Coke and Pepsi, Pepsi and Coke. Sometimes it seems as if half of what's happening on Madison Avenue is connected to the cola wars. Right now, everyone is still buzzing about big moves by the soft-drink sovereigns.

Last week, Coca-Cola consolidated media planning and buying for North America - assignments with billings estimated at $300 million to $400 million - in the Starcom MediaVest Group. The decision, two months in the making, meant that Universal McCann, the media buying incumbent for two decades, was out, replaced by an all-star team drawn from Starcom Worldwide and MediaVest Worldwide. (Starcom has handled planning for all North American beverage brands except Minute Maid, which has been housed at MediaVest.)

Some observers believed the review would be won not by either incumbent, but by MindShare, one of two contenders not on the Coca-Cola media roster.

(The other was Aegis Group's Carat.) After all, the creative assignment for Coca-Cola Classic, as the company's flagship brand is known in North America, was yanked from a Universal McCann sibling, McCann-Erickson Worldwide Advertising, and awarded to a MindShare sibling under the WPP umbrella, Berlin Cameron/Red Cell.

"The competition was very close," David Raines, the vice-president for integrated communications at Coca-Cola North America, told The New York Times, but Starcom MediaVest "demonstrated the best capability to think through" the major media issues confronting the company, from fragmentation to clutter to the proliferation of ad-zapping personal video recorders.

The Times described the dismissal of Universal McCann as "a blow" to its parent, the Interpublic Group. Raines hastened to note that Universal McCann continues handling media tasks for Coca-Cola in many countries, as did executives at the McCann-Erickson World Group, which oversees the media and creative agencies both bounced by Coca-Cola in 2003. Good thing for Interpublic there's only a month left to the year.

Meanwhile, speaking of bounce, Pepsi-Cola, once proudly promoted as the cola with "more bounce to the ounce", announced just four days before Coca-Cola's media switch that it would switch straplines in North America from "The joy of Pepsi", in use since 2001, to: "Pepsi. It's the cola."

One reason carbonated soft-drink sales are stagnating, David Burwick, the senior vice-president and chief marketing officer for Pepsi-Cola North America, said, is that beverages such as waters, sports drinks and juices are sold on functional benefits, while sodas, especially colas, are peddled emotionally. By presenting Pepsi as the perfect accompaniment to food, Burwick believes, a cola comeback could be on the cards.

There's just one problem. Coca-Cola has been more of a believer in the paired-with-food strategy, from "Things go better with Coke" to "Making good things taste better". Indeed, after reading an article about "It's the cola", a newspaper reader sent a reporter a photo of a vintage sign from a bowling alley in Indiana: under the Coca-Cola logo were the words: "Good with food."

"It looks like cola advertising has gone full circle," the reader wrote in a note.

Hey, aren't the reporters supposed to come up with the clever kickers?

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