Man Flaws: Why Miller and Crispin Couldn't Stop Lite From Stumbling

Agency Cites 'Fundamental Differences over Creative and Strategy'

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CHICAGO ( -- When Crispin Porter & Bogusky President Jeff Hicks called Miller's CMO Randy Ransom to quit the brewer's advertising account last week,
Crispin Porter & Bogusky's departure leaves the Miller Lite brand worse off than it found it.
Crispin Porter & Bogusky's departure leaves the Miller Lite brand worse off than it found it.
a surprised Mr. Ransom tried to talk the agency president out of resigning. "Is there anything we can do to stop this?" he asked. Mr. Hicks replied that he'd already issued a press release.

Worse off
As Mr. Ransom's last-ditch effort to keep an agency that had proved not very good at selling beer illustrates, Crispin is leaving a client worse off than it found it. But the fault can't be laid solely on the shop, which found it increasingly difficult to please myriad marketing chiefs at the brewer, resulting in conflicting direction, occasional confusion and frustration.

There's no confusion on one point, however: Mr. Ransom and his immediate boss, Miller CEO Tom Long, will face the company's distributors in Las Vegas next month just before the peak selling season without an ad agency or overarching strategy for struggling Miller Lite -- not an enviable task. "It's safe to say it could be a tough crowd," remarked one distributor.

That's starkly different from last year, when Crispin's "Man Laws" effort drew laughs from distributors hopeful the ads could help the brand return to the robust growth.

More buzz than sales
But "Man Laws," starring Burt Reynolds and other celebrities, generated more of the social currency Crispin is known for than sales. And Mr. Long, who hired Crispin, yanked the ads in January and has spent much of the time since apologizing for it.

Addressing the Beer Business Daily summit recently, Mr. Long said, "Those people who have conviction in the intrinsic goodness of their beer are the folks that win. To be honest, I veered off the path of that this last year. We know what works for Miller Lite. In retrospect, when we made that move to Men of the Square Table to elevate the social currency of the brand -- which is important -- we moved off that at exactly the wrong time."

The agency followed that work up with a few spots that attempted to differentiate Miller from other lights by focusing on its misspelled brand name. Miller eventually pulled that in favor of spots it tellingly created itself that compare Lite's carbs and calories to Bud Light, Heineken Premium Light and, in commercials still in production, wine and cocktails.

High Life success
Better received was Crispin's work for Miller High Life, which centered around a gruff-talking beer-truck driver who extracted the brand from effeminate accounts such as French restaurants. High Life sales improved, and Miller said it intended to air the campaign, which had been exclusively aired in the Midwest, nationwide. Miller spent less than $10 million on High Life last year.

According to a Miller insider, a review for the $100 million-plus Lite account would have been "inevitable" within the next month if Crispin hadn't left first. According to two other people familiar with the matter, Miller nearly called a review for the brand in January at the urging of parent SABMiller Americas President Norman Adami, who had led the U.S. brewery during its recent renaissance. Crispin is said to have threatened to quit when word leaked, and Mr. Long backed off.

Miller would not comment on that report or any details of its parting with Crispin.

Hispanic agencies leaves
Miller Lite's Hispanic agency, Creative on Demand, also split with the brewer earlier this month. The agency, hired by Mr. Ransom in July, confirmed the parting but wouldn't comment further. Miller said that it was dissatisfied with the work and had called a review on the account, which is estimated to be worth $25 to $30 million in annual billings.

While COD wasn't talking, Crispin was a different story. "We just have fundamental differences over creative and strategy" said Chief Creative Officer Alex Bogusky in a statement. "Although we made every attempt to find common ground, the process of multilayered approvals of creative and strategy has made doing work we can be proud of increasingly difficult."

Those "multilayered approvals" are said to refer to Mr. Long, who was chief marketing officer before being promoted last year; Mr. Ransom; Deb Boyda, VP-brand management; and Erv Frederick, VP-brand strategy for Miller Lite. And it's been said that Mr. Adami, the SABMiller president, has been taking a more active interest in marketing, although it's unclear to what extent.

'Contradictory points of view'
"You've got three or four different top-tier people with contradictory points of view," said one person familiar with the matter, expressing a viewpoint that was shared by two other executives. "There's a constant shifting of strategy, and a lack of a common vision."

Sales for Miller Lite fell by low-single digits last year -- a trend still holding in 2007 -- while rivals Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light and Coors Brewing Co.'s Coors Light saw sales climb in the mid- and low-single digits, respectively.
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