Close-Up: The Advocates - Why Coke's chief is 'obsessive about creativity'

The fourth interview in Campaign's series The Advocates, championing clients whose ethos is to spend through tough times, hears why Coca-Cola GB's marketing director, Cathryn Sleight, believes great creative is worth every penny.

Cathryn Sleight's sunny disposition has turned even brighter now that the weathermen are predicting that a long, hot summer lies ahead.

This means there are lots of thirsts to be slaked. And big thirsts spell big sales of fizzy drinks. No wonder Sleight, the Coca-Cola GB marketing director, finds the outlook fair. In fact, she claims her long-range forecast looks good well beyond the spike in sales that blistering summers always bring.

Certainly, Sleight has much to be cheerful about. Coke, singled out as symbolic of Britain's obesity crisis and said to be facing an uncertain future as customers switched to natural and healthier alternatives, has actually experienced a progressive rise in its UK sales, she says.

Coke is growing at more than 8 per cent in value and 4 per cent in volume, according to Nielsen. The My Coke portfolio, which includes Coca-Cola, Diet Coke and Coke Zero, had a total revenue of £970 million last year. Today, the figure has reached £978 million.

More money, more sales

Not only has this been mirrored by a rise in Coke's £40 million UK marketing spend but also by some eye-catching creative through Mother. Indeed, the agency's recent spots - a Coke ad full of singing furry creatures and the Oasis Rubberduckzilla - were successive Picks of the Week in Campaign. Sleight couldn't be more delighted. "I'm obsessive about great creativity," she declares.

So why has Coca-Cola's sales graph been climbing when all logic suggests it ought to be heading south? Sleight claims it's because its products are being perceived as affordable treats in tough times.

Certainly, colas remain a huge part of the £6 billion UK soft drinks industry and the category is worth £1.3 billion in retail sales.

At the same time, its 20 per cent stake in the smoothie-maker Innocent, for which it paid £30 million in April, fits with what Sleight says is Coca-Cola's ambition to be "a total beverage solution business".

Also, she claims, there's a synergy between the two companies that isn't readily appreciated: "Innocent is small but it has a foundation brand consumers love. We too have that with our biggest brand. The scale may be different but we're really not as different as people might make out.

"At a time of economic re-set, we're delivering a message of optimism and positivity. People love it and, as a result, they're re-engaging with the brand.

"During difficult times, people look for more affordable treats. They may not be able to afford a car or a foreign holiday - but they aren't cutting back on food and drink."

The DNA of marketing

Listening to consumers has never been more important for advertisers and their agencies, Sleight insists. And she suggests that, for Coke, this comes easy. Marketing is the company's raison d'etre.

"Marketing is in our DNA," she says. "It's at the centre of everything we do and it's why I work here."

Such an attitude manifests itself in an unswerving commitment to advertising, the bulk of it through its lead UK creative agency, Mother, and Vizeum, which handles media planning and buying.

"We believe in brands," Sleight says. "And every Millward Brown tracking study convinces us that if we continue to spend in difficult times, we will reap the benefits."

Moreover, she adds, the current business case for it is compelling: "Every £1 we put into the market is actually worth more than £1."

Meanwhile, the way in which Coke is allocating its adspend is changing. Not, Sleight insists, because of recession but because consumers' eyeballs are refocusing. She hails Coke Zone as a very successful digital platform, enabling the company to open a dialogue with consumers and to reward them for their loyalty.

"We're spending significantly more on digital connectivity. Four years ago, we weren't spending on search. Now we are because that's the way consumers are connecting with our brands," she explains.

The same goes for social networking. Coca-Cola is eager to harness its power and is consulting with experts in the sector. "We have to find ways of making it work to our advantage," she adds.

Nevertheless, Coke's media schedule is still dominated by TV. Sleight expects it to remain so - and not just because it's cheaper than at any time in the past 15 years. "TV remains an incredibly important platform," she says. "We will change and evolve but I can't imagine a time when TV isn't important for us. It's a great place to engage."

Procurement put in its place

But Sleight insists that quality will always trump price, however Coca-Cola allocates its budget. Procurement teams work with her department but she's clear about demarcation. "How do you value ideas?" she asks. "Procurement works as long as its people understand the value of creativity. There has to be a common understanding of what we're trying to deliver. But I make the final call."

It's an attitude that reflects what Sleight describes as an ongoing commitment to quality underpinned by a remuneration system that allows agencies to earn more if their ideas translate into good profits for the company. "We aim for great value rather than a great price," she asserts. "I would rather pay more for great creative work. If you buy cheap, you get cheap."

Nor is she particularly enthusiastic about agencies offering a one-stop shop: "If somebody can offer more than one area of expertise, that's great. If not, I'd rather they concentrate on what they do best."

But if the credit crunch hasn't caused Coca-Cola to compromise on quality, Sleight believes the downturn will concentrate agency minds and make them see their priorities more clearly.

"I hope that this recession gives people an opportunity to take accountability into the heart of their business because having that on all sides will achieve better business results," she says.

"I hope also that they see it as an opportunity to understand consumers and what drives them because consumers always change during difficult periods."


The business of consumers

Consumer behaviour has long been Cathryn Sleight's obsession. As a teenager, she loved talking about it with the marketing director of her father's chemicals company. And it was the subject of the thesis for her business degree, for which she split her studies between London and Rheims in France.

Taking the biscuit

Born in Leeds and brought up in Wiltshire, she cut her marketing teeth at Eden Vale, then part of Grand Metropolitan, on brands such as Ski and Munch Bunch. She chose not to stay when Grand Met was sold to Northern Foods and took a senior marketing role at McVitie's, where her portfolio embraced everything from chocolate countlines to Jaffa Cakes.

The opportunity to extend her experience to global brands came with a switch to Britvic Pepsi. Her first job was as the brand manager on Coke's deadliest rival and within three years, she was running marketing across all the company's brands.

By 2001, she had joined Allied Domecq as its marketing director.

Coming home

Taking the top UK marketing role at Coke three years ago has been fulfilling. Not least, she says, because it's nothing like the controlling leviathan it's often made out to be. "Coming here was the best career decision I ever made," she says. "It's a supportive culture and I can't believe some of the things it lets me do."