Over the past 20-plus years, Anheuser-Busch ads have become sort of a sine qua non of the Super Bowl. The brewer has used the audience of more than 100 million to introduce expressions such as "Whassup" and stunts such as the Bud Bowl into the American lexicon.
A-B spends about $20 million a year to air about five minutes of ads in the game, while securing exclusivity in the alcoholic beverage category.
But A-B was purchased in late 2008 by InBev, a Belgian company known for keeping a tight grip on its purse strings. And the acquisition has some wondering whether InBev will
allow, say, MillerCoors to buy coveted Super Bowl time.
Tony Ponturo, the long-time head of media and sports marketing at A-B, thinks the day is coming. He believes InBev will continue to buy some spots, but won't spend the premiums needed to keep competitors off the stage.
"If you said put $100 down on yes and put $100 on no, I would put it down that there will be a day [InBev] will not have exclusivity," Ponturo says. "I just think that there's an overall philosophy that it's a lot of money and they can still have a strong presence, but then use that money for other things."
Ponturo, who left A-B in late 2008 after the $52 billion acquisition, was one of the architects of its annual Super Bowl-marketing platform. The exclusive real estate generated buzz leading up to the game and usually considerable talk about its Bud and Bud Light ads after.
InBev likely won't be able to drop exclusivity until the 2013 game. In 2006, Ponturo's group inked a deal to extend the arrangement through the 2012 game on NBC. A representative for what's now Anheuser-Busch InBev declined comment.
Ponturo made the decision not to continue with InBev after conversations with its leadership. "They had earned the right with $52 billion in cash to run the company as they saw fit," he says. After holding the top marketing post for 17 years he decided "it was going to be very difficult to have someone come in and say, 'But this is how we do it.'
"And rather than be the whiny, angry executive, I thought it was is a good time to leave on a positive note. Let them do what they think is right for their company and move on."
Ponturo started at A-B in 1982 after working on behalf of the company at a New York agency. At the time, A-B wasn't the nation's largest brewer by much, with sales neck-and-neck with Miller. And it had only three brands.
With the urging of then-CEO August Busch III, the company decided in 1985 to establish its own in-house media group under Chuck Fruit. All media duties came in-house in 1992.
When Fruit left, Ponturo took charge of the Busch Media Group and became arguably the most powerful sports marketing executive in the country. He oversaw deals with just about every high-profile sports event from the Olympics to the World Cup.
Ponturo says he reveres his time at A-B. Spending 26 years in a marketing role at one place these days is unusual. Still, even before the InBev purchase, he had thought of trying something else. But when deputy and likely successor Peter McLoughlin left to become CEO of the St. Louis Blues, it postponed Ponturo's departure.
Ponturo expects InBev to begin notable trimming in marketing outlays starting around 2011. That's because soon after taking over the company, it announced a 6 percent staff reduction (1,400 jobs), which could provide the company with enough in cost savings for now.
But in a year or two, it may look for areas to cut further and then, says Ponturo, "they may start saying, 'Well, maybe we need to start streamlining marketing.'"