Cliff dwellers

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Cliff Freeman's lips are sealed. He will not talk about Coke.

He will not comment even on what appears to be obvious, that the sugared soda water marketer has, arguably, always yearned for some edgy creative. Hey, Coca-Cola Co. once hired a shop called Edge Creative, a Hollywood -- not New York, a Hollywood shop -- concocted by big-time movie agent Mike Ovitz. Does Mr. Freeman think Edge Creative lived up to its name?

"Well, I believe they created that polar bear ad," Mr. Freeman, chairman-chief creative officer, said noncommittally, as he sat in his office surrounded by an impressive tchotchke collection, mostly old radios that look like they don't work. Edgy? This guy is the definition. His name is Cliff, after all.

Mr. Freeman, 58, isn't talking, but everyone in this business purports to know why Coca-Cola Co. recently chose Cliff Freeman & Partners -- already on its roster for Fanta and Cherry Coke -- to create an ad campaign for its flagship Coke Classic.

"They presented comedy ideas," claimed Andy Berlin, partner at Berlin, Cameron & Partners, one of many shops, including Leo Burnett USA, McCann-Erickson Worldwide and D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, vying for the coveted Classic account.

A piece, just a piece, of Coke

Although Freeman has indeed scored a precious piece of the Classic Coke account, many observers believe it's only a piece. How can such a corporate giant entrust its premier brand to a small agency with a reputation for hit-and-run comedy advertising?

"Just because we assign a piece of Classic work with a certain billing size to an agency doesn't make them the lead agency," a Coca-Cola spokesman said. "They could be on the short end of the stick for another project on another time and so on. We are very happy with the roster arrangement and there is no lead agency, de facto or otherwise."

Mr. Freeman's shop, however, is out to prove it's more than simply an ad humor mill. Sure, President-Executive Creative Director Arthur Bijur and Senior VP-Chief Creative Director Eric Silver oversee a buzzing hive of young humorists. Some say they pioneered the dot-com ad genre with zany spots for, complete with gerbils shot from a cannon. The shop also collected nine Gold Pencils at this year's One Show Awards, representing work for clients Budget Rent A Car Corp.; Fox Sports; Hollywood Video; and the independent film "The Minus Man," from the Shooting Gallery.

But Messrs. Freeman and Bijur insist these days that their repertoire goes beyond creative. Today, they're a full-service advertising agency with $375 million in billings, including a 15-person strategic planning department led by Exec VP-Director of Account Planning Karen Evans, one of the key players behind their pitch for the Coca-Cola Classic assignment. "In order for an advertising agency to excel, it can't just be about a creative product. It's got to be more," Mr. Freeman said.

In its usual maverick fashion, Cliff Freeman & Partners went against the trend towards more consolidation in the advertising business by buying itself back from Saatchi & Saatchi last year.

"We wanted our autonomy for hiring, to make things happen faster," said Mr. Bijur. "Internally, we wanted to control our infrastructure and we thought that would make us a stronger agency. Every agency at some point wants to control its destiny."

Although that separation appears to cut the agency off from the services and amenities of a worldwide holding company, including working with Saatchi's media agency, Zenith, that isn't the case.

The agency continues to work with Zenith, said Mr. Bijur, but it is also free to work with other media agencies if it chooses. The agency provides media planning services of its own under the direction of Peter Regan, exec VP-media director and general manager. And besides, it hasn't left the building. The offices are still in Saatchi's downtown building.

Thinking BIG

Ms. Evans, formerly the director-account planning at Citron Haligman Bedecarre, San Francisco, was hired by Mr. Freeman four years ago to create a planning department from scratch. Along with Mr. Freeman and Douglas Cameron, hired as a planner at the agency, Ms. Evans last year launched a new research unit within the agency called the Business Intelligence Group. BIG is composed of seven twentysomethings who find target audiences for clients and shape brand identities.

"One of the first clients we used BIG for was Coca-Cola," Ms. Evans said, referring to Freeman's current Fanta account.

Mr. Cameron said that the planning department has been working with Coke to zero in on the "mainstream teen-ager" as their "most profitable segment" for the Fanta brand.

"These targeting decisions require a lot of numbers, to figure out how attractive each segment is, and to be able to confidently sacrifice segments that are unattractive," Mr. Cameron said. "You just can't be everything to everybody."

Globe Probe, an international information network, is a recent development that grew out of BIG. "It's an entire list of culture consultants and teens that are online," Ms. Evans said. "We wanted to keep our finger on the pulse on what was going on with teens around the world, so we got Globe Probe running in two dozen countries around the world."

