Updated: Jun 11
Often the first company that sponsors an event or initiative becomes identified with it long after their participation, a perfect example is the pre-Wimbledon men’s championship at Queen’s Club. It is still in many peoples’ minds the “Stella Artois Championships” whereas the sponsor changed in 2008 because of a blanket deal by the Lawn Tennis Association with the insurance company Aegon, until 2018 when soft drinks, and used car companies have taken over. They are all trying to gain the British upper class status image that in 1979 the then small Artois Brewery company succeeded in doing with fantastic results.
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How did this amazing success story happen?
With some personal knowledge here is my supposition. Stella Artois did an astonishing job of becoming famous in 1979 while the main British beer was the bland Watneys Red Barrel bitter, suddenly this blonde upstart from Belgium became famous, smart and very fashionable, a beer with style, British as tennis and a champion above the best. Brilliantly clever Belgique, how astute but in reality a phenomenally clever British advertising man was behind this successful remarkable long-term insight.
As British culinary expertise has “Le Gavroche” as the great training ground for chefs that elevated British cooking to worldwide fame, the advertising industry at the same time had its own powerhouse at Collet Dickenson and Pearce, where some of the greatest British talents in advertising and cinema had their launching pad. At CDP were: in the world of advertising Charles Saatchi, along with those who later became film directors Alan Parker and Paul Weiland; Alan Marshall was the agency producer until moving into feature films and David Puttnam was an account director. The agency used early in their careers before successful feature films: Hugh Hudson, Ridley and Tony Scott. All this talent was originally under the Creative Director Colin Millward, a blunt questioning Yorkshire man (at sometime in the future I will report my insight into his secret) and then John Salmon.
At CDP in the early seventies were an art director Vernon Howe and account man Frank Lowe, at this time when they were “between wives” they shared a mews apartment where now the Cromwell Hospital stands and Mac (Ian McArthur) later to be a Producer at CDP had an office on the ground floor. Frank and Vernon were great sportsmen, Frank was mainly a fan but a committed to winning snooker player (I know to my cost), Vernon a very dedicated tennis player who unfortunately could not play at the nearest good courts where the membership was exclusive, with an eight year waiting list, called Queen’s Club.
When CDP landed the new Stella account from the distributor Whitbread, the agency had to find a way for it to stand out. Frank saw from what he knew via Vernon how to solve the problem using Queen’s Club - the bastion of tradition - giving a route for the upstart beer to gain class in a glass, especially as tennis was then being overshadowed by the professionals. So was born the Stella Artois Championships, which fortunately that year was broadcasted for the first time by the BBC, being clearly labelled as the “Stella Artois Championships”, so history was established. It carried on for nearly 30 years to the delight of all involved. The relationship was good for Queen’s Club, its status in the tennis professional world, its infrastructure and for its charities, even including a delightful
humorous film directed by multi award winning director Frank Cvitanovich starring Terry Thomas and Roy Kinnear.
Vernon went on to become a commercials director and Frank founded his own advertising group in 1981, taking with him the Stella Artois account. Within a year, Lowe’s agency launched the "Reassuringly Expensive" campaign. He eventually sold the agency to the Interpublic group. D&AD (Design and Art Directors Association) an organisation founded in 1962 by a group including David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Alan Fletcher to celebrate creative communication and raise standards within the industry uniquely recognised Frank with an award making him the only advertising “suit” (account man) to ever be recognised by D&AD as “creative”.
To prove that there is no end to Frank’s talents, he is also a star of cinema being chosen by super cool director N Lee Lacy to play the man confusing his co-star who is counting money. This was for one of his own client’s commercials National Provincial Bank, the Nat of NatWest, which now “Champions climate solutions” and even gives discounted mortgages for houses with A and B rating in their EPC.
National Provincial Cinema advertisement Venice winner 1968. Frank Lowe on the left.
As for the Belgian brewers of Stella, they grew worldwide. They took over Whitbread’s brewing interests in 2001 and now control the use of the Whitbread brand. Still with a significant ownership by the original de Pret Roose de Calesberg family, it is now the second largest brewing company in the world – AB InBev - with their world headquarters remaining in Leuven, Belgium. Who said sponsorship doesn’t work? Well, it looks like it does and gives lasting benefit to those who are first and care.
National Provincial Cinema advertisement press play to watch it here.