You feel bad.
What happens when you lose an important, large client?
You feel worse.
What happens when you lose a client for whom you have worked for over four decades, done work that has pushed the brand to the next level of visibility and won every conceivable award for the work done for the brand?
A part of you dies.
I guess that is how BBDO must be feeling as it has lost the Pepsi account in North America to TBWA / Chiat Day which is part of the same Omnicom network. I am not going to sit here in India and make conjectures about what happened or make inane statements such as “You win clients with great creative and lose it by poor servicing”. But I am definitely going to talk about some of the outstanding work done for Pepsi over the years and relive the pleasure I got watching it not so much as a consumer but as an advertising professional who observed the work, always with a sense of wonder and at times with a touch of envy.
I spent five years in RK Swamy BBDO which was a part of the Omnicom group and six years with Mudra, also part of the Omnicom group, and whatever else I did in these two agencies I got to see some of the finest work produced for two brands – Pepsi by BBDO and Volkswagen by DDB Needham, both of which left a profound impression on me. But it’s Pepsi time right now.
If you were to characterise Pepsi advertising over the years, it would be pretty simple. It is for the young and the young at heart. Way back in 1964, when Bobby Simpson’s Australians were retaining the Ashes, the Pepsi line was ‘Come alive, you’re in the Pepsi generation’. The famous line ‘Pepsi. The choice of a new generation’ came in 1984. It would return in 1990. A few years later came ‘Generation Next’. But whatever the tag line the brand featured some of the most memorable ads targeted at youth that I have seen and I know that I probably am not being objective about it as I am neither young nor a Pepsi drinker, but what the heck, even I am entitled to my view.
While there were several commercials that I can remember and will write about, the one I liked most was created specifically for the Super Bowl. It featured an archaeology professor explaining to his students how people lived in an earlier generation and age. He describes a baseball as a “spherical object that they used to hurl at each other while others watched” and an electric guitar as something that “produced excruciatingly loud noises” and when one of the students unearths a dusty Coke bottle and asks him what it is, the foxed professor has a blank expression on his face and says “I have no idea”. It was cheeky, irreverent, in your face if you will, but Pepsi all the way.
Many brands use celebrities. Some, such as Pepsi, have used it to great effect and while there are several that I can recall let me mention a few. Perhaps the one I recall most was the one in an apartment where a beautiful woman knocks and asks for a diet Pepsi leading Michael J. Fox to climb down the fire escape, vault over cars, move heaven and earth to get a bottle of diet Pepsi only to find another beautiful woman coming into the apartment and asking for a diet Pepsi too. In case you recall, the same commercial was done in India with Aamir Khan, who later switched camps and bottles. But even this paled in comparison with the commercial for Michael Jackson, who was top of the pops then. The commercial, based on his own hit song Billie Jean was another smash hit, featuring more of his $10,000 diamond-studded glove and glares than it did his face! But boy, did it work! Another personal favourite was Cindy Crawford’s ‘Pepsi deprivation test’ where she grandiosely claims that she will do anything for science! She goes into isolation camp for a month and is deprived of her favourite Pepsi, comes out a month later asking for a Pepsi. The only difference is that the person who comes out of deprivation is the portly comedian Rodney Dangerfield!
Chiat Day, the agency which later became TBWA, is probably familiar with losing business despite doing great work for clients. Their ‘1984’ commercial for Apple was a landmark one, perhaps setting the trend for blockbuster commercials created specifically for the huge event in American sporting and viewing history. And ironically when John Sculley took over Apple computers from Steve Jobs he moved the account to BBDO, an agency that had done pathbreaking work in Sculley’s Pepsi days. When Chiat Day lost the business it had reason to be shattered and yet had the grace to release an ad with the headline, ‘Thanks Apple, seriously’. I wonder how many advertising agencies would have the courage to actually release an ad thanking the client who sacked them, for having given them an opportunity to produce great work. Most of them, I suspect, would quietly bury themselves in the sand.
Some of the greatest ads that Pepsi did, in my opinion, at least, were those that cheekily knocked its rival Coke. The first one that I remember featured the famous singer MC Hammer who is belting away his fast numbers to a packed, raving audience when someone changes his Pepsi for a Coke. The singer resumes the performance and starts singing Frank Sinatra-style music. His audience is stunned till a kid has the presence of mind to hand him a glass of Pepsi which he guzzles thankfully and says “proper”. He goes back to his normal style of singing and the audience goes berserk. India too had a version of this featuring Akshay Kumar, in the days when the actor was neither as rich nor as famous as he is today.
Another comparison commercial features chimps, one of which keeps drinking Pepsi and another which thrives on Coke. The Coke-drinking chimp is predictable, boring even. At the end of the same experiment the Pepsi chimp is missing and is later found on the beach with a bevy of girls having a whale of time, clearly suggesting that while the Coke drinker is older and more staid, if not wiser, it is the Pepsi drinker who is having all the fun and is young and ‘with it’.
A more recent commercial featured two salesmen, one selling Coke and the other selling Pepsi who bump into each other at a restaurant, to the bemusement of the stewardesses. They make polite conversation, talk about how good the song which is playing is, till the big moment arrives. The Coke salesman pushes his can to the Pepsi salesman who has a swig surreptitiously and then slides his own can of Pepsi to him. Then the fun starts as the Coke salesman refuses to return the Pepsi can – so much does he like it!
Now as one agency prepares to hand over the ownership and passion to another agency, it is perhaps time to recall a few things. The agency which has handled the business for over four decades must be complimented (what a weak word) for carefully maintaining a tone of voice that represents what the brand essentially is — youthful, irreverent and continuing to be contemporary to generations of cola drinkers. And it is time to remember the client too who approved great work not just once but time and again. As they say it takes two to tango. Maybe BBDO could release an ad saying ‘Thank you Pepsi, seriously’.
(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)