A firm Grip for beer exec

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[Toronto] Charles Oliver, VP-marketing of Labatt Breweries, was born a few blocks from a Labatt brewery in London, Ontario. That perhaps has nurtured a passion for quality beer. But Mr. Oliver, 43, credits earlier career moves in Canada with preparing him for his current position, where he has rattled industry norms since joining Labatt in July 2001.

At Labatt, Mr. Oliver says, "Investment dollars should be spent on great creative thinking to search out consumer insight, and on great people who offer creative breakthrough."

Within months of his appointment, Mr. Oliver sought "a new model agency that would give Labatt, and specifically Labatt Blue brand, world-class creative at significantly lower costs." He says he wanted "a small, agile A-team working on out-of-the-box creative. I wasn't interested in paying for other services."

Mr. Oliver found it in Grip Ltd., formed by eight partners specifically to meet Labatt's creative needs. The shift from now-shuttered Ammirati Puris to Grip was seen by the industry as a move to an in-house agency. But even while Labatt remains the dominant client for Grip-which handles Blue, Blue Light and Kokanee brands-the agency has also landed several other accounts.

Simultaneously, Mr. Oliver took all media planning in-house from Ammirati and Downtown Partners. "Media planning is an extension of brand planning and bolts everything together," he says. "Media planners must be aware of advertising, promotions, public relations, as well as the retail accounts and sales people, to find out what's needed in the mix to create better relationships." M2 Universal continued to handle media buying.

He also created an Innovation Team, "with special skill sets to help us break out of logjams and find a competitive advantage." Ensuing innovations include the introduction of personalized beer labels, painted labels on Labatt 50 and Kokanee Gold, and a unique "Draft Tower" for dispensing Blue and Blue Light draft.

Mr. Oliver's success was notable at previous jobs, including as managing director of Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista Home Entertainment Canada, and at Unilever, where he was variously VP of purchasing, logistics, environmental affairs and marketing. At Unilever, for example, he propelled Dove from 25% less in sales than the market leader in bar soap, Procter & Gamble Co.'s Ivory, to 25% more than Ivory.

That may bode well for Labatt. Market leader Molson claims about 45% of the Canadian beer market, but under Mr. Oliver, Interbrew-owned Labatt says it has narrowed the gap from 2.4 points in the first quarter of 2002 to 0.1 point at the end of the year.

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