Pepsi’s CMO on key to improving client-agency relationships
Brands and agencies must “reframe” their relationship and “put the idea at the center of everything” in order to produce the most impactful work, said Todd Kaplan, CMO of Pepsi.
Reframing its own relationship with partner agency Alma DDB has been a “game changer” for the brand, Kaplan said, leading to a campaign launched last year that has become something of a “cultural phenomenon”.
“We have decided to reframe our dialogue and call ourselves co-conspirators,” Kaplan said, speaking at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity today (June 20).
“It really allowed us to problem-solve together as equals, to roll up our sleeves in the trenches, to really get into the good stuff… That simple reframing was really a game-changer for us. We went from buying to building, [and] from rounds to brainstorming.
However, it wasn’t until Pepsi discovered a “bold cultural vision” and paired it with an uninformed creative idea from Alma DDB that the brand and agency decided to “go under the hood”, allowing to take the “dynamic to a whole new level”.
Kaplan coined the term “collaborativeness” for this new level – collaboration plus creativity. The result was “Hidden Logos”, a campaign that resulted in a 29% increase in brand engagement.
It’s about rolling up your sleeves. Whatever company you work for, whatever your level, you deserve a seat at the table.
Todd Kaplan, Pepsi
After appealing to its agency partners for uninformed ideas, Alma DDB suggested finding hidden Pepsi logos in other brands’ logos, showcasing the variety of brands Pepsi associates with.
“Although we loved it, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. It was very broad, it had a lot of interesting areas and was creatively interesting, but it wasn’t really grounded in the areas we needed,” Kaplan said.
At the same time, new insights from Pepsi’s research and development team had just revealed that of all foods, the taste of Pepsi pairs best with hamburgers.
“There’s some science behind it all – the carbonation breaks down the fat in the burger, the citric acid brings out the flavor in meats and cheeses,” Kaplan explained.
A later study found that 60% of consumers preferred the taste of Pepsi with a burger to Coca-Cola, the brand’s main rival and market leader. As a result, Kaplan asked Alma DDB to apply their hidden logo idea to the burger category.
Although Alma DDB left and created the Pepsi logo in the logos of various burger chains, the campaign still lacked “a bit of creative tension,” Kaplan added.
“We knew we had to do something a little more daring and irreverent to really dig and refine the brief.”
Pepsi then identified that while consumers may prefer to eat hamburgers with Pepsi, the three major hamburger chains in the United States – McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s – only sell Coca-Cola.
“We knew we had finally extracted the right cultural truth and the right idea to really refine this and said, why don’t we come back with some footage around the three major burger chains.”
The idea was not without its challenges. As Kaplan struggled with lawyers and senior company executives, Alma DDB debated with fears it would anger McDonald’s, one of his other customers. Eventually, however, the campaign continued.
“We had a lot of fun with this campaign and literally ate our competitors lunch. We saw a massive increase in our association and regard for burgers…and generated massive buzz and engagement around the brand Kaplan said.
“[We] transformed a cultural insight into a cultural phenomenon.
Keys to go
Kaplan and Alma DDB Founder and President Luis Miguel Messianu identified five core lessons and principles from the process.
First, Pepsi established the value by issuing an open brief to its agencies to contribute “little nuggets of ideas” – although these must be consistent with brand positioning and “in service of a genuine brand and a cultural vision”.
“What’s great is that it really starts with a small idea, a one-line statement, but we can talk about it and if not we can throw it out quickly without too much unsubscribing,” Kaplan explained.
The second is to ensure that there is “no agenda” on either side of the relationship “overriding the idea itself”.
“We all work in service of the big idea and our job is to protect it at all costs within all of our organizations as it begins to iterate, build and grow. We have to make sure that good execution is always maintained throughout, to make sure everyone on both sides takes pride in the work at the end of the day.
The third and fourth lessons, according to Messianu, were “brutal and open transparency,” including honesty around concerns and conflicts with customers, as well as diverse thinking within teams.
Finally, Kaplan said “it’s about getting dirty”.
“It’s about rolling up your sleeves. Whatever company you work for, whatever your level, you deserve a seat at the table. So roll up your sleeves and get dirty, building the idea together. It is not this transactional relationship of buying and selling that is so toxic in our industry.
Kaplan and Messianu promised a positive “idea return” if these principles are implemented between a client and an agency, adding that the industry must “get back to the business of ideas” and leave behind “the idea of a business Services”.
“When you put the idea at the center of everything you do, amazing things can happen. It brings all the parts together and removes everything else,” Kaplan said.
“And when you embrace the power of collaboration, we are all better together, agency and client together.”