative duties for InBev's Beck's brand -- seems odd given the agency's lengthy relationship with the client, and that Interpublic expects the network to bounce back into profitability in 2008.
The move comes amid noise brewing inside InBev, with a stable of brands including Beck's, Hoegaarden and Quilmes, in recent weeks about plans to reassess agency relationships after its Anheuser-Busch acquisition, noted one person familiar with the matter. Although the Stella brand was a creative gem for Lowe, the business wasn't very lucrative, the person said.
The brand is clearly seeking a new creative direction. Stella recently handed independent shop Mother, London, creative duties to launch a 4% alcohol beer for Stella, after a pitch which also involved Omnicom Group's TBWA London, another person familiar with the matter said.
"Through the years, we've applied ruthlessly high standards to the quality of work we've produced for Stella Artois," Matthew Bull, Lowe's global creative director, said in an e-mailed statement. "Compromise is a word you would never hear at Lowe regarding this brand, and we are exceptionally proud of the work that resulted from that approach. We have worked with some great people at InBev, and wish the brand well into the future."
InBev spent between $40 million and $50 million to market Stella Artois in 2007, including about $15 million devoted to U.S. measured media, according to TNS Media Intelligence and other sources.
High-end image wanes
The brand has struggled to maintain its leadership position in the U.K., its largest and most critical market. While InBev has -- after some steep initial cuts -- returned media support to the levels that preceded its 2005 takeover of the brand, other challenges have remained.
A particular hardship for the brand marketed for years with the tagline "Reassuringly expensive" has been maintaining its luxury credentials amid the larger discounting wars in the stagnant U.K. beer market. For a time, the brand became known in the popular culture as "wife beater," and recent efforts from Lowe -- which have focused on the brand's 14th-century heritage -- have tried to change sinking perceptions of it there. It's a big change from the '90s, when Lowe's clever, lovingly crafted blockbuster Stella Artois commercials regularly won a Gold Lion at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival.
Overall, led by weakness in Western Europe, Stella's global shipments declined by 5.1% during the second quarter, InBev announced last week.
Popular on U.S. shores
That struggle offers a startling contrast to the way the brand has been received in the U.S. market, where it has grown explosively behind the "Perfection has its price" tagline, also from Lowe, in recent years. Sales have also been robust in Latin America.
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Contributing: Jeremy Mullman and Laurel Wentz