U.S. Agency of the Year: Berlin Cameron/Red Cell | Adweek U.S. Agency of the Year: Berlin Cameron/Red Cell | Adweek
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U.S. Agency of the Year: Berlin Cameron/Red Cell

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It was a burp heard around the world. In one of the first Coca-Cola commercials unveiled last January by Berlin Cameron/ Red Cell, Penelope Cruz, dressed in a tank top and jeans, gulps down a bottle of Coke in one long, thirst-quenching chug and lets a belch slip, coyly smiling to onlookers as she wipes her lips.

The spot was one of the first in the "Real" campaign, Coke's largest advertising effort since now-president and COO Steve Heyer arrived at the company in 2001. Coke traditionally had shied away from sassy storytelling in favor of a more conservative approach when advertising its flagship brand, handled largely by Interpublic Group's McCann-Erickson. Now, a dozen commercials from a much smaller roster agency were introducing a marketing strategy with a new attitude and tagline, all geared toward reconnecting the brand to the youth market.

"Berlin Cameron created a new face and voice for the world's most recognizable brand and, in doing so, is helping Coke to win the affection of a whole new generation of consumers," says Coke's chief creative officer, Esther Lee. "They understood how to re-lens the timeless truths about Coke—refreshment, authenticity, connections—to be relevant to today's youth."

A month after "Real" debuted amid much fanfare and generally favorable reviews, the 7-year-old WPP Group shop was named lead creative agency on the world's most famous brand, taking the reins from an agency whose history with the brand dated back to 1955. The move again demonstrated that even for a global giant like Coke, agency size doesn't necessarily matter.

After years of diligent work on Dasani and regional Coke brands such as Fresca, Pibb, Mello Yello and Minute Maid's sodas, Berlin Cameron had finally wrapped its hands around the real thing, Coke Classic. For the New York agency, whose size defies its strategic and creative muscle, the win represented an overdue coming-of-age.

Although Berlin Cameron had spent nearly nine months stealthily working on a new platform for the brand, there was still a sense of "disbelief" when the agency learned of its lead status, says co-chairman Andy Berlin, 53. "We were so close to it, it was like being inside the Lincoln Memorial," he says. "You're standing at the foot of the statue, look up, and all you can see is the knee."

The news kicked off a year that saw the shop more than double in size, with its staff growing from 35 to 80 employees and estimated billings ballooning from $330 million to $800 million. Along with creative and strategic duties for Classic Coke, Berlin Cameron won a corporate branding assignment for Coke, Pfizer's $75 million Zyrtec account and a corporate assignment for the company, the $50 million Boost Mobile account and White Wave's $30 million Silk Soy Milk business. Without reviews, it also added Pernod Ricard's The Glenlivet whiskey ($10 million) and the small Tasty Baking Co. account.

For its robust new-business growth—besides the Coke Classic coupe, the shop now has entry into the pharmaceutical and telecom categories—and consistent creative flair for existing clients such as Dasani, New York Life and Tidy Cats, Berlin Cameron is Adweek's 2003 U.S. Agency of the Year.

"There is a quantum difference when you reach a certain size," says Berlin. "I think that happened to us in the last year."

Though the growth felt sudden, 2003 was years in the making. The core team—Berlin, 39-year-old CEO Ewen Cameron and creative directors Jason Peterson, 35, and Izzy DeBellis, 40—have worked together for about a decade, starting at Berlin Wright Cameron (the DDB spinoff created for Volkswagen in 1993), Fallon McElligott Berlin, Berlin Cameron & Partners and, finally, the WPP agency it is today.

Berlin and Cameron go back even further. They met in the '80s when Berlin was working in San Francisco as one of the founding partners of Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein and Cameron was a planner at London's BMP."I was working on the Labour Party; he worked on the Republican Party," says Cameron, who once toured with the Clash as a roadie. After the sale of Goodby to Omnicom Group, Berlin moved to DDB Needham in New York as president in 1992, and Cameron followed him. "I thought I'd come for a year and then move back to London," he says.

The executives' history with Coca-Cola traces to the mid-'90s, when Fallon McElligott Berlin began working on Diet Sprite. "You don't know where the tipping point was," says DeBellis. "But like any client-agency relationship, we took every opportunity as a way to demonstrate our thinking and creative abilities to get an opportunity on a larger piece of business."

The agency had taken the same ramping-up tack with General Motors: A 1998 corporate-branding Olympics assignment turned into work for the United Auto Workers-GM partnership, which was then leveraged into the Cadillac Escalade launch in 2000 and a repositioning of the entire GMC line in early 2001 (Berlin Cameron had to resign the business after the WPP purchase). Likewise, the shop picked up a small Reebok running-shoe assignment in 1997, winning all of the company's business in the course of the next 18 months (that business moved to Arnell at the end of 2001).

