There was a time in the beer business when very competitive individuals led the brewing giants. One such top dog was August Busch III. And "dog" is an apt description. Get on the wrong side of this brewing magnate, or cross him, and you could expect his teeth-bared wrath. Not many dared even consider messing with August.
But it did happen.
But in 1994, the ad-agency holding company that owned the D'Arcy agency decided to accept a modest media-buying assignment from Miller Brewing. The publisher of Advertising Age noted at the time:
No less strange is a decision made by ad agency D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles to accept business from Miller Brewing Co. while continuing to handle archrival Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser and Michelob brands of beer.
D'Arcy didn't check with A-B to see whether the new Miller job, for D'Arcy's TeleVest unit to buy national advertising, represented a conflict in the mind of its St. Louis client.
I knew the guy running D'Arcy at the time in St. Louis. We had been colleagues at Foote, Cone & Belding. A highly principled man, he was neither consulted about, nor given advance warning of the decision to accept Miller business. He was simply told after-the-fact to "pass it by the A-B folks." His loyalty to Budweiser-- and probably his excellent instincts for how such a meeting with August Busch might go-- prompted him to refuse that order. He resigned.
When Anheuser-Busch finally learned of the agency's decision, August's retribution was swift and final. There were no give-and-take meetings with the agency. The ax fell. D'Arcy would not see its 80th year as an A-B agency. All its assignments-- reportedly $125 million in billings-- were shifted to DDB Needham in Chicago.
Have times changed?
Twenty years have passed. Much has changed in the beer and ad-agency businesses in the intervening two decades. August Busch no longer runs his namesake brewery. It's now part of a much larger international company run by a man who grew up in Brazil. He's a financial guy, not a beer guy.
But last week, history repeated itself.
MillerCoors announced it had shifted its Lite assignment. It went to an advertising agency that is part of the same holding company as the key ad agency for Anheuser-Busch. Perhaps A-B was consulted in advance. Perhaps not.
Perhaps times have changed.
Maybe there's a kinder, gentler Anheuser-Busch, willing now to allow a single agency holding company to profit from its business, and its archrival's business at the same time. Maybe A-B's "professional management" buys the now-standard ad-agency argument in such circumstances that the two agencies are completely separate.