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WPP Open X opens up on Coca-Cola partnership, which is fizzing away nicely after 2 years

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By Hannah Bowler | Senior Reporter

November 10, 2023 | 7 min read

The Drum sits down with the leadership ranks of the WPP integrated agency team that was put together in 2021 for the drink giant.

'The World Needs More Santas' Coca-Cola 2023 Christmas campaign

'The World Needs More Santas' Coca-Cola 2023 Christmas campaign

After a massive agency review that kicked off in December 2020, The Coca-Cola Company named WPP its global network partner in November 2021, giving the agency responsibility for the marketing of over 200 brands in five categories across 195 countries in nine territories.

WPP set up a bespoke team within the agency, Open X, to run and manage the account. The first year saw Coca-Cola transfer all of its media, creative, social and production into WPP, while the second year added commerce, data and technology influencer marketing and live experience.

The fruits of the partnership are already starting to show, with the CPG giant having successive strong quarters in 2023, with its Q3 revenue up 8.04% YoY ($11.95bn), its Q2 up 5.7% and its Q1 earnings 4.6% YoY. James Quincey, chief executive of Coca-Cola, recently said in an earnings call that he sees marketing as the “motor for growth.”

Heading up Open X are chief executive officer Laurent Ezekiel, chief communications and marketing officer Julianna Richter, global chief strategy officer Chris Binns and recent addition Andrew Keller, who joined from Meta as chief creative officer.

Their overarching brief is to change The Coca-Cola Company’s marketing from a majority analog output to 60% digital and to push the business into more live experience-based media.

How the companies integrated

Prior to the appointment, says Richter, it was crucial for WPP to already have its internal infrastructure in place should it win the pitch. This meant that when WPP was appointed on November 8, the agency was ready to start the work immediately. “I don’t think we would have been as successful if we did not have that forethought and a solid plan in place,” she says.

Richter’s simple piece of advice for brands and agencies looking to replicate the model is: “You better communicate the transformation at depth across both organizations.”

Managing the flow of work at this scale can be tricky, the leadership team admits. “It raises questions about where the ‘handoff’ is from global to local teams, where work originates and how we get to relevant insights and ideas that work across markets,” says Ezekiel. To solve this, the Open X team created new phases and terms to drive clarity and simplicity around briefing.

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What does WPP Open X bring to the table?

A key reason Coca-Cola went for this style of agency relationship was to create consistency across its markets. In the new system, WPP Open X develops global brand platforms for the local markets to interpret but then links back to the same creative thread. For example, the ‘Recipe for Magic’ platform in the UK and US was anchored by the Gigi Hadid campaign but in Bangkok was seen through its locally relevant ‘Conversation Spaghetti’ activation.

Keller says: "We have strong creative leads in all regions and that sets us up to be able to take big persistent platforms like Sprite Heat Happens and scale them locally, and to also build relevant local executions in each market."

When you have five different strategies, one for social, one for media, one for advertising, one for experiential and one for shopper, clients end up with fragmented advertising, says Binns.

“If you work with multiple agencies – whether within a network actually or outside of a network – in the way Coca-Cola previously did, you end up with multiple strategies,” he adds. “Great work comes from points of integration and collaboration and insight and simplicity. What we’ve tried to do is to strip out the layers of complexity.”

Coca-Cola’s 2023 Christmas campaign was a big moment for WPP Open X to prove its credentials.

For the first time, Coca-Cola can bring the various media channels into the conversation from the very first brief and connect media to creative. Richter says a brief will start with “social listening to unearth some culturally relevant trend“ that it can then tap into “from the very beginning through to the end.” This is a way of working that Richter says informs how WPP works with other clients outside of Open X.

Ezekiel tells The Drum the work of WPP Open X isn’t just to transform Coca-Cola but to transform the entire WPP network. “There is an understanding as a partnership that where we feel we need to strengthen our capability, we will do so together.” For example, in a region where the talent or capabilities aren’t up to scratch, there will be investment in training and agency partners.

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