Coca-Cola loses Edge; shops face Classic dilemma

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Coca Cola Co.'s in-house advertising agency Edge Creative will disband May 1, leaving the world's leading soft-drink maker without a central strategic marketing partner. The dissolution also leaves Coca-Cola's roster shops to wrestle over creative for the company's crown jewel brand, Coke Classic.

Ian Rowden, VP-consumer communications at Coca-Cola, said the marketer doesn't plan to name a roster agency for Coke Classic, which was supported with $116 million in measured media last year.

"The idea of a roster is that we don't have to shuffle when we need to make changes. That's the nature of a roster," he said.


At least seven shops now work on the flagship brand, including B Com3 Group units Leo Burnett USA, Chicago; D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York; as well as Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York; Doner, Southfield, Mich.; McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York; Publicis, New York; and Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore.

Four of those were reached for this story and declined comment.

Coca-Cola sent shockwaves down Madison Avenue eight years ago when it elected to shift Coke Classic advertising from McCann to Edge, a spinoff from talent agency Creative Artists Associates. Coca-Cola bought the majority interest in Edge in 1995 and brought it in-house. Santa Monica, Calif.-based Edge was responsible for the creation of Coca-Cola's Polar Bears as well as stewarding the brand themes "Always" and the current "Enjoy."

According to both client and agency, however, the current change of heart wasn't Coca-Cola's but Edge's.


Edge principals Shelly Hochron, Jack Harrower and Len Fink told their sole client that they needed new challenges in late 1999.

There were two factors at play in their decision, said Ms. Hochron and Mr. Harrower, who are married. "First, our interest in no longer being exclusive to Coke -- there's only so long you can do only one thing," Ms. Hochron said. "Plus, we are three partners and we're splitting up." The couple will pursue a different direction from Mr. Fink, and said there was no ill will among them.

"We have interests and he has interests, and they're not necessarily the same," Ms. Hochron said.

While Mr. Rowden expressed sorrow at the agency's dissolution, he said he expects it to have little if any impact on Coca-Cola brand advertising.

While the two Edge principals wouldn't disclose their future plans, they did say it involved exploring the convergence of Internet content, entertainment and marketing, much like in the early days of TV when brand marketers sponsored programming. The duo expects to resurface with this new endeavor within six months.

At a much-anticipated analyst meeting last week, Senior VP Steve Jones, Coca-Cola's third chief marketing officer in three years, didn't address the agency situation. But he said that Coca-Cola will focus much of its efforts on local marketing.

"We want to be a local advertiser," he said, a philosophy that's reflected in the company mandate, "Think local, act local."

Last week, Coca-Cola officials tried to play down the latest wrinkle in the brand's history. But it does raise questions about the long-term strength of the marketer's already flagging flagship.


"The question is who makes the decisions," said Tom Pirko, president of Bevmark. He said he believes decentralization of the company's strategic function fractures the brand's power.

"Local bottlers are not capable of advertising a brand. You have to question how well marketing can be done from local markets," he said, adding that strategy should be the function of management, not outside agencies.

"When you move away from that shamanistic thing -- the keeper of the trademark -- and let local markets define it, that shows flexibility, but it leads to weakening of the trademark."

Contributing: Beth Snyder Bulik, Hillary Chura, Alice Z. Cuneo, Richard Linnett and Laura Petrecca.

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