"We were under a giant magnifying glass and under us was a giant fire," said Rick Roth, worldwide client services director at Ogilvy.
The heat's about to get turned up even more. After a disappointing first round of commercials earlier this year, which critics said did little to differentiate Lite from other beer brands, Miller has just broken Ogilvy's second flight of spots. The latest Ogilvy approach is simultaneously fundamentally different from and a continuation of the themes of the previous round. Most notably, the ads skew to a younger, hipper consumer.
It won't be Miller's first attempt to aim young. Fallon, Minneapolis, the brand's previous agency, developed an advertising effort that was dubbed the "Dick" campaign for a fictional advertising copywriter. During two years, the "Dick" spots -- essentially a series of absurdist vignettes -- featured oddities such as a robot and his human lover and a man in a beaver costume who rode a dirt bike.
Although the work struck a chord with a young age group, it did little to move merchandise. As a matter of fact, there was very little of the brand itself featured in the Fallon work. When sales dropped, Miller Lite distributors openly began to despair. "Dick" became a four-letter word, and heads eventually rolled.
In April 1999, Miller parent Philip Morris Cos. fired John McDonough, the Milwaukee brewer's CEO, and Jack Rooney, marketing VP. They were replaced by John Bowlin, former Kraft International president-CEO and now president-CEO of Miller Brewing Co., and Robert Mikulay, who was marketing director in PM's tobacco division and now is senior VP-marketing at Miller.
The new team fired Fallon and handed the advertising account to Ogilvy, which handled sibling unit Kraft Foods brands including Maxwell House and Post cereals. The shift was intended to move the brand from a shop known for its edgy creative to a global, integrated marketing powerhouse.
How in the world would Ogilvy, a shop known for its solid, consistent work for American Express Co., IBM Corp. and other huge brands, follow up Fallon's award-winning (it took home three Gold Lions from the International Advertising festival in 1998) and highly original if controversial Miller effort? That was the question on everyone's lips in the ad industry, which waited for months to see what Ogilvy would deliver .
David Apicella, Ogilvy's executive creative director and the writer behind AmEx's successful advertising, and his new partner, Jeroen Bours, a former McCann-Erickson Worldwide art director who was a key creative on the legendary MasterCard International "Priceless" campaign, were put in charge of the Ogilvy effort.
Weeks passed. Then months. Soon a year was about to go by and there was nothing from Ogilvy except highly guarded secrecy and silence.
At a National Beer Wholesalers Association convention in Las Vegas last year, Mr. Bowlin, avoiding the issue, told the crowd he didn't have time to show new Lite work from Ogilvy. Instead he showed Ogilvy commercials for Ameritrade, AmEx, Jaguar Cars North America and IBM. At the time, wholesalers expressed a willingness to be patient, but clearly they were anxious. "As bad as it has gotten, it's not something you can turn around overnight," an attending western wholesaler commented. "Miller can't afford any major blunders like they had in the past."
"It was a pressurized situation that we were under," said Mr. Roth. "A lot of us were new to the brand. A lot of us were new to each other. It was tough, but it was tough in ways that got us to what I think is a terrific place. Bob Mikulay said to me, `You know, we debate, we fight sometimes, but I wouldn't give it up for the world,' and that is why he hired us."
DEBUT IN DALLAS
Finally, in March of this year, Rick Boyko, Ogilvy's co-president and chief creative officer, and Messrs. Apicella and Roth traveled to Dallas to unveil a series of spots at a Miller distributors' conference. The light comedy pieces feature Lite drinkers bonding with each other and the beer. The tagline: "Grab a Miller Lite. It's Miller time."
A handful of creatives worked on the first flight, including Joe Johnson, an art director and 14-year Ogilvy veteran, copywriter partner Jim Jenkins as well as Brendan O'Malley, agency producer. Bryan Buckley of Hungry Man, a New York production company known for its offbeat work for cable channel ESPN, directed the spots.
"We thought we had a pretty good response," said Mr. Roth about the Dallas screening. "And then later we learned that we didn't."
Apparently distributors felt there was a significant problem with the actors in the ads.
"The feedback we got was that the casting was older than it should have been," Mr. Roth said.
