The relationship between FCB and AB InBev is producing consistently creative and effective work, particularly for Michelob ULTRA. Here, FCB’s Susan Credle, Emma Armstrong and Michael Aimette discuss their work with the brand, and how the strength of their partnership has led to sustained success.

AB have been top of our Creative and Effective rankings for the past couple of years, and work on Michelob Ultra has been particularly successful in the past year or so. What is the client-agency relationship like and what elements of the relationship are key to its success?

Susan Credle, Global Chair & Global CCO, FCB: It takes a specific type of relationship to consistently produce work that is creative and effective. That relationship must be a partnership. A partnership begins with a shared belief. In this case, AB InBev and FCB both believe that creativity is an economic multiplier. Separately, we have each been designing cultures over the last decade focused on putting this belief into practice. Next, there must be transparency. Over the years, we have had tough conversations. I value those conversations. And often the conversations lead to changes that make us all better. Finally, we must be seen as business partners. While building timeless brands, we are at our best when we understand the timely needs of AB InBev. Crisis is a catalyst for creativity. When we can apply creativity to a brand’s business problem or opportunity, we most often create the kind of work WARC is celebrating. 

Emma Armstrong, CEO, FCB New York: It sounds really fundamental and obvious, but the team really is just that. One team. The work that we’ve created together on Michelob ULTRA over the last few years isn’t a simple endeavor. Figuring out how to execute never-done-before ideas, making sure they’re on strategy, figuring out the business mechanics and then holding hands together and jumping into the unknown takes extreme trust, mutual respect and quite a lot of beer! Does everything run smoothly all the time? Of course it doesn’t, but it’s in those moments when the team-i-ness turns the impossible possible. 

What is your perspective on the culture at AB InBev when it comes to creativity and effectiveness, and bringing those together into consistent creative effectiveness? Is there buy-in for creativity?

Susan Credle: Watching AB InBev recommit to the power of creativity over the last decade has been a master class in marketing. I recall years ago sitting in a theater reviewing AB InBev work with advertising peers I respect greatly. Our POV about the power of creative and what creative we felt was rising to the top wasn’t necessarily embraced by many of the clients also sitting in the theater. Their questions were valid. Their frustration was palpable. But there were also strong client leaders in the room that did not give up on the journey to prove the power of creativity. These leaders continued to pull their agency partners close. We were invited ‘in’. It is hard to prove the business value of creative ideas, until those ideas are applied in the right way. At FCB, we stress that our best work must be done on our biggest brands. And we must prove that the work in some way was an economic multiplier for our clients and our agency. AB InBev has shown an incredible appetite for big ideas over the last few years. Because those ideas deliver a strong ROI, that appetite grows. You can see and feel the momentum. But it is important to always remember, it takes work.

We recently published some research that showed that two key behaviours within client-agency relationships were particularly strong in those producing award-winning work: trust and challenge. Does that resonate with your relationship with AB InBev and Michelob ULTRA?

Susan Credle: Trust and challenge are two great words. I remember when we were told that Michelob ULTRA needed to be a top three brand sitting next to Budweiser and Bud Light. Now, that’s a challenge. But that challenge meant the clients running Michelob ULTRA and the FCB team could not be complacent. We needed work that received more than its fair share of attention. The challenge made us better. But without trust, without taking on this challenge together as partners, I don’t think we would have met the ask as quickly as we did. Both teams were in it together. They had each other’s backs.

When we talked to the creative team at FCB New York back in Cannes last year about the work on Courtside, they spoke about the importance of the mutual understanding of the brand’s purpose across brand and agency. How do you ensure that that purpose is carried throughout the work being produced for Michelob ULTRA, and is that a collaborative process?

Susan Credle: Purpose is an interesting word. At FCB, purpose is about a commitment to a POV in the world. For us the Michelob ULTRA purpose is embodied in the platform, “It’s only worth it if you enjoy it.” Any work we bring to AB InBev should deliver on that line. ‘Courtside’ was a brand showing up for fans and players who were not looking forward to a COVID NBA season. ‘McEnroe vs. McEnroe’ was showing the joy of looking back at a career and realizing it was worth it. When we embrace the timeless commitment of the brand and apply that to the timely needs of the business or culture, we tend to get it right. And when I say “we,” I mean the teams at AB InBev and FCB. Great creativity is born from a collaborative experience with people you trust.

Michael Aimette, CCO FCB New York: It is, and it starts with that systemic and shared understanding of the brand purpose. It’s what allows us to flex and iterate and tell wildly different kinds of stories in very distinct ways, yet keep a clear commonality between each piece of work. Everything we do sits squarely at the intersection of sport, entertainment and technology. And enjoyment is the predicator. That only happens because everyone’s operating on the same page with the same set of criteria.

We’re seeing a shift in conversations around brand purpose away from purpose for its own sake towards ideas that combine commercial outcomes with some sort of societal benefit. Contract for Change is a really clear example of that – it benefitted farmers but also ensured the supply chains to support growth in sales. What were the conversations that led to Contract for Change and is that shift something that you’re seeing in ‘purpose’ conversations with your clients?

Susan Credle: At FCB, we don’t think purpose and cause marketing are the same thing. Brand purpose should drive most decisions internally and externally. Of course, brands should create ideas that are good for people, that help create brand love. But those ideas will be stronger if they are born from the brand’s bigger POV in the world or from a business challenge or opportunity (which are often the same). ‘Contract for Change’ was born out of a business need. How do we get enough organic grains to produce Michelob ULTRA Pure Gold in the future? It’s expensive and takes time for farmers to convert to organic farming. This means the grains will cost more. How do farmers manage this risk? The team came up with the answer with this work. Cause marketing should be as closely tied as possible to the brand’s bigger purpose or the business’s needs to ensure authenticity and reduce the chance of misappropriation.

Michelob ULTRA has won awards for both creativity and effectiveness in recent years. How do you balance creativity and strategy to create continued success within a consistent strategy but also innovate creatively to keep the attention of consumers?

Susan Credle: At FCB, we believe in the power of timeless and timely creative ideas. Answering a timely need through the lens of a timeless brand ensures that the creative idea will have brand building and business activating power at the same time. In this business, I cannot imagine doing great creative without an incredible strategy. Sometimes the strategy is more intuitive and may not even be a formal brief. But almost always great creative is informed by a strategic thought.

Emma Armstrong: For us, creative and strategy are implicitly linked. When you have a strong creative platform, “It’s Only Worth It If You Enjoy It,” built on a deep understanding of the brand’s audience – where they are, what they care about – it becomes a lot easier to identify the right cultural moments for the brand to own, from bringing joy to the NBA bubble during COVID with Courtside to helping the ultimate bad boy in tennis rediscover his joy for the game with McEnroe v. McEnroe.  

We talk a lot about the importance of consistency in brand building, but as an industry we’re often too easily bored or distracted by the next shiny object. Michelob ULTRA is a great example of the benefit of creating a Never Finished platform and building on it year after year with new and fresh ways to make the brand relevant and innovative. Each year we’re able to consistently push our work creatively because of our obsession with measuring the holistic impact of the work. The team has complete confidence when developing our next big culture-driving idea because we’ve seen the business value created from the work preceding it.

Lessons from the 2023 Effective 100

This article is part of WARC’s Lessons from the Effective 100 report, which examines the strategies and approaches of some of the world’s most awarded campaigns for effectiveness.

Read the full report here.