Passing the Baton on Absolut, TBWA Shifts Global Account Leader

When Richard Lewis assumed account-management duties on TBWA Worldwide’s Absolut business in 1987, it was a U.S.-only account with billings of less than $10 million. Today, the Omnicom Group agency handles the brand—now a Top 10 network client with annual billings of more than $100 million—in 49 countries.

The complexity and scope of the assignment contributed to TBWA’s decision to install a new account chief this week. Robert Rosenthal, 42, an 18-year veteran of the network and president of TBWA\Latin America, succeeds Lewis, 50, as worldwide managing director on the business. Rosenthal also will steer the shop’s efforts to expand its multicultural offerings, now limited to transcultural shop True, in which TBWA has a minority stake.

Lewis will maintain ties to the agency as a consultant, at least through the end of the year. He also is writing a sequel to Absolut Book, the 1996 history of the brand. Three publishers are interested in the new book, he said, which Lewis hopes to finish this year with an eye toward publishing it in 2005.

“I felt that my legacy is set on this business,” he said. “Also, everybody has gotten sick of my jokes.”

Looking back on his 17 years on the account, Lewis said he would miss the fun of helping to craft memorable ads such as 1988’s “Absolut L.A.,” which showed a swimming pool in the shape of the brand’s squat, thin-necked bottle and is among Lewis’ favorites. “This has been a great ride … a fabulous ride,” he said.

While acknowledging that “having somebody else take over for Richard is not going to be easy,” TBWA president of the Americas Tom Carroll said he picked Rosenthal in part because he is an “urbanite” and a trained chef who “loves the world that Absolut lives in.”

Carroll also cited Rosenthal’s familiarity with the network and experience on luxury brands such as Evian and Club Med. (Before taking the Latin America job in late 1995, Rosenthal was a senior account executive who also worked on Eagle Snacks and imported beers such as Carlsberg and Heineken.)

Carroll, who conducted a three-month search with input from the client’s executives, said he considered candidates both inside and outside the agency. “I wanted the best guy,” he said. “He just happened to be right under my nose.”

Rosenthal, for his part, is ready for the new challenge after eight years of focusing on Latin America. “For me, it’s a gift,” he said, citing the success of the 23-year-old brand campaign, which earned a place in the American Marketing Association Hall of Fame in 1992. “I’m stepping into one of the greatest marketing phenomenons in history.”

During the campaign’s run, the marketing mix has evolved from the bottle-centric print campaign to a broader spectrum, including ads in cinemas, on the Web, on billboards and on radio. Some work also is tied to events, such as last year’s “Absolut Out” billboard. This year will be particularly busy with the spring launch of super-premium Level and another flavor introduction.

Creative group head Patrick O’Neill will continue to lead creative development.

Succeeding Rosenthal in Latin America is Tania Kulb, former national marketing director for McDonald’s in Brazil. Kulb, 42, will be based in São Paulo, Brazil, and report to Carroll.

TBWA landed the business in 1979. In 1981, the year of the first bottle-centric ad, “Absolut Perfection,” Absolut sold about 20,000 cases in the U.S. By last year, U.S. sales exceeded 8 million cases—more than any other import and second only to Smirnoff among vodkas.