The Consumer Republic: Sergio Is It

Zyman didn’t care whether the public liked his Coke ads. What mattered was whether they bought his soft drink.
For anyone in the ad business who never had the, uh, pleasure of working with Sergio Zyman, reading the former Coca-Cola marketing chief’s recently published book, The End of Marketing as We Know It, offers a taste of what the experience was like. For those who did, it could induce a serious flashback.
Zyman is the guy who killed that heartstring- twanger “Mean Joe Green” because the ad wasn’t moving cases of cola. He admits he loves to put managers on the spot for overfulfilling their marketing plan. He unrepentantly recounts why he dismantled Coke’s decades-old relationship with McCann-Erickson, dictated a new compensation structure to his agencies and treated them as little more than commercial suppliers. As for New Coke, he insists (four times in the first 70 pages) that it was a success because it reinvigorated the consumer’s connection to the Real Thing.
The End of Marketing is Zyman’s apologia pro Vita Sua-minus the apology. Sergio (Zyman is the one marketing exec famous enough to be referred to by his first name) wants you to know that he likes ad agencies. His move during his second tenure at Coke to commandeer the strategy was not a power trip, as so many insisted, but, among other things, a way of freeing ad shops to make great creative. Like meetings in which he’d aggressively grill his own staff until they practically broke into a sweat, it was for their own good. Madison Avenue dubbed him the “Aya-Cola,” but Zyman prefers an image more like St. Nick, traveling at bonus time to agencies who’d been good and handing out $2 million checks.
It’s a given that every marketing book must claim to be an earth-shaking manifesto in the marketplace’s permanent revolution. That, after all, is how marketing books are marketed. So it was inevitable that this book be given a title like The End of Marketing as We Know It. But it’s also somewhat misleading, since much of its advice is old-fashioned-and I mean that as a compliment, not a put-down.
Yes, there’s the obligatory noise about “seismic change” and “new marketing,” and the record shows that Zyman certainly didn’t hesitate to “break the rules,” to use one of marketing’s tired clich s. But his point of view is predictable: It comes from working his way up the ladder from a job as a Procter & Gamble brand assistant in Mexico.
Zyman didn’t have or aspire to any new-agey, fuzzy-wuzzy relationship with his customers-which is why he was willing to run ads that he and his bosses didn’t like. At a time when “vision” and “visceral instinct” were managerial buzzwords, he relied on data-which is why he felt free to change his mind when hard information warranted it.
He believes that if you want someone to buy your product, marketing has to ask them to do it. So he strongly rejects what I call the idiot savant school of marketing, the “cutting-edge” approach which holds that the less you know about the professional tools of marketing, the more likely you are to think “out of the box.”
Perhaps a more accurate title for the book would be The End of Marketing as I Hate It. Its core is Zyman’s stand on marketing and advertising’s most ancient debates: Is marketing a science or an art? Science, answers Sergio. Is advertising’s primary job to create awareness or make the cash register ring? The latter, he insists, warning that it doesn’t matter whether people wear logo T-shirts and love your ads. If they don’t buy your product, what’s the point?
Now for the bonus question: Are agencies more interested in winning awards or selling the clients’ products? That’s easy: much more interested in winning awards. One can only imagine
Sergio’s reaction when Miller Lite ads-“Dick” being the poster boy for awareness-is-everything advertising-won laurels at Cannes last year.
After so much drippy talk about creating intimate relationships and serving consumers’ spiritual needs, Zyman’s creed of the bottom line and return on investment seems positively refreshing. Yet if he’s right that we’re confronting the end of a marketing strategy that relies on ineffable art and immeasurable magic-and I’m not sure he is-a lot of ad agencies are in a lot of trouble.
“Agencies can never make smart, fully informed decisions because they are never going to be fully informed,” says Zyman. I, for one, believe that when Zyman sat down with his ad agencies, he knew more about soft drinks and the Coca-Cola Co. than anyone else in the room. Ad execs love to complain that clients are clueless. But this complaint is disingenuous.
I’ve always suspected that ad pros actually want their clients to be clueless, or clueless enough that they’ll cede expertise to the agency. Sergio Zyman wasn’t and didn’t. No wonder they don’t like him on Madison Avenue.