Diet Pepsi Defense Has BBDO’s Legacy At Stake

When David Lubars presents ideas today to save Diet Pepsi, it’s not just the $35 million account that’s at stake.

The newcomer will be defending BBDO’s standing as the definitive agency for Pepsi brands. And it’s also his first chance to demonstrate that he is a worthy successor to Ted Sann—the man who, under the tutelage of Phil Dusenberry for three decades, helped define Pepsi as a pop-culture icon, which in turn built the agency’s creative reputation.

“They value continuity,” one source said of Purchase, N.Y.-based PepsiCo, which has used BBDO for Diet Pepsi for 40 years. “Their mentality is that BBDO has to prove itself all over again. Lubars is an untested property.”

Sann was unceremoniously dismissed in June. Lubars, 45, arrived in New York as BBDO’s new North America chief creative officer in early September, fresh from Publicis Groupe’s Fallon in Minneapolis. Later that month, Diet Pepsi became a jump ball for BBDO and other Omnicom Group shops.

It is also critical that BBDO hang onto the Diet Pepsi account to keep a tight grip on the business.

When asked whether the company is considering soliciting ideas on other brands that BBDO handles, such as Mountain Dew, Sierra Mist and Aquafina, client representative Nicole Bradley said, “Not at this time.” She added that it has not been determined if the Diet Pepsi account would move if another shop’s campaign idea is selected.

And Lubars doesn’t just have to prove himself; he has to do so against formidable opposition—namely, Lee Clow and Lee Garfinkel, whose agencies are also in contention. Clow’s TBWA\Chiat\ Day in Playa del Rey, Calif., has done for Apple what BBDO did for Pepsi. And DDB’s Garfinkel had success on Diet Pepsi while at BBDO in the early 1990s. His most famous work was the Cindy Crawford commercial in which two young boys ogle the supermodel as she buys a Diet Pepsi from a vending machine.

Garfinkel also worked on Diet Coke when he was at Lowe in New York.

Sources said Pepsi execs have become especially enamored of Clow. They began working with him in July on the next Pepsi/iTunes campaign to break on the Super Bowl—an assignment that BBDO handled last year, but this time around, Apple CEO Steve Jobs is believed to have steered it toward Clow and TBWA.

Other reasons have been offered for the review of Diet Pepsi, none of which are centered around brand performance. “Diet Pepsi is doing beautifully,” said John Sicher, editor of Beverage Digest in Bedford Hills, N.Y. “It’s one of the strongest-growing Top 10 brands among carbonated soft drinks.”

Sicher said that although volume in the carbonated soft-drink category for the first nine months of 2004 is down 2.7 percent compared with the same time last year, Diet Pepsi volume is up 3.6 percent from the same period. Its chief rival, Diet Coke, is down 0.9 percent for the same period, Sicher said.

The client “is not in love with the work,” another source said, referring to the Diet Pepsi campaign that introduced the line, “It’s the diet cola,” from “Think young, drink young.” The work broke in March during the Academy Awards. One spot featured actor Jason Biggs overreacting to having consumed hot food. Another showed a dad watching sports as his wife gave birth.

“It’s not famous; it’s not being talked about,” the source added. “That’s what they’re looking for.”

Other sources said the client wants to send a message to BBDO about how Sann’s departure was handled—client execs learned about it from the press—and that the agency shouldn’t take the Pepsi relationship for granted.

BBDO declined comment, referring calls to Pepsi.