Heyer goes to ground after Coke board asserts its power

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Tonight, Steve Heyer will stand before nearly 400 people who've paid $1,000 to see him honored for global leadership as president-chief operating officer of Coca-Cola Co.

But the UJA-Federation of New York event, a perfect platform for Mr. Heyer to give one of his agenda-setting speeches, will instead be a place where he tries to downplay his influence.

Only a week before tonight's black-tie dinner, E. Neville Isdell took over the Chairman-CEO role that many once thought would have gone to Mr. Heyer, an outspoken executive that made his reputation by shaking up sleepy corporate culture. Ironically, however, those very qualities caused him to suffer inside Coca-Cola for being too public a figure. Now, he's sought to tone down his role as a change agent.

"No matter how you look at it, he's president of one of the most important corporations in the world," said David Sable, vice chairman-president of worldwide operations at Wunderman and general chair of the UJA-Federation's marketing communications division. "Every- thing is relative. He's absolutely an inspiration to people in our business and to younger people in particular."

A spokeswoman for UJA-a charity well supported by the marketing and media communities-said Mr. Heyer had been the group's first choice for the award for three years running, but finally accepted this year.

restructuring

Since joining Coca-Cola in 2001, Mr. Heyer reset Coke's financial expectations from a volume model to a profitable growth model. He also restructured the Coke marketing function to better mesh with its regional leadership and bottling structure and hired new marketing management and agencies. Under Mr. Heyer, Coca-Cola brand messages have been embedded into Fox's "American Idol," in Red Room teen lounges in malls, and Coca-Cola was a pioneer in using two-way instant messaging for marketing.

"He's incredibly brave, decisive and is quite visionary about his view of brands," said Ewen Cameron, CEO, Berlin Cameron, New York, a unit of WPP Group. "Brands like Coca-Cola aren't just soft-drinks but also entertainment properties and they need to embrace all the ways consumers interact with brands."

But Mr. Heyer's hard-charging approach hasn't served him well with Coke's powerful board and other management. According to a recent cover story in Fortune, Mr. Heyer was put on probation after his keynote before Advertising Age's Madison + Vine conference last year, and told to keep a lower profile. Since the search for a CEO began in February, Mr. Heyer also became more reticent as speculation swirled about his chances of getting or not getting the job. After being passed over, he's said repeatedly he will stay at Coca-Cola.

In personal appearances, Mr. Heyer has been cautious, if not defensive, about his situation, "respectfully declining" to be interviewed about the UJA award. Coca-Cola executives also declined to be interviewed, citing an unofficial publicity moratorium after a rash of stories about the succession drama.

Already, in public remarks, Mr. Heyer has toned down the rhetoric of his campaign for a fresh marketing culture.

In a keynote during the May 25 Beverage Forum in New York City, Mr. Heyer made it clear he still has work to do in shifting Coke's marketing from the broadcast model to an integrated model.

"I'd give us an A for experimentation and a C+ for actively moving the world ourselves," he said, adding "Frankly, we're behind where I wish we would be."

Résumé

Name: Steven J. Heyer

Age: 51

Now: President-chief operating officer, Coca-Cola Co.

Who: A hard-charging executive who stirred up Coca-Cola's marketing culture. While widely admired outside the company, those close to the marketer note he hasn't forged key relationships inside Coke's hallways.

Challenge: Convince the world and Coke insiders that he wants to stay with the soft-drink giant.

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