LIVE ISSUE/SMIRNOFF: UDV’s global moves outgrow Lowes’ creative nous - Strong creative work is not enough to satisfy clients, Francesca Newland writes

The brief: immaculate creative advertising for spirit brand that can be applied in 60 markets around the world, that does not offend local legislators, yet alludes to drunkenness at the same time as communicating an intrinsic brand identity.

The brief: immaculate creative advertising for spirit brand that

can be applied in 60 markets around the world, that does not offend

local legislators, yet alludes to drunkenness at the same time as

communicating an intrinsic brand identity.

Not many agencies could pull it off. But with the Lowe Group’s

seven-year vintage stream of Smirnoff ads, you have a textbook example

of a creative global campaign. However, the network has been left

licking its wounds after being informed last Monday that it was being

dropped from the UDV roster, losing the global Smirnoff, Malibu and

Baileys accounts.

Tim Lindsay, European president of Lowe & Partners, was close to the

account, but declined to comment on the loss.

The news took the agency by surprise - UDV had handed Lowes work in

Australia only last month. And who would anticipate a review on a brand

with the quality of advertising that the network was supplying for


Vodka branding is entirely dependent on advertising: technically the

product has no taste so the actual distinction between rival brands is

limited. ’In vodka, people drink the advertising,’ a senior Lowes source


The ’through the bottle’ campaign has become part of the advertising

landscape - achieved against the odds. Running a global account to high

creative standards is difficult, but doing it for a spirit brand, with

all the legislative considerations, is nearly impossible.

There have been five television campaigns. They began with ’message in a

bottle’, shot on an ocean liner with men portrayed as penguins and a

staircase transforming into piano keys. The most recent film,

’smarienberg’, has been running in cinemas for more than a year. It

shows the escapades of a young couple fleeing the clutches of some


All the executions drift between reality and a warped sense of truth

using the drink and its bottle’s clarity as a trademark.

Spirit advertising faces different levels of strictness in terms of

legislation in every market. Lowes developed a campaign idea flexible

enough to accommodate local rules and regulations. Insiders are adamant

that to launch a campaign as risque - with a sense of drunkenness

inferred in each execution - would not be possible today.

The flexibility of the campaign allowed the creation of a ’menu’ of ads,

which could not only satisfy the different censors but also suit the

tastes of any of the 60 markets the ads ran in. The absence of language

sharpened the campaign’s international capabilities.

In 1994, 15.2 million nine-litre cases of Smirnoff were sold. The

estimated figure for 1998 is 15.9 million, according to UDV figures. But

if Lowes was so perfect, why did UDV move the account into J. Walter


Perhaps the reasons lie in the changes at UDV. The company says the

decision to move the accounts to JWT is a continuation of its programme

of consolidation.

Lowes was awarded the account by IDV in 1992. Since then IDV has merged

with United Distillers to become UDV. Its parent company, Guinness, then

merged with Grand Metropolitan, and Diageo was formed.

So the Smirnoff parent has become more global and more corporate, and

has moved to an agency that is known for the strength of its network and

for its corporate attitude.

One Lowes source says: ’There are two kinds of network: one has

advertising as its product and the other has client service as its

product. UDV has changed as a company and wants to buy a different


They are bitter words, but management changes at UDV have seen important

Lowe allies moving away from the relevant accounts. Dennis Malamatinas,

former Smirnoff global brand director, fought alongside Lowes to

preserve the creative excellence of the Smirnoff advertising, but in

1997 he became the chief executive of Burger King.

Alan Cordery, the company’s former global marketing and strategy

director, is said to have been a great fan of Frank Lowe, but he left

the company at the end of last summer. JWT benefited when Jack Keenan,

UDV’s chief executive, joined IDV from Kraft where he worked with JWT,

in 1996.

A JWT insider says: ’So much of this business is about chemistry. UDV

and JWT have chemistry in their people, in the way we work, and in the

way we think.’ Tony Scouller, until recently UDV’s UK marketing

director, used to work at JWT.

JWT began its campaign to win UDV business in 1995. Miles Colebrook,

group president of JWT Worldwide, headed the push and his efforts were

rewarded 18 months ago when the network won the Tanqueray gin and J&B

whisky brands. A JWT insider admits Keenan gave the network the

introduction it needed to get on the pitch-list and win the first slice

of business. As one observer says: ’If you pursue things, the doors of

providence will open.’

Lowes has a reputation of being uncompromising to work with - a trait

that would show off the client service-orientated JWT in good


As one Lowes insider says: ’The slogan at Lowes is ’the good is the

enemy of the great’. You have to be disciplined to get a return on your

investment.’ Another says: ’We don’t want our name or our client’s name

on ads which aren’t any good.’

Lowes’ perfectionism - insisting on highly creative advertising that

takes a long time to make and costs a lot to produce - and its

unwillingness to compromise seems to have pushed one of its key clients

into the comforting arms of JWT. High creative standards lost out to an

easy and efficient relationship. The move reflects a global trend as

more giant advertisers pursue cost effectiveness and efficiency,

irrespective of the creative track record.