Coke-CAA Axis Gone Flat

The Coca-Cola Co. last week became the latest in a parade of defectors from Creative Artists Agency, officially pulling the plug by forming a new company with ties to Walt Disney Co. to handle the “Always Coca-Cola” ad campaign.

The move, like some of CAA’s talent departures, stems directly from talent agency chief Michael Ovitz’s move to Disney in the summer, leaving both Coke and the three creative execs he hired without their key link.

Both Disney and the three former CAA execs – Shelly Hochron, Len Pink and Jack Harrower – will get undisclosed minority stakes in the new unnamed company, which effectively becomes an inhouse ad agency controlled by Coke.

Disney link

The ad team, now scouting for L.A.-area offices for its small staff, will focus mainly on creating and producing Coke commercials, at least for the length of their one-year contract. But the link to Disney also allows them to act as “creative consultants” to the company, paving the way for expanded involvement in ad efforts down the road.

The move was engineered by Sergio Zyman, Coca-Cola’s chief marketing officer, whose hiring of Ovitz in 1992 stunned Madison Avenue and particularly McCann- Erickson, the company’s longtime agency. But the new tie to Disney seems curious, especially as the Coke ad campaign is unlikely to receive much of Ovitz’s time.

“The Disney involvement came at the request of the creative team to have at least some level of contact with Michael Ovitz, ” Zyman said.

“Our interest was in keeping the team together, ” a spokesman elaborated, and to do that, it was important to maintain “access to him as an adviser, a person who can point them in different directions.”

“The ownership is still with Michael, ” said Philip Geier, chairman-CEO of McCann parent Interpublic Group of Cos.

But another ad agency CEO believes the cola giant is likely to be disappointed with Ovitz’s commitment to either Coke or its core ad team. “If anybody’s confused that Mike Ovitz is going to do a lot of Coke advertising with what he’s got on his plate, they’ve got another think coming, ” the exec said.

Many in the ad business had thought – perhaps wishfully – that Coke would return its account to a traditional agency with the departure of Ovitz from CAA.

“For the agencies involved, it must be rather depressing, ” an ad exec said.

The spokesman, explaining Disney’s contribution, said the studio could provide its ad team with exposure to “some of the emerging areas of film and sound” to help develop commercials, while the execs, in turn, will be available individually as creative consultants to Disney.

But mostly, the Disney connection appears to be little more than a vehicle for maintaining some level of contact with Ovitz, who proved instrumental in packaging talent for Coke TV spots and in keeping the ad team intact. Coca-Cola, which spends about $75 million advertising Coca- Cola Classic in the U.S., plans to continue its sometimes admired, sometimes derided “Always Coca-Cola” campaign, the assignment until now handled by a separate consulting division of CAA.

But those who remain at the talent agency won’t suffer from the loss of Coke. Only Ovitz and his former partners, Bill Haber and Ron Meyer, shared its revenues.

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