The Coca-Cola Challenge
The coca cola challenge

If there was one message every marketer in the Palais des Festivals should have taken away from this year’s Cannes Debate at the 60th International Festival of Creativity, it was this:  “Challenge us.”

That urging came from Joe Tripodi, Chief Marketing and Commercial Officer of The Coca-Cola Company, which had been named Cannes’ Marketer of the Year. Tripodi urged all his agency partners to step up and be “respectfully confrontational” since the beverage giant depends on such creative tension to produce its best work.

Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, replied, “We’re partners, albeit junior partners.”

“No,” countered, Muthar Kent, the Chairman and CEO of The Coca-Cola Company and Tripodi’s colleague on stage, “not junior.  Just partners.”

Such semantics aside, the, ahem, partners enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion that didn’t glide over some difficult topics. Besides creative tension, Sorrell pressed Tripodi on the issue of payment terms, being so blunt as to assert that the “partnership is in danger of being eroded.”  He said that he foresaw a moment when terms of payment would determine agency choice. To that,  Tripodi replied, clients can’t “buy creativity like you buy pencils.”  Still Tripodi wants agencies to have their compensation tied to the success—or lack thereof—of the campaign.  “That’s shared value,” he said.

The three executives also spent time and passion discussing social issues.  As The Coca-Cola Company showed at a presentation earlier in the week, its brand has a long history of socially progressive advertising, something it has dubbed “Work that Matters.”

Kent riffed off that theme.  He was most intense when discussing the subject of women’s emancipation and the economic benefits that accrue to it. Accessible clean water sources doesn’t just free women from long treks porting often-questionable water back to the village, it also has a profound effect on public health.  “Half the world’s hospital beds,” Kent declared, “are filled with people suffering from the effects of a lack of clean drinking water.”

Another issue Coca-Cola must grapple with? Obesity.  Kent and Tripodi both stressed the role of personal choice in this health issue, but at the same time they said the company is committed to offering more choices to consumers.  In a nice (albeit rehearsed) moment, Tripodi picked up the can of Coke in front of him, twisted it apart to reveal two half-sized “Sharing Cans,” and offered one to Sorrell.  Clearly, the beverage giant recognizes that it must do more when it comes to addressing obesity, and Kent recited four actions the company was going to make. They ranged from clearer labeling to promoting lifestyle programs.

The Coca-Cola executives also discussed the changing demographics in the United States as well as around the world. The company knows it needs to engage more and more with the Hispanic and Asian markets, not to mention the massive numbers of youth around the world.  Propelled by digital and demographic changes, the days of generating consumer impressions are gone.  For these new, young segments, consumer expressions are what matters.

As the conversation wrapped up, Kent turned to leadership.  “Leadership is always about having courage, foresight, and listening to create the conditions for success,” he said.  But what is success?  “It’s all about making a promise in the future without a predetermined outcome.”

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