Cola Wars: Agencies vie for Coke work

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Under increasing pressure to perform for Coca-Cola Co., Interpublic Group of Cos. is drafting U.S. shops to produce work and marshalling creative resources from around the world. But while WPP Group looks hopefully to expand its relationship with Coca-Cola, observers say the rival superagency still must prove itself on its initial assignments.

A Coca-Cola spokesman said the company is delighted with Interpublic, which was named global creative consultant on brand Coke in December 2000, expanding on a decades-long relationship with its agencies.

Brand Coke is important to Interpublic not just because of its size but because the holding company has not received the Coca-Cola windfall it expected after PepsiCo shifted $350 million in Interpublic work to Omnicom Group last fall. Of the 20 brands Interpublic was slated to get, only 11-many of them small-are expected to materialize.

Interpublic, meanwhile, is being dogged by WPP, which joined the roster last fall when WPP's Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York, won $100 million in Fanta and Sprite business. Ogilvy plans to use its shuttered Atlanta office space for 20-plus staffers assigned to the business when they're in town. Agency executives insist it will not be a full-service office.

Ogilvy executives declined to discuss their intentions, but there's no doubt WPP and Ogilvy would relish the chance to work on brand Coke. WPP has a big supporter in Steven J. Heyer, president of Coca-Cola Ventures. Still, WPP is expected to snag little Coca-Cola business until it successfully completes its apprenticeship; Sprite and Fanta ads break in June.

taste of coke

Former Coca-Cola executives and executives close to both holding companies said that while Interpublic appears less stable on Coca-Cola than it was six months ago, it is at present unlikely to lose brand Coke work to WPP. But Ogilvy could get a taste of brand Coke; Ad Age Group's Daily World Wire reported Coca-Cola's Indian operation is expected to move local work including brand Coke to Ogilvy from McCann next month.

"It's in the very, very early days for them, but in the medium to long-term-say six months-it's a real possibility" WPP could gain some Coke Classic work, said one person with ties to Interpublic and Coca-Cola. He cited Mr. Heyer's relationship with WPP Group Chief Executive Martin Sorrell, Ogilvy Chairman-CEO Shelly Lazarus' charm and insight with clients, and Ogilvy's experience with the youth market with such clients as Mattel and Hershey Foods Corp. Ms. Lazarus, Mr. Heyer and Mr. Sorrell orchestrated WPP's inclusion in Coca-Cola's agency realignment last year, according to several insiders.

Should Coca-Cola dole out more work any time soon, it appears more likely to tap Interpublic than WPP. Interpublic's Momentum, St. Louis, earlier snagged Coca-Cola's summer promotion. Various Interpublic shops had been asked several weeks ago for spec creative for a Coca-Cola project. At least one animated spot is in test.

internal issues

One Interpublic agency chief suggested the beverage maker's biggest issues are internal. "Coke is in transit internally," the person said. "They went from a corporate strategy of 'think global, act local,' then moved to 'think local, act local,' under CEO Doug Daft. Now they're in a place they'd likely describe as a managed position between those two."

McCann produced several spots for the Winter Olympics, but sibling Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis, created a brand Coke spot featuring a Russian hitchhiker. McCann also has been collaborating with Carmichael Lynch and the Martin Agency in Richmond, Va.; New York's Gotham is working with Lowe Worldwide, New York, on Diet Coke.

McCann has been under pressure since its 2001 "Life tastes good" campaign fell flat.

One close observer said: "There's no question that Coke is unhappy, but we've got some of the best creative teams on this, working against the strategy we are given."

contributing: kate macarthur, rich thomaselli

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