How the pandemic helped Labatt’s draftLine unit (quickly) find its place

Global brewing giant AB InBev built its in-house creative unit draftLine around the concept of being nimble and responsive, but its Canadian leadership team had no idea just how much those capabilities would be put to the test when it launched early last year.

Canada is the 11th country to come online since draftLine was launched as a pilot project in Colombia in 2018, prioritizing social listening, content creation and digital media buying. It had been fully operational for just over two months when COVID hit in Canada, forcing it to quickly pivot to respond to the new reality. It was quite literally a trial by virus.

“The entire idea of draftLine is to be very nimble and act on things quickly, and that’s exactly what the pandemic challenged us with,” said Krisztina Virag, who took over as head of draftLine’s Canadian operation (which goes by the name draftLine YYZ) in August 2019 after spending the previous seven years in account roles with agencies including Cundari and DDB Canada. “[Our] brands had to pause and re-assess how they would respond, and that’s where we were really able to flex our muscles.”

DraftLine has grown to more than 25 people in Canada since its launch (the unit currently employs more than 800 people worldwide), and continued to add personnel during the pandemic. Most of its staff is headquartered in Toronto although efforts are underway to grow the unit’s French-language capabilities.

It’s launch reflects a broader shift towards in-housing that has gained momentum in recent years. According to a recent report from the World Federation of Advertisers and consulting firm Observatory International, over half of all multinationals (57%) currently have an in-house agency, while another 17% are considering it.

The report listed several reasons for its rapid growth, including the proliferation of (almost exclusively digital) media channels and an associated increase in the number of creative assets required to reach consumers across those touch-points. There’s also the tantalizing allure of cost-savings, which research suggests can be as high as 30% in some cases.

At its core, however, draftLine was conceived around the increasingly popular notion among marketers of moving at the speed of culture, allowing AB InBev’s portfolio of brands to respond—often in near real-time—to cultural moments as they arise. “The importance of these cultural moments is that once they’re gone, they’re gone,” said Virag. “If it’s something we need to respond to very quickly, we will. If it’s something where we have more time and can implement more thinking, we definitely will.”

That responsiveness explains in part how draftLine was able to so adroitly handle the challenges of an unexpected year—lessons that will carry over into what will hopefully be a more typical year. “We have got very good at moving very quickly and collaborating with the brand team in order for us to test and learn,” said Virag.

With Labatt’s long-term marketing plans upended by the pandemic, draftLine could create marketing programs reflecting the new consumer reality. The programs weren’t always splashy, but tended to be rooted in a sound strategic idea—and often featuring some kind of call-to-action—it was able to quickly bring to market.

When social listening revealed that the pandemic was leading to the cancellation of birthday celebrations, for example, the ready-to-drink spirits brand Palm Bay created a program inviting people to nominate a friend or loved one who would welcome a birthday surprise.

DraftLine ended up pulling media support for the program after receiving more than 6,000 nominations in a single weekend, at least triple what it had anticipated. “We were coming in on an insight, but that first weekend really showed us that our insight was right,” said Virag, noting that Palm Bay’s brand team has now made the program part of its annual marketing plan.

Another program to emerge out of draftLine’s social listening was the “Mike’s Hair Playoffs” campaign for the Mike’s Hard Lemonade brand.

Recognizing that the cancellation of the NHL season left people with nothing to watch except endless replays of old games, and that closed barber shops meant fans’ hair was getting longer, draftLine conceived an online program inviting people to show off their best lockdown flows for a chance to win NHL tickets and free haircuts for a year.

Social posts invited users to submit photos of their hair or beard. The best were arranged into a playoff-style bracket with consumers invited to vote for their favourite.

“It was super-succesful,” said Virag, noting that Mike’s brand engagement during the program was six times higher than it had been pre-pandemic. “People who signed up to participate were also talking about the brand and encouraging their friends to vote.”

The interconnectedness of its various draftLine operations, meanwhile, has enabled AB InBev to quickly roll out programs in different markets. Last year’s “Rally for restaurants” program—which was adopted by Stella Artois in Canada—was part of a broad-based initiative from draftLine that was originally tested in London before being replicated in more than 21 countries.

“The draftLine approach combines superior consumer understanding, creation of unique business solutions and, ultimately, engagement with the right people,” said Tracy Stallard, AB InBev’s global VP, experience and in-house agency (draftLine), in an overview of the program for the World Federation of Advertisers.

What’s perhaps less apparent is just how much programs of this nature are moving the needle on key metrics like brand health and affinity. This has one been one of the main criticisms levelled against these types of short-term marketing activations by experts like Peter Field, who contend they are too focused on achieving ephemeral online fame and short-term sales lift at the expense of longer-term brand health.

“I don’t necessarily think we’re looking at how one or two social posts might be moving the needle,” said Virag. “But overall if we take a look year-over-year for several brands, we see that with [increased] online engagement, purchase intent or affinity might be going up, because we’re becoming more of a part of [people’s] life versus just a brand that is advertising to them.”

While it’s unclear just how much the pandemic will disrupt this year’s plans, Virag said that draftLine has established three key priorities for 2021: adopting more of a publisher mindset; fostering more global collaboration; and bolstering its production capabilities.

DraftLine’s first year in Canada didn’t unfold exactly as expected, she said, but it helped lay the groundwork for a marketing approach. “We had a great opportunity to set ourself up, and we were able to show that what we were put in place to do, we were able to” she said.

And while the in-housing trend is causing some hand-wringing among traditional agencies, Virag insists that it is designed to complement traditional marketing activations like TV campaigns, sponsorship, etc., not replace them. “We’re here to help those agencies focus on the things they’re really great at, like the large campaigns,” she said. “We’re here to do the very fast and nimble. It’s not that they’re the brand agency partners, they’re our partners too.”

Chris Powell