INSIDE OUT

Was Labatt truly visionary?The following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.I disagree with the view that Labatt Breweries of Canada's move to shift the bulk of its advertising assignment to New...

Was Labatt truly visionary?

The following column, which appears in every other issue, presents a counter-conventional look at contemporary advertising and marketing.

I disagree with the view that Labatt Breweries of Canada’s move to shift the bulk of its advertising assignment to New York City-based Ammirati & Puris was a visionary one.

Sea change

There is a sea change happening in the advertising industry. And, by its very scale, this move was a type of wake-up call to the Canadian advertising community.

But I just do not buy that Labatt was being especially prescient or astute in cutting down a bunch of agencies, and consolidating its many millions in spending with a relatively new one.

After all, Labatt is known for causing the ‘shake-up to end all shake-ups.’

It was about 10 years ago that, with its major brand stuck in the imagery of the 1970s, Labatt conducted one of the most screwed-up agency searches I have ever observed.

Scali, the Ammirati-like upstart of the late ’70s and early ’80s, shocked the much-humiliated agency establishment by walking away with the huge and prestigious Labatt’s Blue assignment.

Five years later, the seductive charm of yet another Ammirati-like ‘new agency on the block’ was again too much for Labatt to resist.

La beer

With much fanfare, Chiat/Day was given the brand assignment that led to the video-vampire ‘La beer’ campaign (I can remember the advertising, but cannot remember the brand.)

With that history, can the decision to go to Ammirati really be seen as a surprise?

A visionary firm acts with boldness because it has such confidence in its view of the future.

I have never worked in the beer business, so my perspective is only that of an observer, but it seems to me that most of the moves Labatt has made regarding its advertising have been reactionary.

It has been caught looking backwards, trying to match the innovation and freshness that Molson Breweries started infusing into its brand imagery with the famous ‘Canadian Rocks’ campaign more than a decade ago.

Confusion

That Labatt’s flagship Blue brand has been so inconsistently handled in the last decade also suggests more confusion than decisiveness.

The several agencies that have had the Blue assignment must share some responsibility for its erosion, but, as the only common and consistent link, the people at Labatt responsible for marketing must assume the bulk of the blame.

Even when it has been innovative, such as it was with ice beer, Labatt has suffered the humiliation of having its competitor steal its thunder.

The lesson, albeit a painful one for any client, is that changing agencies, even hiring the best on the planet, will not make up for mediocrity in marketing.

I realize the management at Labatt is new, and it is unfair to hang responsibility on them for the missteps of the past.

However, if they are visionary, then the real proof will be in how they work with their new partners to rebuild the momentum and equity on what used to be our country’s greatest brand.

Ammirati is a wonderful agency, and a tough nut.

When my partners and I visited it in the mid-1980s, we were blown away by the quality of its thinking and work.

We also learned two things about the agency that stuck with me.

The first is that it ‘fires’ clients. It would give its best, but would not suffer clients that were timid about taking risks, or were prone to abusing their people.

The second lesson I learned was the contrast between the reality of a Canadian and an American agency.

Ammirati was then billing about $150 million. My Toronto shop was about $25 million.

When the people at Ammirati saw our reel, with its heavy component of packaged goods clients, they were shocked by how much work we had to do, in so little time, with so little money, to earn such small commissions.

They also thought our creative was about as good as it could be, given the constraints of working with clients such as Procter & Gamble.

What our discussion with them forced us to confront was that our culture as a creative agency had been, if not contaminated, then at least diluted by the clients whose revenue we most relied upon to stay in business.

Ammirati may not make the same management mistakes we made. Still, its challenge will be to not only make great advertising, but also to resist being overwhelmed by a culture that has a history of chewing up great creative agencies.

The Canadian advertising agency community has been beaten up by the recession, by globalization, and by its own conservative response to the fundamental changes affecting the whole of business.

There are lessons to be learned and changes to be made. The arrival and ascendancy of Ammirati & Puris is yet another catalyst for that renewal.

But I don’t think it is fair for the Canadian advertising community to be made the scapegoat for Labatt’s ongoing inability to find solutions to problems it largely made for itself.

John Dalla Costa is an author and consultant to senior business executives.