Lowe, FCB finalists: New shops circle Diet Coke review

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Coca-Cola Co. is said to be unimpressed with work proposed by the finalists in its Diet Coke review, prompting other agencies to angle for a crack at the coveted account.

Incumbent Lowe, New York, is pitching against Foote, Cone & Belding Worldwide, New York and Chicago. Both Interpublic Group of Cos. agencies head to Atlanta this week for another round of presentations, their third since the contest kicked off in November. Two other Interpublic agencies- Martin Agency, Richmond, Va., and New York's Gotham-were eliminated earlier.

"No one likes what's been shown so far," said one person familiar with the talks. Lowe and FCB referred calls to Coca-Cola.

The marketer's dissatisfaction has led to informal queries between Coca-Cola and agencies both inside and outside the Interpublic orbit regarding the business.

Although spending on the account has fallen, Diet Coke is the company's second-largest brand, accounting for 20% of U.S. volume, according to Beverage Digest. Spending isn't likely to rise in the short-term since cola titans Coke and Pepsi-Cola Co. are expected to concentrate firepower on their flagship brands next year (AA, Nov. 25).

outside help

Coca-Cola executives apparently want to keep the account at Interpublic, but one executive close to Interpublic said he'd been told Coke officials are seeking outside advice on the brand. Another agency outside the Coke roster tried to wheedle in among the finalists but was politely rebuffed. "They want to put this brand on the right track," said an executive at that agency.

Coca-Cola earlier tried to limit itself to Interpublic shops for work on its flagship account, but later expanded the roster to include WPP Group's Berlin Cameron/Red Cell, New York. That agency's "Real" campaign for Coke Classic is expected early next year.

Coca-Cola has said it is not in a hurry for a decision on Diet Coke but wants to find the right creative and strategy. Esther Lee, chief creative officer, Coca-Cola North America, is conducting the review; she could not be reached for comment. Steven J. Heyer, exec VP-chief operating officer, Coca-Cola Ventures, declined to comment.

Lowe lost the Diet Coke account in 1998 to Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., but landed it again last year. Diet Coke received just $18 million in media support in the first eight months of this year, compared with $43 million for all of last year, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR. With the exception of 2000, when it was backed by a scant $1 million, Diet Coke's ad budget in recent years has ranged from 7% to 11% of its parent's total ad outlay, according to CMR.

The diet segment has held steady at about 18% of cola category sales for the past five years. Diet Coke leads the segment with a 7% share of the total soft drink category, according to Beverage Digest.

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