The broad sweep of commercials created by CAA for the legendary soft drink are wildly different in texture and tone. They come in all shapes and sizes. Production costs range from less than $100,000 on some to more than $1 million on others. (A surprisingly large number of them are :15s.) The only constants in the campaign are Coke, the new tag 'Always,' and the hand of Hollywood. Indeed, what CAA has conceived is not a campaign at all in the traditional sense. Rather than starting from a singular strategic point of view, the ads, as described by those asked to produce them, are rooted in the premise that they must - above all else - entertain. 'At some point the question becomes, does entertainment alone get people to switch a brand?' says one member of the Los Angeles creative community invited to participate in the process. 'I don't think any of us know the answer yet. CAA is rewriting the rules.'
CAA's success or failure will be measured on more than mere consumption numbers. According to one source, Coca-Cola's internal tracking studies have shown a decline in Coke's image as well as a drop in consumption. Over the past few years, the brand personality - which used to be as all-American as Mom, baseball and apple pie - has become diffused, according to a source close to Coke. And, sources say, there is nothing in the CAA series of ads that will once again define Coke in the minds of Americans.
'If Coke was looking for another 'Mean Joe Greene,' ' says one source, referring to the classic ad of the football player in defeat, the small boy and the Coke he offers his fallen hero as solace, 'they're not getting it.' 'That may not matter,' says another source familiar with the CAA ads. 'If CAA manages to deliver five good-to-great ads, and there are at least four with that kind of potential, they'll have done more for Coke than McCann has in a long time.' One CAA insider characterizes the spots overall as 'off the charts.'
At its peak, Coke consistently had ads that reflected Americana in terms of emotion and humanity. What CAA offers up is a sharply different Coke, one that is hipper and trendier and has an edge not previously seen in its advertising. 'It's hard to articulate without getting too specific,' says someone close to one production, 'but everything tries to turn on some kind of pun, usually a visual pun. There's always a twist.'
From the beginning, certain ads were designed to draw on the talents of the rich bank of film and television talent either housed at CAA or within easy reach of mega-mogul Michael Ovitz. Indeed, much of the proposed work is inspired by specific Hollywood successes. A Rob Reiner-styled When Harry Met Sally . . . spot tracks a couple from the 1920s to their 50th wedding anniversary. A Barry Sonnenfeld-like rendition of Raising Arizona has the same sort of floor-level, filmic surrealism he brought to the Coen brothers movie. And a remake of The Thing features the thawed monster with a Coke in hand.
The concepts range from concrete to abstract. Some have story lines, others are completely non-linear. One group of ads goes for high culture (sort of). The ads attempt to capture, in a kitschy way, such artists as Picasso, Dali and Monet and their individual styles, all in the context of Coke. A Christo spot, for instance, would feature someone wrapped Christo-style, drinking a Coke. Other spots go to more basic instincts - a Coke bottle sweating to the sounds of summer. Still others are more elaborate, like the global Coke orchestra that only makes music with Coke bottles.
The road CAA has traveled from the September Surprise in 1991, when Coca-Cola marketing chief Peter Sealey announced a new and undefined marketing relationship with CAA, to the launch of an estimated 22 commercials, has been a long and winding one. There have been rumors of misfires as the legendary talent agency found itself learning the advertising agency business from scratch. But entertainment was always a fundamental underpinning in its thinking. One top creative interviewed for the job (which ultimately went to former Chiat/Day creative Len Fink) says, 'They were looking for people who would be comfortable working with stars from talent to directors and writers.'
From the outset, CAA has been obsessive about keeping any Coke-related information under lock and key. Internal memos speak of the need for tight controls on leaks - in part to maximize the impact once the blizzard of ads start breaking in late March. There is an almost visible dome of silence over the 22 or so TV spots created by CAA. The agency has declined all requests for interviews about the process, as has Coca-Cola.
As a result, the film, commercial directors and computer animation houses executing the concepts are torn between their excitement about the work they've done and the desire, laced with a bit of fear, not to offend Ovitz. 'Have you noticed that only seven letters separate CAA and CIA?' says one member of the gagged Los Angeles production community. 'I can't talk, you can't ever let them know I talked . . . call me back later, at home.'
The pressure inside CAA is equally intense, say several sources, many of them vendors on the receiving end of the high anxiety. CAA was given more than two dozen ads to produce, armed with an initial talent pool of film and TV directors who had never worked in a 30-to-60-second medium and beset by a testy relationship with McCann. The two-member CAA creative team of Fink and Shelly Hochron, a former Columbia Pictures advertising executive, was quickly overwhelmed with a staggering workload. 'They are working like maniacs,' says someone involved in one of the CAA spots. 'But what's great about CAA is how supportive and how imaginative the people are being in spite of the pressure. They've put together a strong team.'
