|Coca-Cola CCO Esther Lee|
As senior VP-chief creative officer of Coca-Cola North America and the Coca-Cola Co., Lee is overseeing a critical phase in the iconic brand's long and storied life. After nearly 120 years of selling the syrupy essence of America, Coke faces a changing marketplace, including the explosion in the number and variety of liquid refreshment options, and, to some degree, the crushing weight of the brand's own heritage. Coke is assured a place in the cultural canon with its history and legendary ads, like 1971's "Hilltop" (the theme to which one can still hear when placed on hold with a Coke employee -- a small indicator of the company's attachment to the glory days), but Coke's recent advertising hasn't always set the standard for a new generation of consumers. (At press time, the very leadership of the company was under debate: While most consider Heyer a natural choice to step in for departing CEO Douglas Daft, succession plans were unclear as of early March.)
The Heyer/Lee regime has made a concerted effort to ensure the venerable brand retains its burning fizz for a new generation of overstimulated quaffers. Toward that end, the company has streamlined its creative ops, with the goal of greater efficiency and better ideas. It's meant agency shakeups -- including the high profile switch from McCann-Erickson to WPP's Berlin Cameron/Red Cell in the U.S. and to independent Mother in the U.K. -- and big expectations for groundbreaking work.
To that creative task, Lee brings hardcore strategic sense, honed as an agency account person, manager and owner on a wide range of clients. The Cornell grad had previously served as senior VP-account director at JWT before joining Deutsch in 1993 as exec VP-director of agency development and client services. At Deutsch, Lee worked with then Turner Broadcasting president and client Steve Heyer, who would be appointed Coke's president in 2002 and approach Lee shortly thereafter to join the company in a new role created to help Coke face contemporary market realities with the necessary creative aplomb. While Lee didn't answer Heyer's first call -- she was running her own agency, DiNoto Lee, at the time -- "over the course of time it became this inevitable thing I had to do," she says. "It wasn't about leaving the agency business; it was about coming to Coke for what I think is an incredible opportunity." The role was largely based on Heyer's ambition to maintain Coke's marketing might, ensuring his aggressive agenda for change was carried out at the marketing partner level.
The job description is vast: Lee manages advertising development for all brands across North America and "creative idea development" globally, working, to some degree, with all of Coke's agencies worldwide, as well as overseeing graphics and visual identity and other creative for the brands. "I think it was Steve's vision for what he wanted to accomplish here," says Lee. "But it wasn't just an advertising position; chief creative officer suggests the need to drive creativity, whether that's creative integrity or freshness or magnitude." And in driving creativity, many of Lee's agency partners will attest that she has a firm grip on the wheel. Like Heyer, the Coke CCO packs a rep for an uncompromising approach. But agency creatives say that characteristic is backed with real insight into their world and the will to extract better work from the process. "Because she's run an agency and she's been on the smaller entrepreneurial side of things, she knows what it's like to develop advertising from the perspective of someone who's actually done it, as opposed to someone who's just commissioned it," says Berlin Cameron CEO Ewen Cameron.
While the general vision for the CCO role was clear from the outset, Lee has added dimension to the job over time. "The way I define the job now is much more specific. While the big ideas and getting the work to a higher quality level are still obviously the overall objective of this position, that involves a lot of specific responsibilities and activities. For example, it's setting a vision for and getting understanding around what excellence looks like in creative. It involves very hands-on involvement in idea development, and it's also a lot of capability building. So it's organizational structure, it's about bringing in talent and maximizing the talent and partnerships in terms of our agencies, as well as building proficiencies internally."
Coke "Trash Talk"
There are two sides to Coke's views on the agency relationship, says Lee. "One is the individual agency with an individual market relationship. In that situation, it's about partnership and talent. Talent being certainly the ability to author big ideas; not just ad ideas but ideas that can platform our brand's marketing, ideas that recognize the truth about our brands and at the same time have some kind of meaning for the consumers we're trying to reach." Secondly, from a global standpoint, Lee says Coke has walked away from AOR by brand, "because we don't think that services the creative quality on a market-by-market basis to the degree we need to. But having said that, if there's an agency that has the experience and the creative talent and has worked on specific brands across countries, that knowledge helps any one market. So we don't assume the network has no value either."
In North America, Lee recruited VP-North American advertising Pio Schunker, who oversees a team of ad managers with specific brand responsibilities. Lee says Coke is also in the process of hiring what on the agency side would be strategic planners to work across North America. "The idea there is to allow us to do a better job of articulating the direction we want to take the brand in order to be a better client for our agencies. It's not necessarily to replace the planning work done by the agencies."
