PLENTY SUFFER IN MILLER WOES, NOT THE LEAST ITS AD AGENCIES

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Years ago, West Coast adman extraordinaire Pacy Markman would fantasize about writing his memoirs. The title of the chapter about the most horrendous client with which he'd ever worked: "Sentenced to the Gallos."

The winemakers appear to have been superceded on the worst client list by another set of Yeastie Boys. If Pacy's successors took pen in honest hand, chances are they'd headline a section "I've Been Through the Mill(er)."

Such trauma undoubtedly helped propel the ouster last week of Miller CEO John MacDonough, VP-Marketing Jack Rooney and VP-Sales Christopher Moore. The big challenge for their successors and survivors is identifying the real source of the brewer's woes. It's not bad advertising; it's a bad belief system.

The clue is in the chaos. Let's review: Fallon McElligott was forced to undergo a shootout for its Miller Lite account. The ancient "Miller Time" theme disinterred by Fallon from some museum and applied to Lite was abandoned by the client in little more than a year-and then stuck ignominiously on Miller High Life ads created (I use that word advisedly) by Wieden & Kennedy.

Wieden, meanwhile, found its ad work for Miller Genuine Draft-presumably approved by the client-hooted off a convention stage by Miller distributors.

Fallon, having failed with one 1970s excavation, went back to the archaeological dig and returned with another, the "Tastes Great/ Less Filling" Lite campaign, albeit in a version crusted with a new and incomprehensible premise ("Choice Hops/Smooth Finish"-kinda rolls off the tongue, don't it?). Oh, and the celebrities taking the place of the memorable Marv Throneberry and the disrespectable Rodney Dangerfield include beloved rock band Earth, Wind & Fire and gridiron legend Dan Fouts. (I hope my irony is clearer than Miller's.)

I claim no special knowledge of Miller's agency relationships, and accept any criticism that accrues to me for not seeking it out. I will submit, though, the axiom that on their face, wanton campaign switching, internecine battling and purposeless reviewing are signs of a marketing atheist.

A marketing atheist is a client with no core convictions about its own products or culture. Consider Miller's awful, unlamented "Dick the creative superstar" campaign. By the time of its intro, advertising-about-advertising was as cliched as a detergent-ad supermom. Any client approving such drivel is prima facie clueless.

Or take the new Lite proposition about "hops" and "finish." I've had enough microbrews to know the claim skirts the far edge of credulity. For brewing professionals to stake themselves to it in this day and age is not only cynical, it promises to send the media-savvy, palate-wise younger drinker looking for a taste of reality.

Now that's OK. Budweiser has shown you can taste like swill and still embed yourself positively in the public consciousness-if you offer something delightful enough to make consumers overlook the flavor of your beer. Miller is obviously too busy warring within itself to care how its advertising (or its products) are actually perceived.

It's a common problem, familiar in automotive, fast-food and soft-drink accounts-anywhere a marketer must contend with powerful independent dealers, franchisees or distributors. Miller's melodrama is beginning to smell like the Burger King story of a decade ago. There, too, a large marketer abandoned a claim in which it and its franchisees believed deeply and spent years tearing itself apart and wandering from agency to agency hoping some outsider could give it back the faith it had lost.

That's next to impossible to do, of course-which makes you wonder why agencies put themselves through the trauma of toiling for such miserable clients. Revenue is an easy answer. But it's also a little off base. The costs-especially those associated with losing and replacing demoralized personnel-can substantially outweigh the income.

The real reason agencies do this is that adpeople (especially the kind attracted to such great shops as Fallon and Wieden) are the last of the true believers. They will convince themselves of a product's merits, even when it has none. They will put themselves through an inferno if they can emerge with a life-changing affirmation at the other end.

For that reason alone, Miller may survive. Despite itself.

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