'When Shelly and Len made their pitch to Coke it was vintage Hollywood,' says someone who attended the meeting. 'They rattled off idea after idea, all wrapped up in an impressive package. What they never counted on was Sealey buying almost everything. They're used to Hollywood, where you pitch a hundred ideas and the best one surfaces and you go out and do that. All of a sudden they had nearly 30 commercials to produce instead of a handful. I think at first they were ecstatic that so much work had been bought. The shock didn't set in until later.'
Not everyone approached by CAA said yes. Director David Fincher (Alien3) was approached by CAA about one Coke spot and by McCann about another (sources say McCann sold four domestic Coke spots to Sealey). According to one of Fincher's representatives, he chose to do the McCann spot because he liked the concept better. A-list commercial director Leslie Dektor was asked to do several spots but passed, according to a source, because it was clear he was offered left-overs after the more complex spots had been assigned to the film directors. Dektor's business manager disputes this account, saying Dektor was overbooked at the time CAA approached him and wasn't able to adjust his schedule to meet CAA's relatively tight deadline. In the case of David Lynch, sources say both CAA and McCann talked to him. Lynch said yes to CAA's idea, which he shot in Tokyo.
Several of those who signed up report being thrilled with the experience. 'It's been quite unlike working with an agency,' says one. 'They came in with very loose boards and an open mind. There wasn't the kind of political infighting you see on a lot of sets. And the spot evolved throughout the shoot.'
Using film and TV directors became a matter of playing the odds, according to one source. Richard Donner (Lethal Weapon 1-3 and Superman) was initially signed to handle three spots, says one source. The results were good enough that sources say he may be handed yet another group of ads. The ad done by Joshua Brand and John Falsey, the creators of Northern Exposure and Going to Extremes, was shot in Europe. It features a glass-blower in Venice - sweaty and sensual - practicing the ancient art. In the process, the classic shape of a Coke bottle is created. Brand and Falsey told one of their associates they loved the work. Gale Tattersall, director of photography on The Commitments (and later hired by McCann for an international Coke ad featuring Commitments lead singer Andrew Strong) handled CAA's Raising Arizona-style ad, another spot said to be among the strongest. CAA also designed one spot with Francis Coppola in mind. According to a Coppola spokesperson, the director hasn't decided whether he will shoot it. However, one source says the spot has been temporarily shelved.
Also in the mix are a number of unexpected players. Rhythm & Hues, a Los Angeles-based computer animation studio that does special effects for feature films and theme parks as well as commercials, was awarded what has been tagged the Polar Bear spot. The elaborate spot features bears on an ice floe watching the northern lights and drinking Coke, because Coke is 'Always cool.' The spot is already talked about as the one most likely to be the sleeper hit of CAA's stable.
Mark Fenske, who has applied a fast-paced, urbane, yuppie-on-a-cynical-slide rap to ads, came up with an idea for a Coke spot, pitched it to CAA and got the go-ahead, according to several sources. About five months ago, M & Company, a top New York design firm, began developing ideas for TV, radio and print, some of which CAA and Coke approved and put into production. Dazu, a Los Angeles design firm that specializes in movie posters, has also been signed on to handle some CAA work.
Meanwhile, as tensions on all sides rise, there is word that several alternative campaigns devised by McCann are quietly being put into production. 'In this case,' says one source, 'less is not more.'
Additional reporting by Noreen O'Leary and Richard Morgan in New York and Kathy Tyrer in Los Angeles.
DIRECTOR Francis Coppola
FILM CREDITS The Conversation. Apocalypse Now, Godfather I-III, Rumblefish, The Outsiders, One from the Heart, Peggy Sue Got Married, Tucker, Bram Stoker's Dracula
COKE ASSIGNMENT A 'holiday feast,' with various ethnic families enjoying dinner. No narration, just the sounds of people eating native cuisines and drinking the one constant: Coke.
DIRECTOR Rob Reiner
FILM CREDITS This Is Spinal Tap, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally . . . , Misery, A Few Good Men
COKE ASSIGNMENT A version of 'Harry Met Sally,' billed as a comedy of Coke and love through the years in a couple's life.
DIRECTOR David Lynch
FILM CREDITS Eraserhead, Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Fire Walk With Me
COKE ASSIGNMENT Undisclosed treatment shot in Tokyo.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)