Opinion: Perspective - Big brands are moving marketing up the agenda

Just when you thought the obesity debate had irredeemably painted advertising as society's bad boy, the British Film Institute is kicking off a major project to celebrate the role that advertising plays in reflecting and shaping the cultural and economic life of the country.

But it's interesting that the BFI's whole ambitious scheme has been oiled by financial support from Coca-Cola, a company that has spent much of the past couple of years publicly agonising about the future of advertising.

Back at the beginning of 1993, Coke's then COO, Steve Heyer, issued a manifesto for change. He envisaged Coke becoming a media owner as much as a fizzy drinks manufacturer, and challenged Coke's agencies to find new marketing solutions that go beyond the tired-old 30-second TV commercial.

The idea of Coke sniffing the wind of a brave new future and turning its back on the traditionalists was guaranteed to get journalists and adland observers ruminating furiously. But while the press leapt on Heyer's speech as an excuse for a thousand articles proclaiming the death of spot advertising, nothing much really changed on planet Coke.

Despite all the positive PR, Heyer's words proved more puffery than positivity, appealing to the revolutionists but failing at almost every practical level.

Now Coke has a new manifesto for change, though you can bet that any company that feels the need for two manifestoes for change within 21 months will find change culturally challenging.

This time it's the chief executive, Neville Isdell, who's laying down the gauntlet, vowing to restore Coke's flagging reputation and pledging an extra $400 million a year in marketing spend to turnaround falling sales.

The truth is that in taking its eye - even philosophically - off the job of consistent, confident and cohesive mainstream brand advertising, Coke has lost its edge. Of course, innovative new ways to communicate with consumers will have an important part to play in Coke's reversal, and there remains a tacit belief that TV advertising is diminishing in effectiveness. But Coke now seems to acknowledge that it is indeed a fizzy pop company, not a media owner. The time when it can be both - if ever - is still a long way off and such a vision certainly cannot be achieved unless Coke can reclaim its iconic status.

Funnily enough, Procter & Gamble has just had a Heyer moment. For a company that has been doing pretty damn well ploughing the traditional advertising furrow, suddenly all things innovative, experimental and edgy are greener pastures.

P&G's chairman, AG Lafley, has told his executives that the company needs to reinvent the way it markets to consumers. Lafley is looking for 40 innovative strategies worldwide that could provide P&G with an alternative to mass marketing. "We need a new model," he proclaimed.

It's the sort of bold strategy that will get many of P&G's communications companies slavering but will pique financial analysts' cynicism. After all, its rival Unilever - which has always been a step ahead of P&G when it comes to crystal ball-gazing - has had to retreat back to big marketing budgets, traditionally employed, after a series of financial disasters. P&G is being more cautious, though, than the headlines would suggest, and Lafley had made it clear that mass marketing still has the crucial role to play.

Beneath the headline-grabbing, though, lies good news. Both Coca-Cola and P&G are putting marketing and advertising at the top of their corporate agenda. Lafley and Isdell have rolled up their sleeves to engage in their companies' marketing strategy and whether the results are radical change or adherence to the tried and tested, such attention from the very top should set a new precedence for the role of marketing and the importance of agencies' work in driving corporate health.

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