Turnabout is fair play. McCann-Erickson has had to endure brickbats and bad notices for its work for Coca-Cola - reviews harsh enough that the soft drink giant decided to turn to Creative Artists Agency for the vast majority of its 1993 spots. Now that CAA's work is finally coming on the air, we invited Madison Avenue to critique Hollywood. Our roundtable is a diverse, cola-seasoned group.
There's DDB Needham/N.Y. president Andy Berlin, who has links to Pepsi through
Dallas affiliate Tracy-Locke. There are former McCann Coke creatives Curvin O'Rielly, now a freelancer, and Bill Backer, who crafted 'The Real Thing.' TBWA president Richard Costello has clients like Absolut Vodka and Evian water. For strategic thinking, we invited Peter Kim from J. Walter Thompson. And for views from creative, youth-influenced shops, there's Richard Kirshenbaum of Kirshenbaum & Bond and Joanne Davis, president of Martin Davis & OMON Partners. Noreen O'Leary sat down with this group, rolled the tape, and charted a discussion ranging from the fate of the world's most popular brand to the fate of an entire industry.
BERLIN: What's the idea here?
COSTELLO: That's a good question. What is Coke trying to do? It looks like someone hit the panic button. They wanted to test everything possible and sort it out as they went along. They have the germ of something interesting in 'Always Coke.' I would have started with that, built from there. But Coke is still reacting to Pepsi, which they shouldn't.
They should take the high ground in that Coke's the real thing. Go back and occupy that high ground as Hertz did with Avis. Say, 'Wait a minute, we're number one and you're not, and here's why.'
BERLIN: McCann was in desperate shape. So what we see here is the result of a creative gang bang with no strategic centrality and not enough gate-keeping to keep the good stuff away from the bad stuff. This does not represent a revolution in the advertising business; they're not 'CAA spots.' They're just spots that are brokered through CAA. What value does CAA add? They have the value-adding ability of a telephone or a switch. They did not do anything other than to provide access to a desperate client who could not fire a big international agency network and yet wanted more exciting creative work.
O'RIELLY: CAA's work is the triumph of process over product.
DAVIS: With all the media hype about CAA, I was expecting this to be some of the greatest advertising I've ever seen. There are nice pieces, but the brilliance of what's been done is the publicity on it.
COSTELLO: When the initial hype came down, I got the impression that people like Rob Reiner and Francis Ford Coppola would be the directors and I was going to see stars. CAA would use their leverage with these people and put a package together as if they were making a movie. I didn't expect :15s. I thought everything was going to be a :60 minimum, or 120-second commercials. In essence I thought they were saying to Coca-Cola, 'It's not about advertising, it's about theater, it's about spectacle. We're going to bring to you what McCann-Erickson can't or won't.'
O'RIELLY: I think the Coca-Cola guys went to Hollywood on a business trip, showed up on Rodeo Drive one day, bought a bunch of clothes, came back, and found the wardrobe was totally inappropriate to Atlanta. That stuff just doesn't fit where they live.
KIRSHENBAUM: The way that I value creative is, could someone else do that? When I look at this work, any product could be substituted for that. It's wallpaper. It's like a really bad gift with really good wrapping. I don't think spending millions of dollars on trial and error is where Coke should be. They are the leadership brand, and they should act like one.
COSTELLO: I found 'Always' a not-so-good way to say it's the real thing; it's eternal. It always will be.
BACKER: It's flat. It doesn't have any magic.
KIRSHENBAUM: It's the emperor's new clothes. This CAA work is embarrassing.
BACKER: I feel like the father of the emperor that's now standing with no clothes. 'Always Coke' is the most defensive goddamn strategy there is. It sounds like 'there will always be an England.' They're saying we're not going out of business. A lot of the spots are really negative. I just feel the company has totally lost faith in the product itself. Maybe what they want to do is fracture the Coke image, so they can bring back the new Coke. And this is not young in the sense of being proud of what you manufacture and do. It's young in the sense of sneering at the product.
KIRSHENBAUM: Saying these commercials are young just because you have quick MTV cuts and cast young people is insulting the consumer. You don't say it, you demonstrate it. Great brands have great positioning and great ideas. Saab is probably safer than Volvo, but everyone knows that Volvo equals safety. Pepsi equals youth. What does Coke equal? That's the problem I would spend most the time focusing on.
COSTELLO: This is not advertising that is done for one of the great brands of the world. It doesn't have the size, the scope, the attitude, the intelligence to do that. You talk about youth, and certainly Coke has to be contemporary, but has Coke's position come down to 'I want to out-Pepsi Pepsi'? Pepsi staked that ground 15 years ago with the Pepsi Generation. If Coke tries to play Pepsi's lead, they're going to lose. Only Coke can be the real thing. That's what's important here. Pepsi cannot be the real thing.