Yet despite landing work from large clients, Berlin says the shop was frequently stymied by its independent, one-office status. Too often, it saw assignments green-lighted by brand managers die when upper management balked at the lack of global capabilities. "We ran into the wall of not having the international resources and not having the outside-of-the-main-part-of-advertising disciplines that really big agencies did," says Berlin, citing Miscrosoft's Xbox account as one example.

After a call from Coca-Cola's then-chief marketing officer Steve Jones, warning that an upcoming worldwide brand realignment along holding-company lines would push the shop off the Coke roster, the partners sold to WPP and joined Martin Sorrell's fledgling Red Cell network in late 2001. "We weren't threatened on the business any longer, and we began to have opportunities that we didn't have," Berlin says.

Asked whether he considers it a good investment, Sorrell notes that, "Berlin Cameron/Red Cell is an investment in talent. Andy, Ewen and Jon [Steel] are outstanding figures in the industry. They are agency principals with principles. They are very much what WPP is now about."

The agency's greatest opportunity came after bending the ear of Heyer at an informal meeting in London in March 2002. Berlin and Red Cell co-CEO Lee Daley, a former McCann executive, shared their Coca-Cola case histories and campaigned for a chance to do more. "We did not ask for the opportunity to work on Classic," insists Berlin, who credits Sorrell with helping to make the client connection.

Coke responded by asking for "out-of-the-box" thinking on two other brands, ideas that Berlin says never saw fruition. "The point was to demonstrate the kind of thinking we could do and the sorts of value we could add," he observes.

Soon after, Berlin Cameron was asked to think of ways to make Classic more appealing to the elusive young consumer while retaining the brand's authentic, wholesome image. Cliff Freeman and Partners' 2000 commercial showing a wheelchair-bound grandmother going berserk had backfired, and McCann's 2001 brand campaign for Coke, "Life Tastes Good," derailed after 9/11. The Berlin team had demonstrated insight into the target with its work for other Coke brands—winning an Effie Award from the American Marketing Association for Mello Yello—as well as the NBA and Reebok.

"Coke is the most wonderful brand in the world, but it had aged and drifted toward becoming vanilla," says the Scottish-born Cameron.

The new strategy, which Coke is implementing globally, is "about taking something that was authentic, 'The real thing,' and linking it in a cultural sense to being real and genuine and being yourself," explains Cameron. "That's very much where the target audience is and the media is. We're obsessed with reality." The "Real" campaign shows celebrities and others enjoying the soda in everyday situations. In one spot, for example, Courteney Cox brings her pinball-playing husband, David Arquette, a glass of Coke filled with ice chips so that she gets more of their remaining bottle to herself.

Berlin Cameron began quietly working on the brand after getting a nod from Heyer and Jones. "It was so exciting knowing we had a chance to take it from a big agency," says Peterson. "It felt punk rock."

Soon enough, IPG got wind of the competition. McCann-Erickson had been testing a strategy of its own, but by early summer, focus groups put the "Real" strategy in the lead and Berlin Cameron moved into creative development, taking the creative and strategic lead. In the end, only one of IPG's concepts was produced—a spot from event- marketing unit Momentum for an NCAA promotion.

To McCann's credit, the highly political situation—which involved both agencies collaborating on a solution—went fairly smoothly, according to Berlin. "They weren't trying to trip us up—everyone involved was trying to do good work. I don't have anything bad to say about them," he says. "From a bystander's point of view, [the Coke-McCann partnership] was a relationship that was over or ending."

The experience gave Berlin Cameron executives a chance to get to know Bill Grogan, then IPG's director of Coca-Cola brands and the liaison for McCann. After a brief stint at Time Warner, Grogan was hired in March as Berlin Cameron's first president. "There was an opportunity here that meshed nicely with my own skills," says Grogan, 43. "It's one thing to win the Coca-Cola business. It's another thing to manage the Coca-Cola business."

The other high-level hire last year was Jon Steel, one of the industry's most influential planners, who in September moved over from his post as WPP's worldwide planning consultant to become the agency's vice chairman. Steel had worked with Berlin years before at Goodby and with Cameron at BMP. Asked how the partners pulled him back into he agency fold, he jokes, "Andy is a very persuasive man, and he's bigger than me." More seriously, he says his mission is "to keep the place honest and simplify and clarify things."

The addition of the strategist and the veteran account manager fortified the agency's top-level management, broadening its capabilities. The agency also brought in Carla Serrano from TBWA\Chiat\Day, New York, as director of planning in September, and filled out its account management and creative departments.

