Boston Beer is on prowl-again

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Samuel Adams Boston Lager was named "best beer in America," but ad agencies aren't likely to rank parent Boston Beer Co. among the country's best clients.

Just three months after awarding its $19 million account to McCarthy Mambro Bertino, Boston, the beer marketer is soliciting ideas from other agencies. If it moves the business, the new shop would be Boston Beer's fifth in as many years.

A new agency could be in place by the end of this month, although incumbent McCarthy Mambro Bertino, Boston, remains in the running, according to executives close to the situation. The account was thought to be somewhat safe at McCarthy Mambro, considering that its CEO, Joseph McCarthy, consulted for Boston Beer when the brewer was between agencies of record from November 1999 to March 2001. The shop referred queries to the client, which did not return several telephone calls.

The current review is believed to have been sparked by Boston Beer's VP-Brand Development Robert Hall, who signed on in June 2000 after 15 years at Kellogg Co. The company also is said to be looking for a promotion shop. The marketer spent $14.2 million on measured media last year, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR.

Its shops within the past few years have included Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., Interpublic Group of Cos.' Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis, then sibling shop McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York. In March, it tapped Mr. McCarthy's shop, which had spun off from Dallas' Square One-a Miller Brewing Co. agency. At the time, Boston Beer was McCarthy Mambro's only client, but it since has picked up Pennzoil-Quaker State's Jiffy Lube's estimated $20 million business.

None of the agencies would comment.

Boston Beer has not always been so capricious. For a decade before going public in 1995, the marketer worked with hometown shop Gearon Hoffman Advertising, which helped launch the scrappy brew that got its start in Bean Town alehouses.

Last year, few agencies would have admitted interest in such an account, saying they were too busy-and too strapped for talent-to subject their staff to difficult clients. Not today.

"It's not about how clients treat you. It's about how big their budget is, and it's cutback time. If [Boston Beer is] looking at new agencies, they're going to have plenty to choose from," said one executive familiar with the business.

Although Chairman C. James Koch has a reputation for meddling in the creative process, executives who have worked with him said that's undeserved. A former consultant with the prestigious Boston Consulting Group, Mr. Koch has three degrees from Harvard University-a BA, MBA and JD-and a love for testing. "Agencies like to run with ideas, and you can't run with ideas with Boston Beer," a former Boston Beer ad exec said.

Despite a fine-tasting product and consumers willing to shell out $7 per six pack-Boston Beer's sales have trailed competitors. Considered the standard-bearer for the booming specialty brew market, Boston Beer is a victim of the category it created. From 1995 through last year, Samuel Adams Boston Lager saw volume rise 31%, compared with a 69% jump for the specialty category, according to Impact's 2001 beer study. Stock price is another issue-it picked up some steam during the bull market but fell from $24 per share in 1996 to around $9 last week.

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