KIM: I agree. Ultimately, the question that isn't resolved in CAA's work is what does Coke stand for? The kind of language we've normally employed - that Coke is universal, it's the real thing - doesn't define it anymore. Pepsi is youth, it's as simple as that. To own youth is a powerful motivator. But what then is Coke? That is the question I haven't seen answered in any of the current debates and intellectual discussions. It certainly isn't being answered by the Coke people.
KIRSHENBAUM: Pepsi is clear about its identity; it has a concise point of view and an attitude about it. The classic work for Coke was part of the American culture.
BERLIN: There's an idea about Coke: Coke is that which is best about America, which is emulated all around the world. A coke bottle was found on K2. If you were going to put anything in the Voyager spacecraft, you'd put a Coke bottle there. The best extension of our culture is embodied in Coca-Cola.
KIM: But that doesn't make sense today. Coke was once a symbol of America, of what America stood for - an expansionist power, a time when the notion of attaining middle-class status was an aspiration for all people. It was a world in which Pax America was basically the structure of global development. Coke and its bottle symbolized that America. If you say Coke is America and you look at what's happened to Coke in the last 15 years, America became a very different place.
BERLIN: It doesn't have to be limited by America. It was carried throughout the world by America, but it equals the regeneration of culture. That it started in America because of the American cultural business expansion is almost an accident of history. Coca-Cola is larger than an American brand.
COSTELLO: I'd go back to the mountaintop if I were Coke. I don't mean literally. To me it symbolized everything you'd write about Coke. It was a great execution, it was a great concept. You had worldwide appeal, you had youth, you had bigness, you had excitement. I'd go back to what that commercial embodied. I don't think the values which Coke stands for have changed, despite the passage of time.
DAVIS: Coke is saying, 'We had been the real thing, we had been this wonderful icon, but we're not sure how to leverage the icon, we're not sure how to take it into the '90s and beyond.'
KIM: That's not CAA's fault. That's Coke. What's happened the last 25 years? They were spending $150 million a year on this brand, that's a billion dollars, two billion dollars. If you look at what Coke has been unable to do in the last 5 or 10 years-is there one Coke image that comes to mind, that grabs you? What I get is blank, blank, blank. But I differ somewhat from the opinions expressed here. There are some terrific spots in the CAA work. There is an obvious love for the brand that comes through, a romancing of the Coca-Cola name. Many of you say there's no idea here, there's no strategy. Strategy is a stimulus for the creation of the advertising - I think I'm the only strategist in the room by vocation - and the advertising often becomes a stimulus for the creation of the strategy. It's an ongoing process.
The real challenge for Coke, as well as McCann, is to look at the work at the end of the year, discard a great deal of it and focus on three or four spots as a foundation. But who can afford to spend $15 million on production to find the right campaign?
BERLIN: Aren't we intelligent enough to be able to synthesize that without an extremely expensive trial and error process in our minds?
DAVIS: Coke is using this huge canvas for the world's most expensive copy test, to find out that a lot of it isn't going to work.
BERLIN: An interesting part of the story - and it's clearly well stated in these commercials - is who needs an agency? If you say these are good commercials, then you have to ask that question. That's never happened for someone as big as Coke.
COSTELLO: Do they see this as advertising? Is CAA's work advertising as we know it, as the world knows it, or is this a category where the client doesn't seem to need advertising?
KIM: Advertising is absolutely critical for this product. Coke is the most important brand in the world. If we can do advertising for Coke, then we should be able to do advertising for anything. If Coke doesn't need an agency, then nobody needs an agency. But it's also true there are a lot of CAA things we're criticizing here which agencies are also responsible for. Out of the vast amount of work done in the last 10 years, too much has been in this CAA vein - without ideas, without branding properties. We've lost the fundamental aspect of why we advertise in first place, which is a commercial reason - to sell product, to imbue a brand with equity. Too much advertising is done by agencies who believe advertising is art, advertising is entertainment, all that advertising needs to do is engage the eyes of the consumer.
O'RIELLY: What Coca-Cola did is exactly what their agencies taught them to do. What McCann did in the last 20 years is conduct group gropes. It's the 2,000 chimpanzees theory. Give them typewriters and somebody's going to write Shakespeare. If that doesn't work, get another 2,000 chimpanzees. Look at the revolving door on Coke creative directors. Every single one of us billed as incredible stars and then out six months later. Coca-Cola is doing the same thing to McCann that McCann has done to hundreds of people.
COSTELLO: What's curious is Coke chooses to do this publicly. Most group gropes happen behind closed doors; the world doesn't know. Coke is choosing to take all of their testing, spend a ton of money in production, make it the most talked about story of the year and stick it on television. If I was Coca-Cola, I wouldn't show this ridiculous range of spots, none of which sounds or looks alike. But maybe this is a positive. Everybody is focusing on Coke's advertising now. Maybe out of this will come something terrific, like when they got rid of old Coke. It became the story of the year, it refocused Coke and suddenly they had two brands. Out of stupidity came something positive.
