World: Analysis - Coca-Cola review speculation grows after changes at the top

Being on Coca-Cola's roster is an attractive proposition for agencies.

A flurry of speculation about a roster shake-out always follows top-level management changes at a client company. But when the client is Coca-Cola, a flurry transforms into a full-blown avalanche.

In May, the former Coke man Neville Isdell was brought out of retirement and crowned as Coca-Cola's new chief executive, after a lengthy search for Douglas Daft's successor. Steve Heyer, the former president and chief operating officer, who had been tipped by some as its next chief executive, promptly announced his departure. Dan Palumbo, the chief marketing officer, also left and was replaced by Chuck Fruit.

Where all this change leaves Classic Coke's roster agencies has prompted endless rumours. Industry commentators have zoomed in on Heyer's close relationship with Sir Martin Sorrell and suggested that the new management line-up could work in IPG's favour at the expense of WPP. Heyer, a former Young & Rubicam executive, was widely credited with helping to move the $300 million US Classic Coke account from McCann Erickson into the WPP-owned Berlin Cameron Red Cell in 2003.

But Andy Berlin, the chairman of WPP's Red Cell network and the creative director at Berlin Cameron Red Cell, disputes this version of events.

"Though we really liked working with him, Heyer didn't hire us," he says.

Contrary to received wisdom, Berlin says Heyer tried to fire Berlin Cameron, which, until its acquisition in 2001, was an independent agency.

"Heyer wanted to work only with aligned agencies," Berlin says. "We sold so we wouldn't get fired. We got into talks with both Interpublic and WPP and selected WPP because of the flattering position it put us in as a hub agency of a developing network." And WPP was no doubt delighted to count Classic Coke among its heavy hitting clients - it singled out the "real" campaign for special mention in its latest annual report.

So what does Berlin think of the gossip-mongers who hint that all the Classic Coke business might return to IPG? "We have to separate speculative ideas that come from people who are making hay out of a management change from the facts of our relationship with Coca-Cola," he replies.

According to Berlin, work for 2005 is underway that will follow the summer Classic Coke TV campaign, including the "hired and fired" and "surfer girl" work. Two spots for the launch of the C2 mid-calorie drink (a $50 million win earlier this year for Berlin Cameron) are also airing in the US.

So to IPG, which declined to comment for this article. Lest we forget, McCann still handles Coca-Cola in more than 50 markets around the world, Susan Irwin, the network's communications director, says. Irwin admits that "we are interested in getting more", although what agency would not show an interested in boasting the biggest brand among your clients? What does she make of the rumours flying around? "I can speak only for McCann, not IPG, and there has been speculation but it hasn't gone beyond that."

And McCann is no doubt eager to reclaim Coke after last year losing its grip on the business in key markets such as the US, France (where it moved to BETC Euro RSCG, which created "dancing boy") and the UK (to Mother).

It's a good omen for Mother that Fruit named "I wish", Mother's debut 60-second spot for Classic Coke, as his favourite ad. The feel-good film was also the first British Coke work to appear on US TV. Andy Medd, a partner at Mother, says: "We were delighted the work went to the US. Coke is a global brand and work should travel."

So is Medd confident Mother will stay on Classic Coke's roster? "I don't think we are about to be executed but it's not my role to speculate," he says. "The only sensible thing for us to do is to continue to do work that delivers for the Coca-Cola Great Britain team."

Medd's comments highlight an important aspect of Coke's global structure.

By opting to work with local agencies on local campaigns, the relationships Coke has with its agencies are more decentralised than they once were.

Valerie Accary, the managing director, multinational clients, at BBDO, Pepsi's global network, suggests that this is not necessarily a good thing. "Coke has gone too far in localisation," she claims.

Accary sums up the crux Coca-Cola faces: "There is a major argument for having several roster agencies as it keeps them on their toes, although going to a strong local independent is not always good for consistency."

And it's not implausible Coke's new chiefs are reassessing Classic Coke's approach to its advertising. The only certainty is the rumour mill will continue to churn.