Ashwini Gangal

Cannes 2013: Cannes Debate-Sir Martin Sorrell indulged Coke honchos

WPP supremo Sir Martin Sorrell chatted with Coca-Cola's Joseph Tripodi and Muhtar Kent on Friday at noon.

On Friday, the audience at the Grand Audi at the Palais des Festivals witnessed the Cannes Debate. The discussion was chaired, as usual, by Sir Martin Sorrell, chief executive, WPP. He exchanged words with two Coca-Cola stalwarts, Joseph Tripodi, executive vice-president, chief marketing and commercial officer, The Coca-Cola Company and Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO, The Coca-Cola Company.

Cannes 2013: Cannes Debate-Sir Martin Sorrell indulged Coke honchos
Two disclaimers: First of all, Sorrell, who is known for his fluorescent coloured business suits, wore a surprisingly muted shade for this year's debate. Last time it was bright purple (or was it lime green?). And secondly, coming to the debate, well, it wasn't a debate as much as a tame discussion, rife with clichéd statements, which Sorrell tried to make interesting with his usual witty remarks and pungent sense of humour.

Kent began by speaking about what he calls "The Coca-Cola System" that they have in place, as opposed to merely running The Coca-Cola Company. This, he stated, is the largest consumer product system in the world, with a robust distribution network to speak of. This point led to a theme that stayed alive all through the discussion: Coca-Cola's global yet local outlook. "Our main ingredient for success," Kent said, "is the fusion of global and local." This holds true on several levels, including the company's approach to distribution, its advertising and its product offerings.

By way of example, Kent spoke about Coca-Cola's foray into the Myanmar market; the company recently opened two factories there. "What is the balance between local and global?" asked Sorrell. According to Kent, it is the ability to think globally yet act locally because "without local execution there can be no results."

Tripodi added that while the context of a strong network is important, Coca-Cola is always looking for local ideas from creative boutiques. "It's about having freedom within a framework," he said.

Sorrell then asked whether the existing pressure on the retail and supply chain industries in turn puts any pressure on companies, making them more prone to selection of agencies based on the payment factor rather than the quality of creative work. Tripodi skirted the question by talking about how agencies are partners and not vendors or suppliers. This made Sorrell ask a question that received laughs and applause. He asked, "What is the one thing about advertising agencies that irritates you most?"

Tripodi stayed around the periphery of this difficult question and spoke about how agencies often come up with "pedestrian ideas" in the hope that their clients will accept them. He was quick to soften his comment with, "Positive confrontation between agency and client is a good thing."

Kent, however, was more direct in his response. He confessed that the most annoying thing about agencies is their inability to understand the company's "stakeholder needs." According to him, agencies will do well to keep the stakeholders - and not just the consumers - in mind while crafting communication.

The discussion then went on to growth prospects for Coca-Cola in the USA, especially given the nation's large and ever-growing Hispanic population base. Tripodi said, in this context, "With 'Latinasation' of the US market, a lot of our growth will come from these sections. We have a deep relationship with the Hispanic market in the US." He spoke about how large companies tend to be traditional in their outlook, but opined that it is important to take risks depending on the nature of one's target society. In this case, the Latin American consumer base for Coca-Cola in the US is characterised by two 'factoids' as Kent called them: the section is young and growing in size. "We will try to act like we're a small business. That's how we will grow in this market," Kent said.

Then the trio spoke about the changing consumer mind-set; while earlier it was enough for a brand to be present at the right place at the right time, today, consumers want to be indulged a bit more. They want to have a dialogue with the brand. The Coca-Cola duo termed this phenomenon a transition from "the need for positive product impressions to the need for product expressions."

Towards the end of the discussion (can't get myself to call it a 'debate'-- it was way too amicable for anyone who hails from the land of Arnab Goswami and his debates), Sorrell circumvented regulations and invited a few questions from the audience via email. One among these questions was about how Coca-Cola can live with itself, given obesity and related illnesses. Tripodi fielded this one by playing the 'responsible marketing' card.

He insisted that the company offers a low-calorie version for most of its caloric products (for example Coke Zero), uses very transparent and informative labels on its product packs, doesn't market to children under the age of 12 years and at the end of the day, trusts its consumers to practice "responsible consumption."