Rafe Ring
Jul 27, 2012

Innovation Insiders: Stafford Green, founder of Coca-Cola’s ‘Content Factory’

Looking inside global companies making innovation central to how they do business, Rafe Ring, CMO of Global Insights Group, recently sat down with Stafford Green, founder of The Coca-Cola Content Factory, inside Coke’s Atlanta global HQ.

Innovation Insiders: Stafford Green, founder of Coca-Cola’s ‘Content Factory’
Stafford Green, Coca-Cola Content Factory
Stafford Green

Innovation Inside Coca-Cola       

Rafe Ring: We’ve talked to a number of global players—from Microsoft and Citibank to Philips and Diageo—everyone is talking about innovation as a strategic imperative. How do you approach innovation inside Coca-Cola?

Stafford Green: I’ll tell you how it personally started for me. A few years ago I was working on Coke Zero and its link to a giant 3D movie about tall creatures with long blue tails. You know the one. My team, based in London, was responsible for the global digital content and distribution of the movie partnership. Well, it was getting late in the project….and the ‘big agency’ we were working with at the time, the brand managers, and “Hollywood” had drained much of the project funding with the typical indecision and maneuvering you find on so many of those big complex projects. Seen this too? More focus was being put on manifesting huge Powerpoint productions rather than on getting the job done. And worse, as the film got closer to launch, the tension built and people started in fighting. Being mean to each other. I hate that. It isn’t me. That’s when something flipped in my head—I almost felt the switch click. I said to myself not only is this wrong, but this is all wrong.

Rafe Ring: Ok, it was all wrong, and blocking you from achieving your goal. So tell me exactly what were you trying to achieve with Coke Zero—movie association?

Stafford Green: It was a key project for Coca-Cola Zero at that time, and we wanted to create a piece of film that needed to be on the same scale as the movie and really make an impact for the brand. We wanted it to be big. We all did. It needed to look like a high-cost high-production value film—with beautiful people, beautiful cars, a spaceship—pure eye-candy to put Coke Zero into this movie’s world online and to give it a role to play around the film that brought the brand alive in a powerful and very current way.

Rafe Ring: So there you are…under pressure to make a big impact for the brand, working on what became one of the biggest movies ever, and up against it timing and budget wise…what happened when you ‘felt the switch click’?

Stafford Green: Well, I thought “hey, why am I going through so many people and over so many irrelevant hurdles in order to get the work done?” I believe that once you have a clear view of the communication goals and the target, shouldn’t the work happen in the most efficient and effective way? I mean, letting creativity and efficiency work together positively and collaboratively? By this time I had only five figures left from a seven figure shared budget, so without telling a soul, I decided to put the remaining money into the production of a single online film. I pulled together a virtual team, using contacts from my LA movie friends—including the animators and actors who would make it happen. It was a huge success! We gave fans and consumers a great brand experience – and we did it on budget.


Rafe Ring: So you took an innovative approach to solving a big brand challenge by putting in place and working directly with a virtual team. Is that how the Content Factory itself evolved? Tell us about the Factory… how it works.

Stafford Green: Well, following on from that success I decided to build on this idea and start the Coca-Cola Content Factory. It was built when I was living in Paris; and it started with a headcount of one. Me. Today, the Content Factory is a worldwide network of thinkers and doers that help us connect consumers with our brands. Sometimes we crowd source with eYeka to open it up more… sometimes we just use our own Factory network. But from a business perspective it still has a headcount of one. Me. I like it that way—not only so I can concentrate on outward versus inward—but there are a lot of creative people out there—many not working in agencies—and I thought ‘why not give more people a shot at doing great creative work on our big brands’. Open it up.

We are all passionate about creativity and brands, aren’t precious about idea ownership or ego driven—just great people to work with. The Content Factory allows us to avoid much of the cost and bull from both agencies and brand teams, and focus on innovation and new ways of engaging people with our brands that is genuine, fresh, authentic, and open.

Rafe Ring: So global brand teams come to you for authentic fresh ideas, and you pull together resources around the world to answer their briefs. What specifically is your role?

Stafford Green: My job is to get a clear brief in just a few simple sentences from the global brand owners—e.g., to demand a clear destination—as well as ensure someone in the world will actually be using the production. I then manage acceptable and intelligent risk, do everything I can to stop any requests for powerpoints from the various teams—and soak in the creative expression with the pop-up Team. Sometimes I just protect, sometimes I program code, sometimes I write music, sometimes I film. I almost always edit it. Whatever it takes. The boss is the result, not me. There’s no stage-gating each step—there’s in and there’s out. Small attack teams skypely connected to get it done. And have fun along the way.

Rafe Ring: Can you tell us what sorts of innovations the Factory has done since it was created?

Stafford Green: We have created everything from the Coca-Cola Zero and Mentos Rocket Car with my brilliant Eepybird and Sekretagent friends, getting 100,000,000 plus connections with consumers and giving Coke Zero an absurdly wonderful ROI. And we’ve done less explosive touches such as “Plant Bottle – Daniel”  which describes the environmental importance of the Company bottle made from plants, seen through the eyes of one of our scientists’ own children. Very authentic.


