Hollywood Hits Madison Avenue: When Ovitz & the Polar Bears Stole Coca-Cola

Hollywood Hits Madison Avenue: When Ovitz & the Polar Bears Stole Coca-Cola

October, 1991. Hollywood's kingmaker, Michael Ovitz, craved a new conquest: brands. But not just any brand. He eyed Coca-Cola - not as a sugary drink, but a cinematic hero. McCann Erickson, Coke's agency for 40 years, scoffed. What did Hollywood know about Madison Avenue’s business? (Coke) Zero.

Ovitz, the ultimate showman, orchestrated a two-way pitch: a Western shootout on Coke's home turf. 

He shared no spreadsheets, no sales figures. Instead, he spun a captivating narrative, envisioning Coke as a hero with CAA at the helm. And Hollywood’s finest - represented by CAA, of course - would craft Coke's silver screen saga.

Then, the big reveal: adorable polar bears sipping Coke in snowy landscapes. A playful antithesis to McCann's product-pushing pitch, it left the room speechless.

The "Northern Lights" ad, featuring dancing bears under the aurora borealis, became a pop-culture phenomenon. Awards poured in, sales soared, and Coke's love affair with polar bears began.

But here’s the kicker.

Ovitz asked for no money upfront. Not a cent.

“Pay us what it's worth," he told Coke. 

Months went by, until a cheque for $10m arrived. 

He mailed it back with a post-it note: "Let's discuss." 

Weeks later, another check landed on his desk. $31 million. 

Not bad for a gamble on polar bears and a post-it.

3 takeaways:

  1. Ostrich or Unorthodox? 

During CAA’s pitch, McCann vice-president John Bergin slipped a note to a colleague: “we are dead.”. Later, one industry critic called McCann “a bunch of dinosaurs acting like ostriches”.  Don't be the ostrich. Today's Ovitz could be just around the corner, ready to steal your Coke.

  1. New Coke, Old Oak

CAA's success didn't stem from Hollywood alone. Ovitz knew what he didn’t know - his stable of directors, actors, and writers worked alongside seasoned ad professionals to balance domain expertise with the potential for unexpected magic.

  1. Turn the Mirror, Not the Meter

Get paid for impact, not hours. Focus the mirror on their business outcomes vs. turning it on yourself. Because just like a Zoom call, it's strangely tempting to gaze at our own image...

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