Miller to shops: Ideas wanted for all brands

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SABMiller's Miller Brewing Co. is asking agencies to pitch ideas across all the brands that comprise its $250 million account.

The world's second-largest brewer has asked its shops to define what "Miller Time" means amid competition that has seen its U.S. volume fizzle since 1994 and rival Anheuser-Busch Cos. zoom to more than a 52% share of the U.S. market for the first time ever.

A brief circulating among its agencies asks help in understanding "the strategic relevance of the entire Miller portfolio," said one person familiar with the matter. Another person said that while Miller executives strongly prefer to work with roster agencies, he did not rule out ideas from outside shops.

A Miller spokesman would not discuss whether the company is scrapping its agency of record model but said Miller is having strategy discussions with current agencies about how its portfolio can have more meaning.

Miller has already shown it's willing to allow its shops to pitch in on brands they are not officially assigned. WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, New York, which works on Miller Lite and created the buzz-provoking "Catfight" ads, also produced the latest round of ads for Miller Genuine Draft, assigned to sibling J. Walter Thompson Co., Chicago and New York. Portland, Ore., independent Wieden & Kennedy, works on Miller High Life, and that brand's work is especially well received. WPP's Y&R Advertising, Chicago, has been working on strategy and new products. JWT also is said to be working on strategy.

With its move, Miller becomes the latest mega-marketer-joining Anheuser-Busch, Coors Brewing Co. and McDonald's Corp.-looking to dump the agency-of-record model and toss a jump ball for its business. The move does not suggest Miller is tossing out all recent work, however.

"They are asking shops to come up with new ideas, new campaigns. Why not?" said one person familiar with the discussions. "When they have all this talent in four shops, why not take advantage of the talent?"

Miller is expected to post a bad first quarter, according to Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer's Insights, considering domestic industry shipments to wholesalers were off a surprisingly large 5% for March-even greater than their January and February decline. He said SABMiller CEO Graham MacKay has extended his turnaround timeframe from 18 months to two to three years. "The business was in worse shape than they thought when they bought it, and it's going to take longer to turn around things," he said.

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