Turnaround plan: Miller stays loyal to agencies

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The changing of the guard at SABMiller's troubled Miller Brewing Co. is leading to a wholesale evaluation of most everything-except its ad agencies.

SAB, a lean, disciplined organization with no tolerance for politics, tends to let global units operate independently. But its most consistent alliance is with WPP Group, parent of the Miller agencies often criticized for failing to stem the last three years of the brewer's nine-year slide. The SAB-WPP affiliation is less of a formal arrangement than individual countries' selection, said Norman Adami, chairman of South African Breweries, who succeeds John Bowlin as Miller CEO on Feb. 1.

efficiency maven

Mr. Adami is not raring to oblige critics who counsel SAB and Miller to look beyond Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide and J. Walter Thompson Co., primary shops on the $200 million-plus domestic account. "Agencies work as well as the businesses briefing them," he said.

A 20-year SAB vet, Mr. Adami is known as a strong general manager and efficiency maven. He's charged with reversing the fortunes of a company that came within a wisp of catching industry leader Anheuser-Busch Cos. but instead has seen share erode since 1994. Miller's share last year was expected to fall another 0.6% to 19% of the U.S. beer industry, compared with A-B's 49%, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.

"They are some of the best beer- savvy people in terms of a [sales and] distribution system and quality product," said one executive familiar with SAB.

Under prior owner Philip Morris Cos., Miller's advertising was criticized alternately as too vanilla and unnecessarily racy. SAB, however, has leaned toward the spicy-most notably with a Playboy Playmate spin-the-bottle tie-in via WPP's Fusion5, Westport, Conn. and Ogilvy's "Catfight" spot where two women seductively wrestle (See AdReview, P. 37). Sex "has always worked for Budweiser, and it might work for us," said one Miller wholesaler.

focused on results

Though Mr. Adami said Miller's marketing spending will be at least as much as the $500 million it usually spends-with about half of that in measured media-it's also focused on showing Wall Street robust results.

SAB doesn't "throw money at things the way a lot of companies do in America. They boldly support their brands-they just have to have a strategic foundation," said a second executive familiar with SAB.

Miller's roster is chock-a-block with WPP shops-including Ogilvy, JWT, Y&R Advertising, Fusion5 and Burson-Marsteller, with WPP likely to make a run on foreign brands landing stateside, as well as PR, promotions, special events, and the brewer's media account at Publicis Groupe's Starcom MediaVest Group.

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