CLOSE-UP: NEWSMAKER/DAVID WHELDON; Did a personality clash make Coke’s chief quit?

Just what prompted David Wheldon’s move to BBDO? Caroline Marshall reports

Just what prompted David Wheldon’s move to BBDO? Caroline Marshall


Atlanta, Sunday, 27 October.

Sergio Zyman, the chief marketing officer of Coca-Cola, is called to a

meeting with David Wheldon who has recently become director of marketing

for Coke in ‘greater Europe’. Wheldon resigns and Coke begins dealing

with the news that one of its most informed staff is leaving to become

president of the Omnicom-owned BBDO Europe, the network that handles the

rival Pepsi brand (Campaign, last week).

‘Coke’, as one source delicately puts it, ‘will be shitting itself.’

Wheldon was hired from Lowe-Howard Spink to become Coke’s first

worldwide director of advertising in 1993. With an annual budget of

dollars 1 billion, he effectively created a mini-agency with 40-odd

staff. Reporting to Zyman, his brief was to embody Coke’s ‘think global,

act local’ philosophy by decentralising its advertising roster.

Until 1994, Coke’s roster had been dominated by McCann-Erickson for 38

years. It now numbers more than 30 agencies, including Lowes, Bartle

Bogle Hegarty, Wieden and Kennedy and Fallon McElligott. Armed with

planning and strategy work from Atlanta, these shops are charged with

bringing a local flavour to a global message. The move has been a

success, with Coke drawing steadily away from Pepsi in market share,

especially in its home market.

The key questions are: why did Wheldon move from advertising to

marketing within Coke; why did he accept the job only to resign two

weeks later; and what does this say about his relationship with Zyman?

Moving from advertising to marketing at such a level is almost unknown.

Albeit there was a job to be done, with Coke’s third-quarter results for

1996 revealing greater Europe as the chief trouble spot for the


Wheldon - with his Saatchi and Saatchi, WCRS and Lowes pedigree - is an

adman who thrives on close contact with creative work. Clearly, he

didn’t want the job.

Also, Wheldon had been approached previously by Jean-Michel Goudard, the

international president of BBDO, and had made his own forays for

possible routes back into the agency world. One theory goes that Zyman,

aware that Wheldon’s CV was on some powerful agency desks, wanted him

out and so appointed the former vice-president of Coke China as global

head of advertising. Wheldon, as many see it, was sidelined by Zyman -

scant thanks for holding Coke’s matrix of agencies together


It was not always thus. Wheldon first met Zyman, a hard and masterful

Mexican, during his four years as managing director of Lowes. Lowes had

been hired to advertise Tab Clear and Zyman, a McCanns-trained man and a

former Coke marketing director, was working as a consultant to the

corporation. One source says: ‘Sergio was impressed with David’s account

management prowess - but Sergio as a consultant was very different from

Sergio as a boss.’

While Zyman was the architect of Coke’s overhaul of its agency roster,

Wheldon implemented the strategy in an agency-friendly manner. Few doubt

that he did this skilfully.

‘David put briefing and appraisal systems in to enable each agency to

deliver its best work,’ one source says. Another adds: ‘Sergio didn’t

give a stuff about treating agencies fairly. They both wanted change but

David was more sensitive about achieving it.’ And another: ‘Payment

changed from commission to fees during Wheldon’s time at Coke. Things

got fairer. He introduced a review process where you got a chance to

review back.’

Wheldon’s agency-centric view of the world created an environment that

was both effective and creative. The Euro 96 campaign, which put fans at

the centre of the advertising (typified by Wieden and Kennedy’s poster,

‘If they could transfer fans, how much would you be worth?’) underlined

a general and unmistakable improvement in quality.

Euro 96 was closely followed by Coke’s Olympic extravaganza. A dollars

62 million budget focused on the brand and tied Coke to specific Olympic

events. The campaign ran in 135 countries, with 88 individual ads from a

dozen agencies, each concentrating on a different attribute, such as

‘take a break’, ‘family’ or ‘the real thing’.

If Wheldon’s highs at Coke centred on the improving work, the lows were

connected with living with his family in heartland corporate America and

his relationship with Zyman. ‘Zyman made all the decisions. David found

it incredibly frustrating. He isn’t a yes-man,’ one source says.

Many believe that Wheldon’s working relationship with Zyman, a story of

increasing disempowerment leading to clashes, mirrored his earlier

battles with Frank Lowe. ‘The tension then was all about who ran the

London office,’ another source says.

Wheldon joined Lowes from WCRS where he had been a managing partner for

just three months. Lowe liked Wheldon’s maturity and passion for quality

advertising. This had been much in evidence at WCRS, where Wheldon

intervened to help get the much-awarded Carling Black Label ‘dambuster’

ad made.

Wheldon’s stint at Lowes coincided with a general downturn in adspend

due to the recession, but it also displayed his talent for creating an

environment geared to exceptional work. During his time there, Lowes

churned out Smirnoff’s ‘through the bottle’, Heineken’s ‘blues singer’,

‘Reg’ for Imperial Tobacco’s Regal brand and Reebok’s ‘white line’ work.

The list could go on.

Paul Hammersley, now the executive vice-president of the Lowe Group in

New York, says: ‘David was always committed to good creative work.’

Nick Mustoe, who was Wheldon’s deputy at Lowes before leaving to form

his own agency, recalls Wheldon’s ability to build a team of people and

motivate them: ‘He was uncompromising creatively but he also wanted to

build good team spirit. There was a lot of Saatchis in him.’

John Sharkey, now the joint chairman at BST-BDDP, hired Wheldon as a

Saatchis trainee in 1983. Wheldon, who had qualified as an English

teacher and toyed with a career as a copywriter, left five years later

as a group account director. ‘Had he stayed,’ Sharkey says, ‘David would

have been managing director.’

Another former Saatchis insider recalls how Wheldon’s love of the

creative process was always obvious. When he left Saatchis, the story

goes, a collection of ‘job bags’ containing unsubmitted invoices for

creative development were found in his desk. So committed to the work,

perhaps, that he ran the stuff for free?

Most believe that Wheldon’s relationship with Goudard, his new boss at

BBDO, is unlikely to be as frustrating as those with Zyman or Lowe.

Goudard has a notoriously short attention span and is less prone to

interfere. ‘The thing about Goudard,’ a BBDO source says, ‘is that he’s

very rarely where you are. ’ And Wheldon is joining a network whose top

agencies will flatter his creative talent - Tiempo in Spain, Team in

Germany, FHV in Holland and a minority stake at Abbott Mead Vickers in


Until news emerges from a BBDO board meeting last Monday, at which

Wheldon was unveiled, so to speak, it is not even clear what his remit

will be. What is certain, is that the job will stretch him in new

directions and into new client territories including Apple, Mars,

Wrigley and Gillette. He has no experience of running an international

network - now he will have 32 countries to control. He will be further

from the work than he is used to, and much of that work, certainly

Pepsi’s, will continue to come out of New York for local translation.

Nonetheless, few doubt that Wheldon - whose advertising career has

assumed an elegant flight path ever since Dave Trott advised him to try

for account management instead of copywriting - will adapt to his new


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