CLOSE-UP: Calling time on a partnership that redefined ads - Lowe's decision to let go of Heineken really is the end of an era

Up until last week, Lowe was at the helm of two of the longest running and most prestigious beer campaigns in the UK - Stella Artois and Heineken.

The chance to get their hands on these accounts would have other agencies salivating, so it was no easy decision for Lowe to resign the Heineken task after more than 20 years. The move came as a Heineken licensing agreement with Whitbread ended and therefore Lowe was faced with a conflict of interest and was forced into making a decision between two flagship accounts.

Heineken is looking for a new agency as it prepares to launch a stronger 5 per cent ABV Heineken brand and challenge the market leadership of Stella Artois.

The official word from Heineken is that Lowe is still working on Heineken Cold Filtered, its low strength brand, but the agency has confirmed that it will no longer be using resources on the account.

Tim Lindsay, the president of Lowe & Partners Worldwide, offers: "We have disengaged ourselves from Heineken's plans. We felt there was an approaching conflict of interest with Interbrew (Stella's parent) and with great reluctance we have decided to resign from Heineken and develop our relationship with Interbrew."

This all sounds very plausible, but sources have revealed that the decision was made easy for Lowe as Heineken will be focusing its marketing spend for the next few years on the new stronger product. Cold Filtered will effectively be left to fend for itself. This is sensitive as Heineken is hoping to minimise the drop off in trade sales for Cold Filtered - hence the "nothing's changed line from the Heineken press office. In short, Lowe has gone with the money.

Still, it must have been hard for Sir Frank Lowe, the chairman of Lowe & Partners Worldwide, to see an account he personally launched leave the agency.

Lowe worked on the brand when it first advertised in 1973 when the account was at Collett Dickenson Pearce and he was the managing director. Terry Lovelock wrote the original, now famous, strapline: "Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach", and the agency created "policeman's feet", the first TV spot for the lager.

"There was a huge amount of trust between Anthony Simonds-Gooding (then the Whitbread marketing director) and Frank, Lindsay says. "The initial research on 'policeman's feet' said on no account run this, it'll damage the brand's standing with consumers. Simonds-Gooding's decision was to ignore this and go ahead - and it was pretty much an instant hit.

"The line got into the language very quickly. It became successful quickly and was part of the lager boom at the time along with Skol and Harp. Lager was the fastest growing part of the beer market."

Simonds-Gooding recalls the drubbing the ad received: "The research said the commercial lacked punch, impact or motivating power. The slogan doesn't stick, there's no rhythm about it. It was a pretty good thumbs-down. But we showed the ad around to people and it was a complete success, one just knew it was going to be good. Indeed it was - the ad, along with "water in Majorca and "Blues singer", made number eight in the Campaign Hall of Fame, published in 2000.

Simonds-Gooding felt reassured because of his relationship with Lowe.

"I'd already worked with Frank at Unilever and we had the same views about what made good advertising, so that certainly helped, he says.

"Frank was heavily involved. It was one of the agency's flagship campaigns along with Hamlet and Benson & Hedges, Lindsay says.

When Lowe left CDP and launched Lowe Howard-Spink in 1981, Whitbread was one of the five founding clients of the agency. This was the extent of the relationship between Heineken and Lowe.

"It was to that degree that Frank had taken a special interest in it. Simonds-Gooding and Frank were close personally as well as professionally. Anthony by this time was the managing director of Whitbread and so took the business to LHS, Lindsay adds.

"When Frank set up his agency we decided to go (with him) because we felt that Frank was integral to the whole success of the campaign and the brand - so we followed the man, Simonds-Gooding confirms.

"He is the most gifted client service person and is a very good strategist. We didn't want an advertisement, we wanted a campaign that would last, something unique, something intellectually well-founded as opposed to attention-grabbing - and we got it."

The advertising continued pretty much without breaking step, despite the change in agency. There were, however, a couple of blips. At one point, an attempt was made to make the brand more European with flags around the edges of the executions and deliberately European scenarios. "But it wasn't a very glorious episode, Lindsay concedes.

The next significant change came much later in 1998 when there was the tweaking of the strapline to become: "How refreshing. How Heineken."

"Frank was involved with this as well. I was the chief executive of London at the time. The thinking behind it was that the line had become so familiar that it had almost separated itself from the brand and beer and had taken on a life of its own. The idea was to de-familiarise people with the line and make them reappraise the brand and its proposition, Lindsay recalls.

So it wasn't that Lowe had reached a creative cul-de-sac then? "No, I don't think so. We wanted to get back to the place where Heineken owned this proposition of refreshment. The 'hole in the road' ad and the 'Close to You' ad with the lions are good examples of this."

Jeremy Bowles, the managing director of Lowe London, says that this freedom to tinker with such an established brand image was borne out of trust from the client. "'Close to You' was a very brave move. It was irreverent but we wanted advertising that was going to create a stir," he says.

"Frank has worked with two generations of colleagues on the brand and we have produced great work, Lindsay enthuses as he recognises what the agency is giving up. "Because it's a huge creative opportunity, because there's a history, it's a real shame to walk away from it. It has been central to the development of Lowe. There are three or four brands that people immediately associate with Lowe, and Heineken is one of these."

Simonds-Gooding goes as far as to say that Heineken and Lowe wrote new rules of advertising together. "We worked on a belief that important advertising decisions should be thrown in at the top and filter down rather than the other way round. We forged these beliefs while working with Frank, he says.

"When I went to Whitbread all the lager brands were in different agencies. I put Stella in with Heineken, it was a good decision, I didn't realise how good at the time, Simonds-Gooding concludes. "The positioning of Stella and Heineken is so well done. It's taken them thirty-something years to collide - that's not a bad run."

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