The relationships have manifested themselves in work that Coke says has been successful with its audience and within the company. The pop heard round the world, of course, the "Real" campaign that clinched the business for Berlin Cameron, has been the most highly visible effort by the brand to re-establish its cultural relevance with a new crowd. "What we needed to do was to reconnect with youth. What was interesting about a big brand like Coke is that you can go one of two ways. You can do advertising that is really big and iconic or, in some cases, I think the brand can be bigger when it actually acts smaller. Not that the brand is by any means small, but it's more intimate with a lot of depth, and it resonates on a human level." By most standards, says Lee, the campaign has been successful. Copy testing has rated the "Real" spots best in class, according to those who measure these kinds of things, and consumer perception tracking turns up lots of "Is young" and "Is right for me" feedback. "It's created a buzz that brings Coke back into much more of a public-interest forum; it's culturally on target," says Lee. Berlin also created buzz with its more recent cinema spot, "Talking About Fame," a well-deserved piss-take of MTV's Cribs, wherein a "Real" Coke drinker takes viewers on the insider's tour of his suburban home and its decidedly un-blingy appointments. New "Real" spots are expected this spring.
Coke "I Wish"
Mother/London's first big brand splash in the U.K., "I Wish," was also chosen for international exposure, recently airing in the U.S. (the track from the spot will also be released this month). The spot, which features a young woman singing in the streets and handing out Cokes to passersby, was created very specifically for the U.K. market, says Mother/London partner Andy Medd, but the spot captured something that was at the heart of the brand in a universal sense. "What was specific about this campaign is that it concentrated on Coca-Cola's core values -- optimism, setting an example, bringing out the best in people," says Medd. "And that's true for the brand wherever it is in the world."
Lee says this "search and reapply" approach is an important part of Coke creative strategy. "We have such a big network; why would we waste creative juice from one country? But it has to match brand strategy -- if you're going to borrow from somewhere, you do want consistency in strategy."
Has the new Coke been a success creatively? Creative response to newer work, including "Real," has ranged from generally positive to mixed, but Coke claims success on its measurement scales and agencies claim the creative process with Lee at the helm on the client side does indeed foster good work. The authors of Coke's recent work point to Lee as a productive creative partner, owing to her experience on the idea development side of the fence. "It's a little unconventional, but I think it's been helpful for us," says Cameron. "Her background means she's more nurturing of creative ideas and people. She'll tend to, in the way of an internal creative director, see something and try to build on it, rather than just accept or reject. A lot of client experiences are just about pass/fail. She really doesn't think like a client, she thinks like a collaborator."
"She's very focused and very purposeful about what she wants to accomplish, but at the same time very accessible and open-minded," says Ogilvy's Terry Finley, who joined the agency recently as creative director and has overseen the new Sprite campaign, which had already been in development at the agency. "She has a commitment to whole ideas broadly expressed over a lot of platforms to develop a core brand idea. I've seen the commitment to that," Finley adds, pointing to the web-focused, pan-media approach of the new campaign, necessary to reach the less TV-oriented 12-18-year-old demo. "We're doing a lot of things in a different way." With Heyer setting the tone, all eyes will be on Coke to do things in a different way on a larger scale. Lee says "we'd be silly if we weren't" looking a bigger-than-spots marketing picture. "Even if TiVo weren't on the horizon, our brand accompanies people in their day-to-day lives; we participate in their passion points. We're in arenas and on college campuses and in movie theaters -- the opportunity exists there to do more than just approach and talk to consumers when they're sitting in front of their TV sets." And while initiatives are planned in a number of supra-spot arenas, Lee also points to another, less discussed point in Heyer's famous sermon. "The point he was making, aside from the fact that we need to touch consumers beyond advertising, is that the model is not about us taking a checkbook out every time. It's about a value-for-value exchange. He made a very important point about how Coca-Cola, because of all its touch points, could launch someone's single in our media just as well as we could use someone's music to put in our commercial."
According to Lee, the much discussed "broken agency model" has a lot more to do with "how do you actually make a reasonable buck and how do you define your business. From the client side, we don't deal with agency models, we deal with teams. So we're talking about how can we work together to create more opportunities. We've talked to some agencies about, 'If you want to work on a bigger basis with us, tell us where your best talent is and how we can work with that talent, not just in the market that they're in; and how do we create remuneration around that, that's fair to the agency and that's fair to us.' "
No details are forthcoming on entertainment projects, and as for breaking ads and other hot spots for Coke work, Lee says the creative clustering is just starting to bear fruit. "We're still at the first phase of seeing ideas for all the brands from all the clusters. I think I'll be able to answer that question better in six months."
(This article appears in the March 2004 issue of Creativity.)