Stefano Hatfield On Advertising

Will Wieden & Kennedy prove that they are the real thing?
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The Independent Online

Can we please have some great Coca-Cola advertising? The fizzy-drinks giant has switched agencies yet again on its flagship $150m US domestic account, sending the American marketing media into its customary tizzy.

The Coke brand has a hold over the US ad industry's imagination that its relative budget (even $150m isn't that large in the States doesn't justify. It is the great iconic product of the American boom, and McCann-Erickson's "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" was the single commercial that heralded the era of global advertising.

But the world's most valuable brand's marketing has struggled, particularly since the early 1990s when Coke appointed the Hollywood talent agency CAA, presumably in order to infuse popular culture into its ads, and came up with the dreary "Always" campaign.

It has flip-flopped through agencies and strategies ("Enjoy" anyone?) since, including a return to McCann in 2000. Globally, it has experimented with using some of the hotter creative shops, notably Mother here in the UK. And now, it has appointed Wieden & Kennedy, which is (alongside Goodby Silverstein), arguably, the most consistently creative American agency of the past two decades.

The trouble is, Coke's patchy advertising history is more a reflection of the endless politics and turmoil emanating from Coke HQ in Atlanta than the abilities of successive agencies. And the suit in charge of advertising at Coke has also changed with bewildering regularity. I still miss Chuck Fruit, though.

Coke has also, to be blunt, been accused frequently in private of treating agencies like servants, to be at the client's beck and call, forced to fly down to Atlanta on a whim, and often for a beating. Agencies put up with it, of course, because they are desperate for the prestigious account and its income. One of Coke's saving graces is that it is known at least as a "proper payer", unlike so many other clients.

But the reality we are left with is a legacy of unmemorable advertising and Coke Classic's much publicised share problems. No agency can ever feel safe on its roster, because the "agency of record" tag doesn't really mean that much to Coke. The client is constantly also looking for global ideas that might supplant the national agency's work - not just on Classic, but on Diet Coke and its other brands.

So, let's hope that the peerless Dan Wieden will be able to "Just Do It" for Coke, as he has for so long on Nike and many others. And if he can't, well, they have tried virtually everybody else. Before they fire their next agency, maybe they might just like to look at the work that agency manages to do for the rest of its clients. Perhaps Coke could ask itself if it is really "the real thing".

I DON'T know whether the rumours are true or not about Sir Frank Lowe looking to buy the agency that he founded back from the Interpublic Group to which he sold it. However, I am stunned to read, in Advertising Age, a valuation of the network of only $300m. It has got to be worth more than that, with clients such as General Motors and Unilever, Tesco and Stella Artois. The controversial Sir Frank has recently emerged, subtly and a touch unfairly, as the scapegoat for some of IPG's many ills, and there is no doubt that he alienated many in the US during his time there - not least within his own holding company. However, he is one of the, if not the, best account men in the history of modern advertising, particularly in the realm of persuading clients of the value of more intelligent, likeable and inspiring creative work.

He built his network from nothing in 1981, with incredible speed and high standards. Clients such as Tesco, Stella, Weetabix, Heineken and others profited immeasurably from his advice - as other clients had when he ran CDP in that agency's golden era of the 1970s. The trouble is, I just don't believe that clients think the way Lowe thinks any longer; care about the same things he does; will put up with the "my way or the highway" approach; or will pay the premium he always insisted on. He has a glorious past; does he really want to risk his future reputation?

THE UK ad industry's closest brand to Coke in terms of its emotional significance and an influence outweighing its spend is the British Airways account. Despite "only" spending some £60m globally on its ads, the prestige and marketing potential of winning the business dwarf most much larger-spending brands. That's why we are seeing strange stories about either DDB or BBH edging ahead in the race for the plum account, which is currently held by M & C Saatchi.

JWT, it is said, remains confident. As well it might, because, to be honest, nobody writing this stuff has a clue. All I know is that it will rightly take something extraordinary to prise BA from the grip of the Saatchi brothers, who have held it tightly for over 20 years.

GARY DIGBY, the old-fashioned Rottweiler newly appointed as managing director of ITV Sales, immediately proved his old-school credentials by using a football reference in his subsequent press interviews."It's like Chelsea at the moment. Everybody at the moment is going to knock them," he told The Guardian. Er, not quite Gary. Embroiled in the ITV politics that saw the sudden recent departures of Mick Desmond and Graham Duff, he may not have noticed that Chelsea are sweeping all before them this season, flush with the kind of cash they used to only be able to dream of.

Of course, jealous rivals and the success-wary British media are going to knock them. Meanwhile, ITV's ad revenue is expected to fall, as is its share of total ad revenue. Even Digby accepted that ITV's "programme performance hasn't been as good as it should have been", and star players have left. Currently, more like Arsenal then.

THE GUINNESS "SURFER" commercial is one of the few ads ever that made the hairs stand up on the back of one's neck in a cinema - or on TV, for that matter. All subsequent Guinness ads have been judged by that high standard. Many have been found wanting, guilty perhaps of being in love with their own cleverness.

None have had the fanfare that preceded the latest spot "evolution" directed by the talented Danny Kleinman. It brings back the great Guinness thought, "Good things come to those who wait", previously expressed in "surfer". It is a recognisable beer commercial in which the three male protagonists are seen drinking the product. There is brilliant visual trickery as the three go back in time to the origins of life, where three mini dinosaurs take a sip of mud. But...

I think I am a victim of familiarity with the advertising's iconic status and the huge talents of Kleinman and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO behind the camera. It just doesn't sell the black stuff for me, nor does the trickery engage enough beyond the first couple of viewings. If it were another brand's ad, I think I'd be more damning, especially of the music track - "Rhythm of Life" by Sammy Davis Jr. But then, if it were another brand, expectations would not be so high.

Hmm. Not sure. I'll keep waiting though. E-mail Stefanohat1@aol.com with your thoughts on whether the new Guinness spot is worth the "anticipation".

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