Is Heineken the Worst Client Ever?

Next shop will be seventh in nine years

“It’s all about the beer” used to be Heineken’s tagline in the U.S. But if you had to tag the brand’s relationship with creative agencies, “it’s all about churn” would be a better fit.

In the past nine years, six agencies have worked on the Heineken’s U.S. business: Lowe, D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Publicis, Berlin Cameron United, Wieden + Kennedy, and Euro RSCG. Heineken USA has been around the block so much that it’s next agency will be an old one: the New York offices of Publicis (2003-07) and Wieden (2008-09) are pitching the $60 million account, following the brand’s split with Euro RSCG.

“When you have clients that are serial reviewers, oftentimes one has to question whether the problem lies within,” said Ken Robinson of search consultancy Ark Advisors in New York. “Not only that, but how can you possibly put together a cohesive positioning when they switch agencies so frequently? They don’t seem to be giving enough time to anyone to make enough of an impact.”

What’s driving the agency turnover? Executives who’ve worked on Heineken point to turnover in the leadership ranks of Heineken USA in recent years (four CEOs and four CMOs since 2005) and pressure from Heineken executives at HQ in Holland. The two factors seem related, given that the U.S. is among Heineken’s largest markets and the base brand’s sales volume has slid 20 percent from its peak of 5.2 million barrels in 2007, according to Beer Marketer’s Insights.

Last year, volume on Heineken premium totaled 4.1 million barrels in the U.S.—down 5 percent from 2009 (4.4 million barrels) and 15 percent from 2008 (4.9 million barrels), per Beer Marketer’s Insights data. 

Of course, marketers pay agencies to drive sales and when sales slide, shops are expendable. That said, Euro RSCG got just one campaign out the door after winning the business in the second half of 2009 and given its success with sister brand Dos Equis (“The Most Interesting Man in the World”), arguably deserved more time.

Heineken, for its part, attributed the turnover to “changes in strategy, a desire for more breakthrough creative and, in the most recent case, the need to consolidate agency relationships to successfully manage the brand from a global perspective.”

Indeed, both Wieden and Publicis work on Heineken overseas and hiring either shop may lead to a more global approach to branding. Their presence in the pitch, however, also confirms the influence of corporate headquarters on the process. New U.S. CMO Lesya Lysyj, a former marketing leader at Kraft Foods and Cadbury who joined March 1, may wonder what she walked into.

So, with all the churn, why do shops continue to line up to pitch? Don’t think the agency world’s chronic low self-esteem can explain this phenomenon alone. Rather, agency leaders cite the allure of working on a still-coveted global brand—which last year ranked 93 on Interbrand’s list of the 100 “best global brands”—and the seemingly irrational belief among agency brethren that THIS TIME the outcome will be different. After all, Burger King settled down at Crispin Porter + Bogusky for seven years after tearing through four agencies in 10 years. BK, of course, is on the move again.

“I just think we’re natural optimists and we always believe that we can make a difference,” said a leader at a former Heineken shop. “Is it delusional? Somewhat.”


After the jump, a gallery of Heineken TV spots from the past decade.


Boss's Daugher (2010)

"Lady Music" (2010) – for Heineken Premium Light Beer

Wieden + Kennedy

"Expedition Leader" (2009)

"Let A Stranger Drive You Home" (2009)

Berlin Cameron United

"Star" (2008)

"Keg" (2007)


"Passback" (2007)

"Disturbance" (2005)

D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles

"Holiday Party" (2002)

Lowe Lintas

"Premature Pour" (2002)