CAMPAIGN INTERNATIONAL: Coke’s new broom aims to make staff and agencies happy - Out goes the autocrat and in comes the Coke insider known as people-friendly

The subliminal message that has been beaming out of Coca-Cola’s Atlanta headquarters since its marketing director, Sergio Zyman, quit last month is two-fold.

The subliminal message that has been beaming out of Coca-Cola’s

Atlanta headquarters since its marketing director, Sergio Zyman, quit

last month is two-fold.

1: Don’t panic, it’s business as usual. And 2: We love our marketing

people overseas; we’ve upset them in the past, but we’re listening to

them now.

The colourful, autocratic, artistic Zyman had resoundingly shaken up all

aspects of Coke’s advertising during his five-year reign, treading on a

lot of toes in the process. No more so than in Coke’s marketing offices

around the world, where his snap decisions and tight central control was

a constant source of grief. Similarly, he made few friends among the big

agency networks he effectively ditched in favour of an ad hoc assortment

of creative boutiques.

So Coke is using his departure as an opportunity to promote the new

incumbent, Charlie Frenette, as a steadier, friendlier beast. A Coke man

through and through, he is firmly planted among the nuts and bolts of

the business.

But no-one expects the changes to be radical, or even imminent. Frenette

is expected to spend his early tenure focusing inward, analysing Coke’s

strengths and weaknesses. What he will find is that the problems facing

Coke have changed since Zyman joined.

Back in 1993, advertising was perceived to be lacklustre, and the

effervescent Zyman was asked to spice it up with more zest and

personality. His successor, in contrast, will have the task of smoothing

ruffled feathers and pulling things together to make a more cohesive


Creatively, Zyman dropped Coke’s long-held reliance on nostalgia in

favour of hip ads laced with technological gimmicks designed to

entertain audiences.

But critics say Zyman’s formula created an inconsistent image for the

Coca-Cola Classic and Diet Coke (Coke Light) brands and his record on

new product launches, including the Fruitopia line of juice drinks, was


The incoming Frenette is not considered to be so seasoned a marketer as

Zyman and this fact has not passed agency bosses by. They are hoping to

be treated as business partners once more, rather than as mere providers

of ads as in Zyman’s day. Thus, the big networks with an existing

foothold at Coke, such as McCann-Erickson, the Lowe Group, Leo Burnett

and DMB&B, are gearing up to meet the new Mr Big with some interest.

’Get ready for a new era at Coke,’ a company insider says. ’Charlie is

going to hold agencies accountable for being strategic.’


If Charles S. Frenette (he prefers to be called Charlie) were a stick of

rock, he would have two sets of lettering running through him. One would

say ’United States of America’ and the other ’Coca-Cola’.

Both his father and his grandfather were Coke bottlers in upstate New

York, and Frenette’s entire career to date has been within that august


Most of his working years have been at Coke’s so-called ’fountain’

business, which covers sales through restaurants and bars and, during

his 18 years there, he was credited with turning the entire business


After sorting out fountain, he moved to head Coke in South Africa, where

his direct approach, colourful vernacular and appearance earned him the

nickname of Danny de Vito.

’He brings a lot of positive energy with him,’ says one colleague from

those days: ’He also says what he likes and doesn’t like - the kind of

guy you can get answers out of quickly.’

Meanwhile, those who have worked with him at Coke appreciate his

businesslike approach. ’He’s a micro-manager. Very smart and orderly in

the way he goes about things,’ says one. ’He knows the business end

extremely well,’ adds another.


Nobody calls Sergio Zyman ’Serge’ for short; in fact, he is more often

called ’Ayacola’ in reference to his somewhat autocratic style.

But although his difficulties with local marketers are legendary, they

should not eclipse his achievements, which include developing the ’Coke

is it’ campaign and bringing a more hip image to Coke’s ads.

Flamboyant, mercurial and ambitious, Zyman brought energy to Coke’s

advertising and - despite what his critics say - did temper it to fit in

with the enthusiasms of local markets. ’Eat football, sleep football,

drink Coca-Cola’ showed that.

’I would see Sergio as a revolutionary brought in to change things, and

I think he did what he was supposed to do,’ a former Coke man says.

A native of Mexico City, Zyman was educated in London, Paris, Jerusalem

and Harvard, and his career started with Procter & Gamble (Mexico) and

McCann-Erickson (Mexico, Japan and New York).

Unusually, Zyman then work-ed for both PepsiCo and Coke, joining the

former in Brazil and the latter in 1979 as an assistant to Coke’s

vice-chairman in Atlanta. He left seven years later to start up his own

consultancy and rejoined in 1993.

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