BERLIN: Regardless, the outcome is very good for us. It forces us to think, who the hell are we? What are we about? Are we about adding value to the commision of media, or are we about growing revenues for clients with ideas, with intellectual capital? Which is what we're interested in doing, but it's not how we're perceived, not how we're appreciated.
COSTELLO: I would be more fundamental. I'd say are we about advertising? Is this CAA work advertising? And if it is, maybe I should retire from the business because I'm too old and I don't know what it is anymore. Or maybe for this particular brand at this particular time it is advertising. But for those of us around this table, some older, some younger, it is not advertising in the sense that we know it. For us, advertising usually comes out of an idea based on something.
KIM: So what is the role of an agency? The industry has to take a great deal of the responsibility for the sad state we're in, the fact that CAA's even in the mix.
BERLIN: I absolutely object to that. I find that fatally flawed. It is not an industry problem, it's a McCann problem.
KIM: Is that only a McCann problem? Look at all of the reviews out there. You have clients abandoning agencies. You have every automobile maker out there going through a series of reviews.
BERLIN: Do you think 10 years from now there will be advertising agencies?
O'RIELLY: No. I think we're going to have McKinsey with funny clothes. That's going to be the advertising agency of the future. Guys who talk to clients about their problems, come up with answers and hand it over to the client's media buying company.
BERLIN: Clients want revenue growth. They no longer believe that traditional agencies are going to give that to them, and they're willing to try out new stuff. Do all clients believe all agencies are not going to give that to them? No, but increasingly they perceive agencies as commodities. I don't think that how we'll advertise brands and grow revenues for clients 10 years from now will bear much resemblance to current advertising agency models.
BACKER: Do advertisers only want increased revenues?
BERLIN: Yes, but they believe that agencies are much more commodities now. And clients think they idemnify themselves against risk in the way we're compensated. They think when we come to sell advertising, we come to sell something which is apart from what they're trying to do. They think the marketplace that drives us is different than the marketplace that drives them.
KIM: It's amazing that we spend all of our time analyzing clients and very little time analyzing our own agencies. What is our core business? At one time, media buying was the foundation. Today there are other ways in which clients can get that. At one time market research was the domain of agencies. Today you can get that externally. Now you have CAA saying the one area where we still thought we had our quote 'business' - the creative product - is causing a client like Coke to say, 'No, wait a minute, I think I can get that elsewhere.' It's not only CAA, it happens when a large client decides it's giving a portion of its account to a small creative boutique.
BERLIN: You have to be in the position of having an exciting environment for the creation of ideas - a better, freer environment than a client's likely to have. You have to fund that. And you have to be able to package that in such a way its value is absolutely clear. Maybe even getting the agency into the new product business, line extensions, and getting the agency further into what traditionally is considered the client side.
COSTELLO: You've got to have a client who's going to buy into that. I had Michele Roux and Absolut vodka, who bought in from day one. We were the right size, right place, right people, right brand, right everything. You don't have too many who will truly want you in on that. I envy Richard because he started his agency exactly at the right time with the tightest core of people. He offers what really matters to a client: people who have ideas and can create advertising. Richard also doesn't have an overhead structure with all these big media departments, big research departments, big accounting departments and big other departments that are dragging business down now but were great when you had 15% commission.
BERLIN: If Thompson and DDB Deedham and McCann do not find ways to reformulate themselves, we won't do well.
KIRSHENBAUM: You have to keep innovating and coming up with ideas. Ideas relate to everything. Naming, coming up with new products, new ways to sell things. Once you get away from the idea and the creative work you really don't have anything. That's the problem I have with CAA's work.
BERLIN: Regardless of what happens with the Coke advertising, CAA has already been successful enough to catalyze changes that are happening in the large agency business and make them happen faster and make people think about them ahead of the market rather than just react to them later.
DAVIS: What this does is give clients permission to have an affair.
BERLIN: What is happening here with CAA is analogous to what happened when Hollywood went from the contract system of big studios to what it is today. In the old days, huge studios, unlike huge agencies, owned the intellectual property. Today is the day of the deal and the independent production company. The company is built around the idea, and the value of the idea goes to the people responsible.
COSTELLO: The scariest part of all this is bit by bit clients are saying, 'We don't need you for that.' The one thing we've all said to ourselves is clients will always need us to create advertising. Those clients who have tried to do in-house agencies in the past - except The Gap and some others - have never worked. Good agency creative people would never go to work for them, so we didn't have to worry about that. But now if clients take creative away from us we have nothing. Then we close down, because we're not going to be a media buying service or a research company or marketing consultants. If clients take away the creative, there's absolutely zero reason for us to exist.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)