Why Pepsi’s Commercial Was Not a Failure

The lesson to be learned from the Pepsi debacle where a Pepsi commercial managed to piss off just about everyone is that marketers of this size are not often in a position to fail so spectacularly. In doing so may have opened up the opportunity for other marketers to take more risks. Because in exactly seven days from now, no one will be talking about this and Pepsi will have learned a valuable lesson about process. In a tone-deaf Pepsi Commerical where they managed to piss off everyone from Black Lives Matter to police officers, this equal-opportunity offender showed that quickly producing and executing content can be scary – but at the speed the internet moves these days, it’s better to be wrong and apologize quickly than focused grouped to death over 9 months of “process” and be average.

How did Pepsi get here?

A little background. I worked on Pepsi as an art director at BBDO in the 90s. They trusted the agency and were the only client who didn’t even come to micromanage us in commercial shoots. During the Great Recession, Pepsi discovered some billing discrepancies that had them move the account to another agency for the first time in their history. When I worked there, it was pretty common that Pepsi was our cash cow and if another client couldn’t pay for printouts, or some services, we’d find a Pepsi job number to bury it in. Need comps for Visa? Bill it to Pepsi. Junior art director needs to print his portfolio out? Pepsi paid for it. With revenues down and other clients cutting budgets, it’s no doubt this became exacerbated and it all caught up to them. It’s no surprise that Pepsi doesn’t trust their ad agency. Combine that with how much money and time it takes an agency to come up with an idea and produce it, who wouldn’t want to try to go in-house?

The key ingredients of the spot are pretty much the same as any of the ones they did with a big agency. A celebrity who probably doesn’t really drink Pepsi, lots of borrowed interest, and high production value. What they missed is the cultural nuance: people are protesting in America right now because they are legitimately angry for a number of reasons. Trivializing it by saying either sugary water is the key to racial harmony or “why don’t we stop complaining and have a Pepsi” or whatever they were trying to do there. The point is, if it wasn’t for the baggage of what they were parodying, it’s the same middling creative effort your average ad agency will give you day after day after day.
So when a lot of my creative friends in agencies responded with “see, that’s why you need your agency to be the adult in the room to kill something like this.” I’m reminded that these are the same people who would literally shit in their own hand and film it as a commercial for Pizza Hut if they thought the client was stupid enough to run it and it would win them a Cannes Gold Lion.

We’re past the age of bullshit where clients were willing to pay for fancy offices, expensive talent whose focus on any brand is part-time, require a convoluted “approval process” for the sake of running up more hours and showing that there’s a “process” to what essentially boils down to “uhhh…you know what would be cool….if we got a celebrity who is really hot right now and they did something funny with the product like in this meme here…”

It’s really not that hard to find the same talent, sick of big agency politics to sit at Pepsi and write the same stuff. Over on the Talent Zoo blog, Dan Goldgeier correctly cites the lack of client-agency tension as a culprit. But it might also be more efficient to have occasional brand-consumer tension while churning out a lot more work to understand the types of creative that resonate. A happy medium is you find a strategic consultant who puts the guardrails in place and makes suggestions for improvements but without sacrificing speed.

Our clients at MGC are too small to pay for all this process – so instead of having an “approval process” we create a “permission process.” We are free to post on our client’s behalf, under guidelines like “don’t wish people a Happy Pearl Harbor Day.” We can count on our hand the number of times a collective 40 clients in 2 years have said “could you please take that down.” None of those cases caused an outcry, cost us the business, got anyone fired or did anything that wasn’t forgotten a day later.

Which is where we’ll be with Pepsi in about a week and they’ll have a greater sense of what doesn’t work and less of a need for an expensive ad agency than ever.