About that Pepsi Ad – What Can We Learn…and Do?

A few years before the turn of the century, just weeks after having left my position as Creative Director at Universal Studios Florida and moved to Manhattan; I attended a Silicon Alley dotcom launch party.

Approached by the prime VC, I was asked what I did before coming to New York. I told him what the job was about as Creative Director for a theme park; of story, experience, immersion, engagement… He was, “Wow, I should have you come work for me!”

I laughed and said, “…No, thanks!”

“Why not?” was his surprised response.

I told him, “Well… If I consult for you; you’ll pay me well and listen to what I say, when you question me you will treat me with respect and value everything I tell you. You will likely follow my advice and I’ll deliver a project for you that will probably exceed your expectations. On the other hand, if I come to work for you; you’ll pay me less, dismiss what I say if you aren’t comfortable with it, challenge me on everything, veto my recommendations, act like you own me and all your other VP’s will suspect me of wanting their jobs.”

He looked at me for a moment and said, “You’re Right.”

You want the truth and to challenge yourself; you want to evolve? Bring in outsiders.


So, this Ad: Link to the Pepsi Ad

The video has already been universally reviled; described as being “tone-deaf” in a digital avalanche of negative response.

Rightfully so; as it is a prime example of the expensive and expansive dangers of the in-house agency model. The supposed savings sought in the name of Time and Money puts at far greater risk the money actually spent and the time taken to produce something that ends up at best ineffective if not – as in this case – actually damaging to the brand.

Many Agency Voices are jumping on this example as evidence of the faults inherent to the in-house agency; citing this as the case for outside agencies as the choice of greater potential.

I don’t know that this hypothesis is entirely accurate. It ain’t necessarily so black-and-white; though it certainly does point out the vast pitfalls of the in-house model; those being myopia, subservience, sycophancy, fear of losing a job.

Agencies, however, are not the only alternative.

There are some who would posit that the age of the agency is over; certainly the mammoth agency is barreling toward irrelevance. Large, legacy agencies are most often burdened with bureaucracy, overhead, sluggishness and an inventory of resources they must employ and sell in order to profit.

For instance: a client may get the agency’s best writer; but is that client getting the best writer for them, for the project, for the audience?

To that, the best agencies are generally small, nimble, flexible…able to ride trends and embrace cultural evolutions; offering clients and their brands options that may even make the client a tad uncomfortable … which might be a good thing, serving to evolve the culture and communicate the message with resonance and relevance.

Or, maybe build specific teams to specific projects or campaigns.

A note on Relevance:

“To me, Pepsi is more than just a beverage. It registers as a pop culture icon and a lifestyle that shares a voice with the generation of today”

– Kendall Jenner

Speaking only from my own experience from teaming with Millennials / Generation Z / and those minds of prior generations who have remained active and current; the thinking behind the “I’m a Pepper” & “Pepsi Generation”-type ad campaigns (1977 and 1963, respectively) is just plain out of date. People aren’t interested in being identified as part of a legion loyal to a high-fructose soft drink; that doesn’t symbolize anything for which these individuals might stand. They certainly aren’t defined by it.

As was explored and articulated in August’s “An Emerging Market for StoryCrafters and Opportunity for Business Leaders”, people – especially those below 40 – are not interested in being a part of a “sponsored” generation.

Rather, today’s Millennials, Millennial-adjacent and Millennial-friendly thinkers want to be a part of and support something that makes a positive difference in the world. Health, fitness, sustainability, peace, equality, fairness; they will align with brands and products of integrity, conscience, authenticity.

A Protest Party Rave Parade full of Smiling Faces, Pretty Girls and Hot Cops ain’t gonna engage this audience.


So, How did this ad happen? 

One accomplished principal in this industry, Jim McDonald of SuperString Theory, offered this opinion:

“…bunch of us have been commenting as to whether a big issue with the tone deaf nature of this spot was the result of it being created by their internal agency, Creators League Studio. I argue that part of the rising problem with creativity in US is a lack of courage. 

They want epic, but not willing to be authentic. Outside agencies, in an effort to keep the account from flipping, bend to the will of the client who want “big” but not “real”. The Agency has a harder and harder time telling the client, “No, that will suck.” 

Then the rise of the internal agency, spawned from cost-cutting, has no backbone to push back to their bosses and say, “Wow! that will really suck!” So you get this sh*t. We are at a crossroad in the creative fields…”

Perhaps go Bespoke. Look further afield.

There is a vast, worldwide cornucopia of storytelling artists, designers, experience architects and messaging professionals from which a specifically-qualified and talented team can be cherry-picked to specific corporate cultures, brands, products, budgets and audiences.

Look to theatre, theme parks, talented individuals who create entertainment experience in other contexts. Bring them in and add them to your team(s) on a project basis. They bring real-world experience to your table, are able to refresh the talent on your team, offer perspectives unforeseen, challenge what may be conventional with approaches that can re-define and evolve what is being created to reach further and last longer to greatly extended value-life.

Well worth exploring is the global network of creative professionals that is the Themed Entertainment Association. Hundreds of writers, designers, composers and producers with experience from all over the world in myriad contexts – most all with experiences of having parachuted into one culture after another and have developed superb sensitivities to the cultures for which they create – are a part of this group.

And then, there’re the New Kids

Beyond the Broadways and Hollywoods and not to be overlooked are such institutions as the Savannah College of Art & Design, Carnegie Mellon, CalArts, virtually any university or college art or theatre or dance department. There is something solid to be said for bringing-in the unrestrained imagination that is coupled with a responsibility and commitment to the planet. This is a consciousness that seems to manifest more universally in the current wave of 20-somethings; offering experience in the realities of the work we do while embracing the untempered points of view and perspective.

Pair young people like that with experienced producers and let the collaboration begin. Learning flowing both ways in the context or creating the message and experience will likely yield the brilliant and new.

In My Humble Opinion, a recipe for the most effective success is the augmenting of what may exist in-house with those of disparate, successful experience from outside along with a fresh-out-of-the-box mind or two to explore and create the messaging.


IMHO: Creating Compelling Experience is a free download from iTunes or the iBook store.