Pond jumpers: by snaring Coca-Cola’s campaign, Creative Artists Agency engineered the most notable ad event of the year

The handmade book is titled The Ugly Frog, and in the 10 or so… When Coca-Cola turned to the Hollywood talent agency in the fall of ’91 to help develop new advertising, it sent public shivers down the spine not just of Coke’s long-time agency, McCann-Erickson, but the advertising world at large. In the 18 months since, every move and potential move by CAA for its client Coke–from creating ads to hiring movie directors to the ads themselves–has been scrutinized, analyzed and criticized. And, Ovitz says, usually misunderstood. Despite all the commotion, he would simply like CAA and advertising agencies to co-exist in the same pond. “We are not a threat,” Ovitz insists.
Considering the ripples caused by his arrival at the water’s edge, peaceful coexistence may be difficult. CAA’s move into the advertising arena, where Ovitz and his team don’t merely rewrite, but at times bypass entirely, the basic tenets of the industry, has been a bombshell. It has spawned heated discussions about the very role and shape of advertising agencies, and sparked a re-examination of the often tenuous ties that bind agency to client.
Now, CAA appears poised to dive into the deep end of the pond. Ovitz is in the midst of talks with CAA’s core Coca-Cola team–Shelly Hochron and Len Fink on the creative side and Bill Haber on the business side–about adding new clients. CAA has been approached by more than a few. And Ovitz, who often finds himself in the company of Fortune 500 chief executives, is not adverse to discussing business problems and possible solutions. Indeed, it was from such informal conversations that began in the early ’80s, when Coke was selling Columbia Pictures to Sony and Ovitz was helping in the negotiations, that the CAA-Coke marketing relationship would emerge a decade later.
Couched in what has become a mantra at CAA–“We are not in the advertising business, we are not an advertising agency”–Ovitz recently talked about the talent agency’s unusual relationship with Coca-Cola. Sitting around an Italian marble table with Hochron and Fink, in a small, stark conference room in their I.M. Pei-designed headquarters, Ovitz spoke of the internal architecture put in place to develop commercials CAA-style and the way they might expand CAA’s client base without turning it into an advertising agency.
Ovitz continues to characterize CAA’s role as that of an international marketing consultant refining Coca-Cola’s worldwide image. He says he remains uninterested in getting involved in most traditional agency activities: media buying, research, traffic, account management, and so on. CAA’s function, he says, is to provide integrated marketing for Coke. It does that horizontally and vertically, across international boundaries and a range of media that begins with television and filters down through print, radio, promotions and tie-ins to the most fundamental elements, like the widespread use of the red bottle-cap icon.
The ad campaign was designed, says Hochron, to respond to the diversity of the Coke consumer. Because of that diversity, the idea of using a single theme, jingle or sound didn’t apply. Instead, says Fink, CAA employed “zero-based thinking”: starting from scratch, they developed 150 ideas. Those were narrowed to 50, then 24. Coke bought them all.
CAA is “a facile operation in which every idea is considered and we can draw on anyone here, from our music group to high technology, for those ideas,” says Ovitz. “All the ads were micro-targeted,” adds Fink, “staggered across different demographic groups, with many of the ads designed for multiple executions.” There are also seasonal executions– polar bears in the winter, a sweating Coke bottle in summer—that will roll out through the year. What’s more, the 24 ads for Coca-Cola Classic, according to CAA, were produced at the same cost to Coke as the seven ads that McCann produced for the Classic brand a year earlier.
The fundamental strategy for Coke is all about entertainment. “When we started this relationship,” says Ovitz, “senior management of the company was unhappy with the way they were perceived. We had a serious conversation in which (then-Coke president) Don Keough asked if there was something we could do.” Ovitz thought about it and decided there was. “Part of the game plan,” he says, “was to combine the entertainment style of marketing with traditional advertising.” Hochron was a movie marketing executive, Fink a creative director recruited from Chiat/Day. “By combining all that with the creative intensity of this business, we felt the blend of sensibilities could stir up the pot,” says Ovitz.
From the outset, CAA developed an amoeba-like organism that could expand and contract as needed. In the 100 days Hochron and Fink had to produce the initial order of 24 spots, four freelance producers were hired who in turn began working with production companies and directors. The team also drew heavily from CAA’s connections to all parts of the entertainment industry. “We are not encumbered by size,” says Ovitz, “and we have the freedom to take our thinking in any direction. This is not about taking over the advertising business. This is about working for Coke.”
What continues to mystify Ovitz is the attempt by the advertising industry to evaluate the campaign in traditional advertising terms, when CAA went about creating it in a non-traditional way. His jury, he believes, is the consumer and the client. “When you look at this brand,” says Hochron, “there’s no real mystery and no new information. It tastes good. It’s refreshing. Applying laddering techniques to what we’re doing wouldn’t give us the feedback we need.” Instead, just as they preview movies, CAA previewed the spots, then cast those reactions against their collective instincts. “One reason Coke came to CAA is their experience in assessing what motivates people to pay $7 for a movie ticket,” notes Hochron.
“We are talking every day to people who are creating the cultural agenda,” says Ovitz, “people who are taking new ideas and interpreting them through film, TV, music, the arts. That usually puts us well ahead of the pack in understanding what is going to happen. Once something is out there, it’s too late.”
Any new CAA client will likely have many of the same characteristics of brand Coca-Cola–a mass-marketed product, preferably international, that can be promoted through entertainment. A client looking for an image makeover, not one seeking advertising designed to drive retail sales. And while the future may be cloudy, one thing is dear: Ovitz and company are more than just visitors to the pond. What remains to be seen is whether the frog and the alligator can, in reality, get along just fine.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)