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For Coke's Peter Sealey, Hollywood Is It



Short and slim, in a gray suit and sober maroon tie, Peter S. Sealey looks every bit the staid executive so common to the halls of Atlanta's Coca-Cola Co. Until he opens his mouth, that is. "God, you're ringing all the emotional bells there," he says, as an underling presents a storyboard for a new Coke Classic commercial destined for the Far East. "You're talking social facilitation, self-actualization. Perfect." Close your eyes, and you might think you had landed on the set of Robert Altman's biting Hollywood satire, The Player.

Coke's 52-year-old director of global marketing knows a thing or two about Tinseltown. Unlike your typical buttoned-down exec, he fits in among its movers and shakers. For six years, he worked for Columbia Pictures Entertainment Inc.--Coca-Cola's erstwhile foray into the movie business. Now, he's charged with building a bridge to Hollywood in a radical effort (by advertising standards anyway) to revitalize one of the world's most traditional brands.

FED UP. It was Sealey who oversaw the recent coup in which Hollywood's premier talent shop, Creative Artists Agency Inc. (CAA), displaced Coke's longtime ad agency, McCann-Erickson Worldwide, as the creative force behind Coke's biggest campaign in years. After long being out-advertised by rival PepsiCo Inc., Coke got fed up with Madison Avenue.

The problem is clear. Coke, with 1992 sales of $13 billion, leads Pepsi in the worldwide soft-drink market. But its flagship Coke Classic brand leads Pepsi only slightly, and trails in supermarkets. Marketers say Pepsi's more vibrant, youthful advertising really is capturing the new generation. Even Coke President Donald R. Keough, who at 66 will retire in April, has been troubled. "I was restless about the advertising we had on the air," he says.

Keough's restlesness dates as far back as 1982, when he met Hollywood superagent Michael S. Ovitz, CAA's powerful chairman. Pepsi's more hip appeal was already a threat, and the two began talking casually about how the entertainment business could energize Coke's image. The relationship grew when Coke bought Columbia and, in 1989, sold it to Sony Corp. which was represented by Ovitz. By then, the starbroker was already angling to supply Coke with "marketing ideas."

Sealey, meanwhile, was building a name in both soft drinks and movies. A Florida native who had started his marketing career by redesigning the Jif peanut butter label for Procter & Gamble Co., he took his first job at Coke in 1969 as a Sprite brand manager. He was assigned to handle the marketing for Columbia studios in 1983, and when he moved to Hollywood in 1985, he figured he would never return to Atlanta.

Sealey plunged into the entertainment world head first. He grew a beard, put his three-piece suits in the back of the closet, and did his best to overcome his image as a "civilian"--Hollywoodspeak for an outsider. Associates say Sealey's strength was picking good people and giving them lots of freedom. His favorite was Shelly Hochron, a former Paramount Pictures Corp. marketer, whom Sealey met in 1985, after Warren Beatty urged him to hire her.

Sealey's team had its ups and downs. While they shepherded easy-to-sell blockbusters such as Ghostbusters and Karate Kid, their biggest coup was making a hit out of Stand By Me--a movie deemed almost unmarketable. It was a sentimental boys' tale written by horror specialist Stephen King featuring no stars. There were also debacles: Sealey handled Ishtar, an infamous flop.

PERFECT CHOICE. When Sony took over Columbia in 1989, Sealey wasn't offered a job. And since no offer to return to Coke came from Atlanta, he decided on a life change. He headed for the Peter F. Drucker Center at Claremont Graduate School in suburban Los Angeles, where he spent a couple of years working toward a doctorate in strategic management. He also launched two small companies, one called National Identification Systems, which landed a contract with New York State to computerize the information on driver's licenses. Sealey still owns a big stake in NIS, which last year garnered $15 million in sales.

Sealey loved Southern California. But in 1990, Coke's executive vice-president for marketing, Ira "Ike" Herbert, called to ask him back. "I had a beautiful place on the ocean, a hot tub, Chardonnay," says Sealey. "I was blissing out, listening to National Public Radio. I totally believed I would never return to Coke."

As far as Keough and Herbert were concerned, however, Sealey was the perfect choice. Their relationship with McCann had stagnated and Ovitz' siren song from Hollywood began to sound sweeter. Sealey not only had entertainment connections--a key issue in managing CAA--but he also still had Coke syrup running through his veins. Says Keough: "I called Peter, told him about Ovitz and said: 'You understand the community headquartered out of so-called Hollywood.' We didn't know where it would lead, but we wanted to let their creative juices flow."

Sealey, who cashed in stock options when Sony bought Columbia, says salary wasn't an issue. But a source close to him says he had one condition: He wouldn't tolerate McCann going over his head to Keough. Sealey denies that and says he had no interest in deposing McCann. His CAA ties, however, were closer.

The reason: Ovitz had installed Hochron, who Sealey calls "a third daughter" and an "authentic genius," to head the Coke account. Sealey credits her for many of the ideas that made Stand By Me a hit (silhouetting the four actors in ads, for instance, to conceal that there were no stars in the movie). As the competition between McCann and CAA heated up, that connection was key. "It wouldn't have worked as well without her," Sealey says. "She was critical."

CAA ended up selling Coke 24 spots, vs. McCann's 2. Whether the new ads will work, though, is an open question. First of all, even Pepsi's much-lauded commercials haven't done much to shake up a cola market that's losing share to other sorts of drinks. Moreover, many experts say Coke's new spots, while entertaining, don't send a unified message. Critics say the catchy tune--"Always Coca-Cola"--is too often sacrificed for quick-cut "modern" images. Says PepsiCo marketing guru Alan Pottasch: "This is an effort to show they're with the Nineties. I think they've gone overboard."

McCann remains the agency of record. It will still contribute creative work, and its worldwide network is critical to buying media. Philip H. Geier Jr., chairman of Interpublic Group, McCann's parent, says he's happy sharing the business with CAA. "I believe philosophically that working with alliances is the wave of the future," he says.

Maybe Geier hasn't seen the magazine quote blown-up and framed above Sealey's desk. "Hochron," it says, "disemboweled the [McCann] campaign with a ferocious and articulate outburst, like a cat with claws out." Sealey clearly savored watching Hollywood triumph over Madison Avenue. But he can't relax until the results from Main Street are in.Laura Zinn in Atlanta

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