Roger Enrico: How The Pepsi CEO And Michael Jackson Invented "New Coke"

When Al Pacino got his first important theater role, an actor who didn't get the part asked him how that happened.

"Just lucky," Pacino said.

But that wasn't the truth.

"That actor wanted the part," Pacino explained, decades later. "I had to have it."

Roger Enrico, who died last week in the Cayman Islands, was the son of a foreman at a Minnesota iron-ore processing plant. Business school, the Navy, Pepsi -- his ascent was meteoric. At the ridiculous age of 38, he became Pepsi's CEO. Luck had nothing to do with it. Pepsi's leadership saw who he was: driven. He had to have it.

In 1985, when Roger was looking for a writer to work with him on "The Other Guy Blinked: How Pepsi Won the Cola Wars," he met with three journalists. I was then about to marry a writer with two small children. Unlike almost every other writer in my crowd, I didn't have a trust fund. We wanted to buy an apartment. Roger's book? I had to have it.

Roger was writing a book because, soon after he became CEO, he did something unprecedented: He paid Michael Jackson $5 million to make some Pepsi commercials. They were great popular entertainment, mesmerizing even if you cared nothing about Pepsi or Michael. Ninety-seven percent of the American public watched them at least a dozen times.

This is oversimplifying, but... Those commercials unhinged executives of Coca-Cola and caused them to replace the most popular soft drink on the planet with "New Coke," and release lame commercials, like this, with Bill Cosby...

... and Pepsi jumped all over that until a nation of betrayed Coke drinkers forced Coca Cola to dump its reformulated drink.

All because of a CEO who took a big risk with a big idea.

Roger began our collaboration with the announcement that my name would be on the cover and my photo would appear on the flap. Why? He wanted me to be accountable, to do my best work. He didn't have to worry. There are people you want to please for reasons that have nothing to do with the rewards -- you respect them, and you want them to respect you. And then, as you get to know them, you love them and want them to love you. From about minute five, I loved Roger Enrico.

It generally happens that the ghostwriter tapes a few dozen hours of interviews with a celebrity, then goes away to produce a manuscript. Roger was anything but hands-off. He ran a business all week, and then he worked on the book. He rewrote me and I rewrote him. It was such a true collaboration -- a partnership of equals -- that one night, when he came up with a rare dud of an idea, I said, "Oh, Roger, don't be an asshole." It is a measure of the safety he created in our working relationship that I didn't immediately slap my head with shame and embarrassment. By then, we'd written 4 drafts in 3 months and I'd gone to London to sleep and recover. Roger? He didn't know the meaning of fatigue.

Recently Roger decided that "The Other Guy Blinked" could make a good movie. Because I write screenplays, he asked if I had any interest in writing it. Yes, please, and I saw how: the Pepsi/Michael Jackson/Coca Cola/New Coke story as the next "Big Short" -- a film about business that could be, in form and theme, both meaningful and fun. I would cast Coke as a corporate, "suit" culture, never swinging for the fences, always playing not to lose. In contrast, Pepsi would be about youth and music and fun -- it would be, to use today's favorite word, disruptive.

I was going to start the movie with a guy who'd never be in the same room as the CEO of Coke. His name is Jay Coleman, and in 1983 he was a music promoter who had an idea to pitch to Roger. He calls him at 5 PM. Roger's secretary answers. Jay knows she won't put him through to Roger, so he hangs up. And calls again at 5:15. Same thing. And 5:30. She's still there. At 5:45, Jay calls again. The secretary's gone. Roger answers. Jay blurts out one long sentence about Michael Jackson wanting to make commercials and Coke being interested and -- which is when Roger interrupts to say four words: "My office. 8 AM."

In the morning, Jay shows Roger a video.

And it's Kismet. Roger, Jay, Michael: three guys who had to have it.

In this movie, I hoped to entertain and thrill, but I also wanted, just by showing Roger in action, to present an example of great leadership. Every first year business school student knows that a CEO defines goals, convinces others those goals are worthy, and then spends as much time as he thinks is necessary to reach those goals. But what are the goals? In a 1990 speech to high-level Pepsi executives, Roger warned against "incrementalism." He urged his colleagues to dream big -- and cited, as an example, the painter Robert Irwin, who stopped painting for two years at the height of his success so he could think his way to a new artistic vision.

Executives as artists? Maybe.

The CEO as an artist? That was Roger Enrico.

[Cross-posted from HeadButler.com]