“You're invited to a NIGHT WITH NEVILLE ISDELL...” That’s the message I received from Chuck Jereos, one of the young men I used to work with in the early 1980s when I was working at McCann-Erickson Philippines, Inc. (MEP) handling the Coca-Cola account.
I joined McCann in 1979. George Balagtas was then the vice president in charge of Coca-Cola. I had called him looking for an opportunity to work at a multinational advertising agency. After nine interviews, I made it into the Coca-Cola account. Now, 50-odd years later, that was the high point of my career.
Then, Coca-Cola had 30 percent of the soft-drink market. Pepsi had 60 percent. The bottler was San Miguel Corporation (SMC) and the partner that owned and supplied the syrup was The Coca-Cola Export Corporation (TCCEC). They each had 50 percent of the advertising decision process. McCann-Erickson was the third leg in the business. We handled the advertising.
At the time the marketing persons of SMC and TCCEC were almost enemies. It was difficult to reach an agreement. Once I said, “Look, I’m going to take a walk. When I return please have a decision or we cannot do anything to move this project forward.” I got away with that because I was a woman.
But that was before the Coca-Cola Bottlers Philippines, Inc. or CCBPI, was organized. It spun off the soft-drinks division of San Miguel into an independent entity. That’s when Neville Isdell, a 6’5” redheaded Irishman, came to the Philippines to head CCBPI. His executive vice president was Kingking Celdran, who had tremendous experience selling beer and who was more than 20 inches shorter than he.
The partnership with TCCEC continued. It was headed initially by John Hunter and later by Tony Eames. On the McCann-Erickson side the Coke Team was headed by George Balagtas and his group—me, Jojun Loanzon, Linda Barretto, Butch Tan were members of the account group then.
To us the arrival of Neville was like a gust—no, a whirlwind—of fresh air that blew us off our feet. We worked like crazy to turn the market around. We launched new packages, bottles with resealable caps, we introduced Hi-C and Mello-Yello. Most important of all, we did our famous sales force launches. We traveled to plants across the country carrying our slides and projectors putting on a war show for the entire sales force. We began our cola war in Manila, issuing battle uniforms to plant managers and officers. Plant managers were “generals.” The higher up you went the more stars and medals they got.
Plants began to set up camouflage nets. As the plant managers saw what we did, they set up their plants with more sandbags and war equipment. Finally, in Davao for the last launch, Andy Jaldon borrowed tanks from the military and made them part of the entrance.
We watched our Coke sales go up as we traveled doing our plant launches followed by plaza concerts featuring the VST & Co. We packed into coaster buses carrying pillows—not to sleep on, but to put over our heads so the lights, the posters, the paraphernalia would not fall onto our heads and hurt us in case the coaster braked suddenly, which it did quite often. Finally we called the now-powerful sales force “The Tiger Force.” We launched the sales force at The Manila Hotel. We even had an anthem produced called The Eye of the Tiger.
Our clients—CCBPI under Neville and Kingking, TCCEC under Tony Eames—always told us what they wanted. We created it: a war theme for plant launches, The Tiger Force for the sales force, and later The Star Force—with Martin Nievera, Gary Valenciano, among many other talents —for Coca-Cola.
The day when we had 60 percent of the market arrived and stayed for a while. Then Neville left, became president of Coca-Cola Europe, then chairman and president of The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta. Now he came as chairman of WWF. But he always had a soft spot in his heart for the Philippines because this is the place where his career took off.
That night when he saw me, we remembered everything we had done to turn the Philippine market around. He talked, said he needed to pay tribute to two groups of people. First, to those who stayed loyal to the company for 40 years and who would be awarded tonight; and second, to Barbara “Tweetums” Gonzalez, who did the work for the Tigers. “I told you I invented that,” Neville said, “but Tweetums did.” He made me stand up. I smiled before the entire ballroom. Neville Isdell instantly turned me into a star!
But no, while I was the one named, the one who stood up to face the crowd, the tribute was really for the Coke Team of McCann-Erickson, all of us starting with George Balagtas, who passed away before the pandemic; all of us who lost sleep, who left our families to launch endlessly around the country, who worked with our bodies and all our hearts to hit the 60 percent market share we all desired—this stardom was for all of us... at last.
I have only one thing to say. Thank you, Neville, for turning McCann-Erickson, Philippines into a shining star that night!