We’ve done some 3D ads for cinema, too. All for much less than via traditional channels.

Rafe Ring: Can you talk about any other innovations are you are creating to help Coca-Cola deliver authentic experiences to its consumers?

Stafford Green: Yes. Gaming—particularly mobile gaming—is an area that brands are only beginning to explore. I believe it is an important area for Coke so the production of games has been happening recently at the Content Factory. Admittedly, I engineered some failures the first couple of times around—experimenting with little games to get the Factory’s feet wet. I love successful failure! So then when we learned enough, we created Crabs and Penguins, which includes an incredible 60-second animation from a young production company called Ember Lab.

This one I have gotten very close to because Ember Lab had never really made a complete game before—but I trusted their extreme talent and “can-do” instinct. And because I love music and soundtracks, we worked closely with Jeff Rona to get that right album for the game. It’s been great fun, and a real success online. Inside the first week there were over 83,000 game downloads, 4.5/5 stars, 93 per cent likes, 1.5 million film views, 1.1 million Twitter impressions....with some really touching comments from around the world.


Rafe Ring: You allude to some of the challenges of innovating internally inside large organisations or with traditional agencies. Do you deliberately avoid any prescribed process for creating innovation? And if so where do successful innovative ideas come from?

Stafford Green: I believe that to be successful innovation has to be more organic, unstructured, and spontaneous. The Factory approaches innovation as a network—a trusting family. There is no prescribed process and no one person ever takes credit for its creation but rather it is created by our collective. We shun award programs and believe that ideas float about in the ether and can be grabbed by anyone—but shared with everyone. This is all, of course, under the guidance of a legal framework.

But really the physical settings—your surroundings—are so important to idea creation. Have you seen those hollow attempts at creating innovation labs or rooms all over the world for centralized idea creation? Take a regular office cube-atropolis, add a beanbag chair, an oversized unused touch screen table, an X-box and poof! Ideas are supposed to happen. But there is no central command for ideas. They happen in the hallways, the parks, at home…art exhibits in a tiny street in Shoreditch…or when your toes poke in sand and a fiddler crab walks by. They happen in sessions where the purpose is not to demand that big idea but rather to release ideas—lots of them. And sure, the idea is important, but it’s not everything. What is equally important is how the idea is interpreted and executed—this is where the Content Factory shines. I’ve witnessed simple napkin-sized ideas bloom in execution and provide something just wonderful for the world.

Rafe Ring: Can you talk about the actual process you used to create Crabs & Penguins? The inside story—not the one on the website?

Stafford Green: Sure. Specifically for Crabs and Penguins, the two young animators and owners of Ember Lab came out to my lake house located in ‘Where IsThat?’, Georgia. Ha! But it’s a wonderful place—Lake Oconee—it deepens breathing and relaxes ones’ shoulders at the very first view. Up in my studio, Josh and Mike introduced a beach idea with some wonderful initial drawings of a hero crab jumping off a mountain of sand. That was the start. By the end of the day, we had a story of an everyday crab leaving his tropical paradise to return a ball to a group of soccer-playing penguins. Leave a crab; return a hero. To me the metaphor fit perfectly with our brand values. It became a much larger story about an everyday individual stepping up to accept a huge challenge in order to make the world a better place. To connect two communities on opposite ends of the planet. To bring happiness. Very Coca-Cola.

Rafe Ring: Creating new ideas, thinking of things differently, trying something new—there are bound to be failures. Does Coke give people room to fail?

Stafford Green: I think every company allows for positive failure—it’s just that people don’t believe it is true. Failure is part of the innovation process. You just have to fail fast, learn and move on. I believe the key is in lots of little learnings and little dry-run experiments. And we experiment a lot. Another game we’ve developed along with a small firm called Streamline Media is called Axon Z. For this experiment, we created a great game with high levels of action and speed. Feedback has been great, but the real experiment here is trying to see if consumers will actually pay for a branded game. Honestly I think this initial game we have not dialled it quite right, but without trying, we’ll never know where the dial is in the first place. We learn as we experiment.

Rafe Ring: Finally what advice would you give other global leaders who want to make innovation a core part of their company’s DNA?

Stafford Green: Yesterday I was under my pontoon boat fixing a light—people would think it is a creepy, dark, spider-filled place. I suppose you could say that. But, I had my camera and took this picture.  



The world shines around us. The trick is to have your eyes open. We just have to look for it everywhere, to have that right attitude while we are looking. Innovation requires this—you have to be listening to your environment, looking for the need, applying a healthy dose of positivity, gluing processes and people and things that initially seem not to quite belong together. And then just jumping in! Woooo! You have to take risks, but you get four to five people thinking this way, trusting and working together, and you have your company’s first innovation virus in play right inside your business.

Campaign Asia

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