The new ranks helped give Berlin Cameron a new-business momentum it lacked just the year before. In 2002, for example, the agency fell short to Bartle Bogle Hegarty in the ING Direct review and to Crispin Porter + Bogusky in the Ikea contest. "We were the bridesmaid on a great number of occasions," says Avi Dan, 53, managing partner and director of new business. "We made it to the finals, but we couldn't go over the top."

In both the ING and Ikea reviews, "we were told we didn't have depth of talent," says Berlin. "They thought there were strong senior people in the agency but not the depth of resources they saw in other agencies."

But last year the agency beat out creative heavyweights CP+B, Fallon and Wieden + Kennedy in the finals of the White Wave review. "We had four great agencies that were very energized by the brand," says Steve Hughes, marketing and sales vp at the client. "But Berlin Cameron's creative and strategic insights showed that they clearly saw the full potential for the brand and linked it very nicely to a creative concept. We also really like them. The chemistry clicked early on."

The agency's "flat" management structure was also a draw, Hughes says. "The people dealing with your strategy and creative issues are the top people in the house," he explains. "Jon can lay out his insights in a way that resonates with the brand, and Andy is an entrepreneur at heart. He understands the business issues as well."

While Steel notes that "a pretty big cheer went up in our conference room" when the White Wave win was announced, nothing could come close to the Coke victory as a morale booster.

"Having the stamp of approval from the biggest brand in the world really gave us the confidence we needed," adds Dan. "Winning the most famous brand in the world is the biggest honor you can get. You may win Emmys and Tonys, but that was the day you win an Oscar."

A year after the campaign debuted, Lee says of the team, "they continue to deliver big and fresh thinking and work, and to raise the bar on where the brand can go." The second round of work, which Cameron affectionately refers to as "Album II," will break in late January and stick closely to the original with just some "subtle tuning."

A firm believer that "TiVo is going to change our lives dramatically," Cameron expects the new year will see the agency——one of the first to integrate a brand into a reality show with Reebok's 2000 Survivor tie-in—involved in more content development. Cameron, trained as a planner but a creative at heart, offers a cross-disciplinary skill set to clients, like many at the agency. In recent years, he's taken to learning more about the production process and has been honing his ad-making skills as a creative, first on Reebok and now as cd on Coke. "You have to be a creative to be a good strategic thinker," he says.

That movement across departmental boundaries is a core part of the culture at an agency that sees little turnover and stays lean. "It's not a place for formal ambitions," is how Berlin describes the philosophy. "It's a place for getting down to work."

No one has a personal assistant, and ideas can come from anywhere, not just the 18-member creative department. "There has never been a hard line between departments," says DeBellis. "If you had the will and wanted to do something, no one is going to say that you can't do that. You can write your own job description if you want to."

It is a no-frills work ethic from the top that's appreciated by clients. "From a strategic standpoint, they understood what we were trying to do and fit with the way we run our business," says Steve Stanford, vp of marketing for Boost Mobile. "Ewen Cameron in particular has been incredibly hands-on with us—really has come in and rolled up his sleeves and worked closely with us to help develop the brand positioning. It's not only their strategic thinking but the way they've been able to interact with us and become part of our culture."

Last month the agency introduced its first effort for the Nextel-owned pay-as-you-go wireless service, which targets teens. A spot for the Christmas season featured an African-American Santa and a frustrated elf who calls his boss using Boost to ask, "Where you at?"—a line that serves as the new tag. A full campaign will break in March.

While 2003 was a banner year , Berlin says he thinks the agency can get bigger yet by doing what it always has: working with large clients without the cumbersome layers of a traditional agency.

"Having been through the experience of starting a place from scratch and growing it on the engine of the work, one of the things Ewen and I both wanted to do was shorten the development cycle of the agency," he says. "One of the things we wanted to do from the very beginning was work for the big clients. We know how to do that. I think Berlin Cameron can continue to grow faster than people expect that we could, and I really do think an agency has to grow. Growing agencies are happy agencies."

BILLINGS

Up 142 percent to $800 million (est.)

REVENUE

Up 142 percent to $70 million (est.)

WIN/LOSS PITCH RATIO

4 out of 4

ACCOUNTS WON/MEDIA BUDGET

Coke Classic ($300 million)

Nextel's Boost Mobile ($50 million)

White Wave's Silk Soy Milk ($30 million)

Pfizer's Zyrtec ($75 million)

The Glenlivet whiskey ($10 million)*

Tasty Baking Co. ($1 million)

ACCOUNTS LOST/MEDIA BUDGET*

No losses

HIGHLIGHTS

• Bolstered top ranks, hiring superstar account planner Jon Steel as vice chairman and ex-IPG Coca-Cola account manager Bill Grogan as president.