"We were told the characters were too old and they were losers," Mr. Boyko said. "If we had created a pool of 20 spots, it would have been fine. You'd look at it cumulatively and say all right, there's a little bit of everybody in all of them. But we only had four spots and they said, `Hey, you have losers here and you have losers there. In two of the four spots, you've got losers.' The distributors wielded a heavy hand."
Ogilvy went back to the drawing board. Guided by consumer research and distributor reaction, the agency decided to address a younger audience within Lite's target segment.
"We made Miller Lite more of the hero in each spot and strengthened the connection between Miller Lite and `Miller time,' " Mr. Mikulay said in his recent speech to distributors. "Next, we focused on more appropriate casting to better resemble our 21-to-27-year-old desired consumers."
"Another point was to be more fun, to have a better sense of humor," Mr. Roth noted. The agency also decided to make the scenarios more reflective of the youthful culture of their target audience. Ogilvy was determined to "make sure that our advertising was distinctly branded and ownable," Mr. Roth said.
To that end, there was a significant reshuffling within the Ogilvy creative organization. Joe Johnson, whose partner Mr. Jenkins left the agency to become a commercial director, was placed in charge of the Miller account as creative director. His assignment: full-time work on the brand. Mr. Bours turned his focus back to other accounts, including insurance giant AIG and AmEx.
The agency tapped the creative department of Hunt Adkins, a small shop based in Minneapolis that's a member of a group of agencies called the Syndicate that work on Ogilvy accounts from time to time.
Messrs. Johnson and O'Malley then hired a new director to shoot the agency's latest boards -- John O'Hagan, also from Hungry Man. Unlike his colleague Mr. Buckley, Mr. O'Hagan had a strong background in documentary filmmaking; he directed the award winning "Dreamland," a documentary about the oddball citizens and history of Levittown, N.Y.
"We decided to make the humor much more reality-based," Mr. Johnson said. "I don't mean realism. The characters are just all based on some true insight into how guys relate. It is more about where they really are, instead of basing them on fantasy."
"And we were more careful and more thoughtful about making sure the advertising would appeal to both men and women," Mr. Roth said. He also pointed out that the new round of spots, which began airing in the middle of September, still carry through the original Ogilvy proposition for Miller -- the way drinkers bond with each other as well as the product.
The latest spots introduce two types of young Lite drinkers. In the single spot that Hunt Adkins created, "Honeymoon/Whipped," familiar sports fan types sit on a couch watching a football game and chide one of their recently married buddies for showing an interest in shopping for curtains. Two other spots, "Breakup" and "Meteor/Wings," feature another standard beer-ad type -- the young bar slugs who stare at sports on the tube zombielike at the local saloon.
But in the remaining three spots in the flight, a new type of beer drinker is introduced: the hip, intelligent, tattooed, bearded, pierced guys and girls who drink beer and manage to do interesting things like yoga, hiking in the woods and crashing wedding parties. Each spot, filmed outside Toronto with local actors, shows moments of inspired improvisation.
In the wedding-crashing spot, Mr. O'Hagan asked one of the actors to improvise a scene. He proceeded to grab the bride and give her a hearty smooch.
FLEXIBILITY ON THE SHOOT
"We tried to be a lot more flexible on the shoot," Mr. Johnson said. "Sometimes on a shoot you do a lot of rewrites, a lot of different endings, a lot of versions. I think that flexibility in these spots has upped the quality. Not being so rigid, it makes it more fun."
Another serendipitous moment is in "Miracle/Roll," in which a group of hikers, who resemble the feckless outdoorsmen from the indie smash "The Blair Witch Project," come upon something mysterious in the middle of the wilderness. "What? Is it dead?" asks one of the backpackers. "See if it's cold." It is indeed cold, a keg of brew. As the happy campers try and roll it uphill, the keg gets away from them, rolling down a hill and knocking down a person below.
Mr. Johnson said that scene also was improvised.
"The new keg commercial is real good. Those guys [Ogilvy] are on to something now," said Bill Dial, president of Gulf Distributors in Mobile, Ala., who was at this year's conference and met with other distributors. "[Lite distributors] had nothing but positive comments about the Lite advertising, which is very unusual. Knock on wood."
"This is not the end of it," said Mr. Roth. "This is just the beginning. We have finally found our voice with this product."