Coke ‘Mafia’ Has a Beer

Next month,  more than 100 of the country’s best and brightest marketers will meet up in Atlanta to have a Coke and a smile. The midtown Gordon Biersch Brewery will host dozens of former—and a number of current—Coca-Cola marketing brass on Sept. 23 for a first-of-its-kind event: a Coke marketers’ class reunion.

Many of the attendees worked together in the ‘90s and have since gone on to helm the marketing departments of some of the nation’s largest companies. The list of guests planning to attend includes Turner Broadcasting president Steve Koonin and Converse CMO Geoff Cottrill. In some cases, the former colleagues are now rivals, such as The Home Depot CMO Frank Bifulco and Bob Gfeller, now the marketing and advertising svp for Lowe’s.

The caucus is the project of five former execs including Sean Javier Martin, partner of Brandiosity, who worked for the past seven months to get a select group of former Coke colleagues together. But after word spread and the guest list began to morph, Martin went scrambling for a bigger location. Reunions are nothing new, of course, but the notable thing about the Coke gathering is that it’s a veritable who’s who of today’s C-suite marketers. “We have this diaspora of Coke executives all across the country,” Martin said, “many of whom have reached the CMO level.”

Coca-Cola has a long history of recruiting and developing top talent. But in the years that followed longtime CEO Roberto Goizueta’s death in 1997, many moved on to new opportunities. Near constant turnover followed, triggered by a rapid-fire series of changes at the top. Back in the ’90s, recalled Donna Byrd, who is now publisher of online magazine, “it was a close-knit team. There wasn’t a major exodus at that time.”

That the departure of some execs was reluctant has only seemed to stoke the enthusiasm that many of them now feel about the chance to compare notes again. “Folks are excited—ridiculously pumped about it,” said event co-organizer Rajan Shah, president, Phenomenon Entertainment. “And they are proud, of course.”

Todd Putman, vp, marketing at Pinkberry, said that working for Bifulco was a life-changing experience: “He was one of the great leaders I worked for. He built a lot of confidence. We thought we could rule the world.” Putman departed in 2000.

While Coke has been criticized for its bureaucracy and politics, all of the attendees interviewed regard their tenure in Atlanta’s North Avenue Tower as having been a formative experience. “We all have stories to tell,” Martin said. “I’ll be the first one to admit the place is full of dysfunction—going through it, living through it, surviving it.” But, he added, “you come out the other end succeeding.”

That success seems to come in groups. It’s no secret that departing marketers tend to take handpicked talent with them. “Three of my direct reports are from my groups at Coke,” Koonin said. That includes current Turner CMO Jeff Gregor. Cottrill pulled over Julie Eisen when he was at Starbucks. And Darryl Cobbin brought on Jeff Werderman to Boost Mobile. Cobbin, who is also planning to attend, is now president of Brand Positioning Doctors and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. And the list goes on.

Though most attendees don’t see each other regularly anymore, their paths still cross—in the marketplace. Shah likened the group to a “marketing mafia. So many of us are still doing business together—or competing furiously against one another.”

Unlike other mega-corporations such as Procter & Gamble, Coke never formalized its network of former employees. The P&G Alumni Network, in June, held its fourth bi-annual global reunion in Rome, Italy. The organization also maintains a Web site:

Despite the excitement surrounding the Coke event, Koonin did have one concern. “We’ve gotten older,” he lamented. “I hope there are nametags.”