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How AB InBev Is Shifting The Goals Of Its Creative Excellence Program

Since vowing in 2018 that it would become the most creative brand in the world, the brewing giant has achieved its goal – twice. So, what’s next?

Five years ago, AB InBev was a ruthlessly efficient machine. Growth was largely through M&A and, by its own admission, it was not a marketing-led organization – it was not “creative”.

At a senior leadership meeting that year in Mexico City, then CMO Miguel Patricio (who left for Kraft Heinz shortly afterward) set out a plan to change that, convincing the brewing company’s chief exec that if it was going to transform from being a brand buyer to a brand builder, it needed a radical rethink on its approach to creativity.

“I’m not sure we knew at that point how it would evolve over time,” recalls Ryan Verschoor, who was there for Patricio’s pitch. “But we knew that we had to get better at this for the company. This wasn’t a marketing initiative. This was a company initiative. And creativity was going to be one of the foundational building blocks for that to happen, so we set a dream to be the best company in the world for creative effectiveness.”

Within four years it had achieved that, with AB InBev named Creative Marketer of the Year by Cannes Lions in 2022. Last week, it made festival history by earning the accolade for a second year running and found itself topping The Drum’s World Creative Rankings as the most-awarded client of the year.

Now that it has hit that goal, Verschoor – who since 2021 has been the company’s global vice-president of marketing culture and capabilities – tells The Drum that it has a new five-year plan: it wants to become the most digitally integrated marketing organization in the world.

Here’s how it plans to do that…

The winning creative formula

The Cannes Lions Creative Marketer of the Year accolade is presented to an advertiser that “has established a reputation for producing brave creative and innovative marketing solutions”. Five years ago, few would have described ABInBev’s creativity as brave or its marketing as innovative. It was good at process and systems… measuring what worked (and what didn’t) objectively and methodically. Part of the reason Patricio got buy-in across the organization for the creative turnaround was that he proposed to “systematize creativity, versus letting it be a very ethereal concept,” says Verschoor. It all came down to five core tenets.

  1. The creation of a marketing culture and capabilities division: Led by Verschoor and the late Jodi Harris, who died in May last year, this team was asked to manage the creative transformation across the business rather than just ”allowing it to happen organically”.
  2. The Marketing Academy: A universal program to upskill the entire AB InBev team, the academy would embed a culture of continuous learning and improvement.
  3. An in-house ad agency: Draftline opened in 2019 to give the marketing team more flexibility to react to what was happening in culture.
  4. A ‘creative spectrum’: This mapped work on a scale of one to 10, from brand-damaging to work that shaped culture. This was the thing that allowed AB InBev to actually quantitatively measure progress across different brands, different countries and different teams over time. It also gave the organization a universal language internally to talk about creativity. If work was judged ’stereotypical’ (number four on the spectrum), marketers from Colombia, Brazil, the UK or China would all understand what that meant.
  5. Brain trusts: A group of the world’s top creative minds who were called upon to judge the work it was doing against this creative spectrum and offer advice on how to improve.
  6. The Creative X Awards: An internal awards program that mirrors Cannes Lions.

2028: becoming the most digitally integrated brand in the world

In a fitting bookend to that 2018 meeting, AB InBev’s senior leaders congregated in Mexico City last week just hours after the Cannes Lions announcement. After a brief moment of celebration, the inevitable question came: what should the next five-year goal be?

“The CEO provoked us,“ says Verschoor. “He said, ‘You‘ve climbed what is a very challenging mountain. You‘ve managed to reach a peak that we didn‘t even think might be possible in that amount of time. So, how do you continue to raise the bar? And what‘s the next peak to climb?‘”

The next goal, Verschoor explains, has been “tentatively” termed as ”digital integration”. In short, AB InBev wants to become the benchmark company for digitally integrated marketing and to “close the loop” between its B2B and DTC platforms.

The positioning is a work in progress at the moment, he says, but take for example Budweiser’s campaign for the World Cup. As part of that program, it had one of the biggest QR code promotions of all time with over a billion bottles of beer sporting a unique code.

