One Meeting

When you have been around the agency marketing consulting business as long as I have (some 40 years now) and worked for as many as 150 of the Fortune 500 worldwide, people always ask what the high point of your career was. Having been through 13 Olympic Games (Winter and Summer), World Cups, NFL Super Bowl Experiences, MLB All Star Games, WTA events creation, NHL seasons, NASCAR representation and untold other events and promotions and product introductions, that should be a tough call.

But it’s not. It was a small lunch meeting in Calgary, Alberta, at a restaurant table for two in 1986.

At least half of this business is the recognition of opportunity. The other half is in pulling it off. This was a recognition deal and that was why I was there, for Coca-Cola and FedEx. I got one clear once-in-a-lifetime opening and a lead to another. Good lunch.

My boss, Bob Cohn, founder of Cohn & Wolfe, wanted to break into the sacrosanct Opening Ceremonies with a Coke presence and that was my assignment. The lunch was with Paddy Sampson, an Irish events producer of some renown and producer of all the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics Ceremonies. He had no doubt what the Games needed and couldn’t afford; a song and a rescue. One was perfect for Coke and the other had great promise for FedEx.

The signature song he was seeking was a no-brainer. Music is to Coke as Clydesdales are to Budweiser. Now, how to present it subliminally became the challenge. I might add here that I couldn’t speak absolutely for the Coca-Cola Company but I would present it.

Fed-Ex was more complex. My colleague Bob Hope had already presented a program to the company for a legacy project to commemorate the Olympics for all time in the City, called Celebration of Medal Winners. FedEx needed to be relieved of the three-day quarantine on packages it was enduring going into Canada. My assignment was to make it fit that need.

Tickets held back for Calgarians had been sold to travel wholesalers illegally and there was virtually no way any Calgarian could attend the Olympics through a box office (oversimplified). There had to be a way to calm the local population. Thus the Celebration of Medal Winners planning began.

Meanwhile, Coke loved the theme song idea because the Bottlers worldwide could take part. We would choose a World Chorus to sing the song in the opening ceremonies and Calgary would be cemented in Olympic lore. Canadian David Foster, the musical genius of the group Chicago, was secured as the writer, composer and musical director of “Can You Feel It”, the original dubs were magical and the promotion for performers began.

The chorus came from the USA, Europe, China, Russia, the Middle East, Canada of course, South America and Africa. ABC did a 10-minute introduction in the Opening Ceremonies coverage worldwide and the IOC went nuts over the commercialization, but whatever. Coke also provided the white ponchos for the Opening Ceremonies card trick and the IOC, by in-stadium announcement asked everyone to turn their ponchos inside out to hide the Coke logo. Good luck with that.

But the IOC was positive with the Calgary ticket problem. With the intervention of Frank King, CEO of the organizing committee and Bill Pratt, COO, they agreed for the first and only time in Olympic history to award the medals outside of the competition venues and at a central local in downtown Calgary at Olympic Park. That became the site of the Celebration of Medal Winners.

Each night for 17 nights, downtown Calgary became a festival, complete with stage performances, a 5-story wall painting which turned into a trump-loeil with a five-story bank of TVs shining through with highlights from ABC of the performances that day, original music from hundreds of speakers and over radio in time with fireworks from ground and top-of-buildings locations, 10-story screens on three skyscrapers with laser art and the medals ceremonies, anthems an flag-raising for winners of the day. All of this was produced by an unbelievably talented, dedicated team of several hundred people from Cohn & Wolfe. Some had lived in Calgary for up to a year and I was traveling there for two weeks each month for two years.

In a later blog, I’ll go into how it was all done. It’s fascinating if you are into special events.

Never underestimate the impact of any one meeting. Never in my career has one meeting sent me to the heights I went to in February of 1988. I’m glad I recognized the opportunities and pursued them. It was a once-in a lifetime chance to show a team’s work to 300,000 people live every night and a billion worldwide by TV.

God, it was great.

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