Ben Deutsch Q&A

May 13, 2019
After Coca-Cola

After starting his career at Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin in Minneapolis, Ben Deutsch spent more than 25 years helping lead communications for one of the world’s leading brands. He’s now on to his next chapter and tells us all about it.

When you were a student at the University of Wisconsin, did you imagine your career would take you to Atlanta and Coca-Cola?

Never in a million years. I wanted to be the next Bob Costas. I was a finalist for a weekend sports anchor job in Duluth but didn’t get it. Funny how certain decisions can impact the course of your life.

You spent two years covering sports for the Wisconsin State-Journal. Did you enjoy it?

I loved it. I was able to cover high school sports, which was a blast. And I was the first beat reporter for Madison’s United States Hockey League team, so I was able to cut my teeth covering a sport I loved and played in high school.

You next spent time at an agency.

I did, at Mona Meyer, McGrath & Gavin in Minneapolis. It was an amazing place, with some of the nicest and most talented people that I’ve ever been around.

Did you enjoy it?

I loved working there.

What motivated you to leave?

It was pretty simple: Coca-Cola is one of the world’s greatest brands. My wife and I never thought we would leave but when I got the offer it was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.

Had you ever been to Atlanta?

Never. We said we’d try it for three to five years and then move back. Well, 26 years later we’re still there.

How did your time in journalism inform your work establishing Coca-Cola Journey, Coca-Cola’s brand-journalism site?

It mainly informed my bias toward hiring former journalists at Coca-Cola. Journalists know what reporters and editors are looking for, understand the importance of deadlines, and can write simple and clear stories. I hired at least four former journalists to work on my teams at Coke.

How has Coca-Cola Journey helped Coca-Cola tell its story?

It’s a game-changer, in my opinion. It enables us to tell our stories directly to our key audiences. As fragmented as today’s media environment is, that’s critical for any organization. Internally, it has two benefits: first, as a communications platform, and second, it enables our employees to serve as brand ambassadors by amplifying our stories via their social media channels.

You’ve said that not being afraid of failing is a key element for successful teams. How do you help nurture that feeling?

No doubt, it’s easier said than done. The only way to establish it credibly is to support your team when something goes wrong or doesn’t go as well as expected. The key is learning from the failure, and leveraging the learnings going forward.

What has surprised you about Coca-Cola Journey?

The biggest surprise was learning what made for good content. The recipe for Coca-Cola Cake was the highest performing piece of content for the first several years! The one thing that I underestimated was our ability to scale Coca-Cola Journey globally. We were able to expand Coca-Cola Journey to more than 50 markets, which was a great indication of the business leadership’s support of the platform.

What is one of your favorite memories of your time at Coca-Cola?

I have so many but the one that stands out was when I was able to work at the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. I had just started at Coca-Cola, and here I was, plopped in the middle of this quaint little winter village in a beautiful part of the world. It was idyllic. Fittingly, it’s where we introduced the Coca-Cola Polar Bear, and whenever we walked the seven-foot bear (a puppeteer in a high-tech bear suit) into the center of the village, it was pure magic.

What’s your favorite restaurant in Atlanta?

Umi, an amazing Japanese restaurant. I’ll put it up against any Japanese restaurant around.

After 25 years, you’ve recently transitioned out of your position at Coca-Cola to spend time teaching at Madison and serving on non-profit boards. Why was now the time to make this shift?

Back in 2012, I went through an executive leadership program called Leadership Atlanta. It was a transformative experience that challenged and inspired me to become a better community leader. Largely because of that experience, I now sit on four non-profit boards in Metro Atlanta. So I knew that when I retired from Coca-Cola, I would be able to throw even more of my time and energy toward those organizations. As far as teaching goes, I’ve always loved guest lecturing at universities and spending time mentoring young people. So when the chance to teach at my alma mater presented itself, I jumped at it. There’s nothing better than being around the energy of college students, especially when it’s in Madison.

You work with so many inspiring non-profits, from Covenant House Georgia, which assists homeless youth, to the Honduras Agalta Valley Education. How do you decide which organizations to devote time to?

Just like anything in life; it’s helpful to have focus. I’m passionate about young people and sports, so I use that filter to make decisions on how I want to spend my time. That’s the common thread in all of my non-profit work.

Did you have a mentor when you were young who inspired you?

I was fortunate to have mentors everywhere I worked. When I joined Coca-Cola back in 1993, Earl Leonard, Jr., the executive vice president of public affairs and communications, took me under his wing. I don’t know how it even happened, because here I was this kid from northern Minnesota, and Coca-Cola had this very Southern culture and influence at that time. But Mr. Leonard, as we all called him, took a liking to me, and always made time to answer my questions and share professional and life lessons. I’m certain that I wouldn’t have had the career I had were it not for him.

What’s next for you?

I’ve had a blast exploring chapter two in my career. I will definitely continue my non-profit work, and I’m excited to see how teaching goes. I’m not closing the door on going back to a full-time communications role, but it will have to be a perfect fit. The key to “rewiring,” as many people call it, is to do things that you enjoy, and I’m having a lot of fun right now.