The BIG team at Freeman corresponds via the Internet with this network, which communicates the latest trends from around the world; BIG also bounces creative advertising concepts off these online advisers for feedback. "We want to know exactly where kids' heads are at vis a vis our brands," Ms. Evans said.

Fox Sports Net

Fox Sports Net, an innovative broadcast service developed by Fox to deliver local sports programming, also uses BIG. "We've been working on a massive, nine-month segmentation project for Fox, using a lot of numbers to identify a major underserved segment of the sports viewing market -- regional sports," Mr. Cameron said. "Home team fans are latently tribal, and ESPN is not able to exploit this market."

Director-New Business Charles Rosen points out that the planning team not only helps Fox target this niche market for advertising opportunities, but also programming.

"The long-range plan is that we'll be helping them determine who their key consumers are and how to position themselves to reach that market," he said.

Neal Tiles, exec VP-marketing at Fox Sports Marketing Group, sees the agency's new planning department as a strong complement to the creative juices that have always flowed at the agency. "The reason why that balance happens is Eric Silver," Mr. Tiles said. "He is so sensitive to the fact that the work just can't be ballsy, that it has to have a strategic angle."

On June 14, Fox premieres "The Regional Sports Report." A Freeman campaign for the show, supervised by Mr. Silver, breaks this week. "Unlike our work for Fox hockey and baseball, this campaign doesn't target the occasional sports viewer," Mr. Silver said. "This is for the avid sports fan, who has his local team and is only interested in his local team."

The campaign was directed by the seven-man directing team known as Traktor, and was shot on digital Beta video. The spots are a series of faux broadcasts from Third World sporting events that are bizarre and tasteless. Each spot features an announcer talking in a foreign tongue (without subtitles) apparently introducing events which range from a Russian face slapping contest, to a Chinese lumberjack-falling-tree-catch event to a Turkish high dive into solid ground. The tagline: "Sports news from the only region you care about . . . Yours."

BIG also developed for client Hollywood Video an in-store promotion called "What are you in the mood for?" It's a video title search program for indecisive customers, featuring an on-site search catalog, a movie expert who roams the aisles of each store and a huge "compass" hanging on the wall, which will help customers get their bearings.

"The whole idea was based on stuff we came up with in the strategy area, working very closely with Karen Evans," said Jeff Yapp, president-CEO of Hollywood Video. "And then we brought it to Cliff and asked him to bring it to life. And he brought it to life."

The agency, under Mr. Bijur's guidance, has created Hollywood Video spots breaking this week that play with film genres. One spot asks the question "Am I in the mood to rent a cop movie?" as a man is slapped by cops in an interrogation scene that segues into a Nazi war movie interrogation scene with more slapping, then a gangster film with even more slapping and finally, a love story, with, of course, some heavy smacking around.

Quizno's: `It's that good'

One of Freeman's newest clients, the Quizno's Corp. sandwich store chain, also worked closely with the agency's planning group on a campaign that breaks this week. The spots show the remains of Quizno's sandwiches being thrown away by white-collar professionals and then picked up by other white-collar professionals who fish them out of trash cans, off the sidewalk, and out of the clutches of hungry pigeons, all for sloppy seconds. The tagline: "It's that good."

Ms. Evans and her team identified Quizno's target audience as young 20- to 30-year-old professionals who are extremely busy but have a good sense of humor. Ms. Evans screened the spots for a test audience recently.

"The juxtaposition of a very professional woman pulling something out of the garbage was something that they were really able to laugh at. There was a sense of discovery about the work. If feels very much like Caesars, " said Ms. Evans, referring to Little Ceasars Pizza. The pizza chain was the agency's signature client from 1987 to 1998, when the agency resigned the business. Rob Elliot, now exec VP-marketing at Quizno's, was marketing director at Little Caesars while Freeman's "Pizza pizza" was the fast-feeder's tagline.

Perhaps the biggest cliff-hanger is what will happen to the agency if Mr. Freeman suddenly retires or if there is an emergency.

"Cliff is the youngest 58 you'll ever see," said Mr. Bijur. "There's not a whole lot of talk about succession. He's having a great time."

Mr. Freeman has clearly come a long way from his start as a Dancer Fitzgerald Sample copywriter, having penned the "Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don't" tagline for Hershey Foods Corp.'s Peter Paul Mounds and Almond Joy candy bars, and the equally famous "Where's the beef?" line for Wendy's International. But he's still constantly bucking trends.

"You know, when I first started in this business," said Mr. Freeman, sitting back in an easy chair in his office, "I didn't know any planners. I didn't even know what they did. I had no idea. But now . . . well, things are different. Very different."

Contributing: Kate MacArthur.

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