“So once someone snaps that image, where does that take them? What is the experience that they have online? Do they purchase? And how can they purchase directly? And then once they are in that site, what is it that they‘re trying to buy? And what do they buy? How do we use that information to understand what team they support? Or when they tend to buy beer? What else do they buy? Using that information, could we offer them some kind of incentive opportunity to buy the next time that team plays? By doing that, we might understand how regularly they watch.

“All of that will help us start talking to those consumers in that moment, versus when they‘re not even thinking about the game and when, therefore, it‘s not very effective. Because, ultimately, we‘re trying to drive effectiveness.”

That information will then help its B2B platform Bees, which is an app where small and medium-sized retailers can browse, order and manage AB InBev products. More than 60% of its global revenue goes through that app and, by extension, the insights it gleans from it will inform its B2C creative.

Expansion of Draftline

In-house agency Draftline will play a bigger role in achieving this ambition. Founded for the Colombian and US markets with a simple remit to bring its brands closer to cultural moments, the Draftline team works on fast turnaround content for social media, for example, rather than the longer-term big-ticket briefs being issued to agencies.

Over time, however, the agency has been recognized more as a lead partner in its own right. No longer just the support act to the big agencies, it won its first Grand Prix in Cannes in 2021 with its ’Tienda Cerca’ campaign and, for the first time ever, was named AB InBev’s Partner of the Year at its internal awards after the campaigns it led on turned out to be the most-awarded of the year. “It has really evolved to become a full-service agency doing some phenomenal leading creative work,” says Verschoor.

Now home to 800 staff in 13 countries, Draftline is being asked to step up in terms of what it offers the organization’s marketing departments, especially on data and media capabilities. It already worked on data collection, audience segmentation, programmatic media buying and analytics, but when it comes to connecting the dots to its B2B and B2C platforms, ”it won’t just work on creative,” says Verschoor. ”It will bring in a stronger view on data, media and, as we expand into our own digital brands like our B2B e-commerce platforms and we get far better with our digitally integrated work, then Draftline will help us with that capability over time.”

‘Justice League’ for agency partners

A question its biggest agency partners, such as Publicis and FCB, might be asking is, ’where does that leave us?’ Its top 14 partners from around the world are currently responsible for 60% of the output for AB InBev’s brands.

“Naturally, it’s never perfect. But we’ve had, I think, fairly good integration between Draftline and our agencies to not have too much friction.”

But as Draftline inevitably scales over the next five years, AB InBev is laying the groundwork for its partners to feel like an equally valued part of the new puzzle it’s trying to solve. It has created something called the ’Justice League’, a specific program to make sure that the advertiser is ”close to them, more engaged and really sharing our top priorities and our strategy”.

“How we manage our partners and the importance they play in this has been critical.”

Redefining ‘original’

And finally, remember that ‘creative spectrum’ it developed to asses all the ideas from its global marketing teams? Well, that will also be tweaked as part of the rethink of its five-year priorities.

Since it was released, almost 600 campaigns have been scored against this spectrum. On average, in 2018, it was achieving a score of 4.8. Last year, it clocked in just under 7. Largely, it is happy with that scoring system and how its marketers globally have responded to it. But one criterion is under review: originality.

“The feeling is that creativity does not have to be original at all. It does help if it is, but it’s a lot of critical components,“ explains Verschoor.

“Creativity has to be a novel way to solve a problem, in its simplest description. And that could be original to some people, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be original to the world. Sometimes we get caught up in ’this must be this brand new thing that no one’s ever seen before’ and the view is that if there’s a really beautiful creative idea that’s come out of Brazil and no one in China or Europe or Africa has seen it then it’s completely original to them.

“So let’s make sure that we’re not being… I don’t want to say protective, maybe sensitive…. if it’s creative and it genuinely solves a consumer business problem in a novel way, then let’s expand that and make sure that other people get to experience that same solution. So it’s just something we’re discussing at the moment, which is how important is originality to creativity? And how does that originality have to be specific to the world or to specific people?”

In five years, AB InBev will no doubt have the answer to that too.

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