Pepsi Showed the Ultimate Downside of In-House Creative: A Lack of Perspective

Efficiency can come at the cost of awareness

Pepsi's Kendall Jenner ad showed that in-house creative teams can lack a wider sense of context.

I’ve made my share of tone deaf, ill-conceived spots in my 25-year advertising career, almost all of that time spent at agencies. So far be it from me to point a judgmental finger at the creatives who made the new Pepsi Kendall Jenner ad.

Mark Ray

But I do think Pepsi could have avoided a fiasco if they hadn’t brought the assignment in-house.

Full disclosure: I own an agency, and we’ve seen many of our clients consolidating substantial amounts of their creative work in-house. Which might make you think I have a chip on my shoulder about this. But you’d be wrong.

I have, for many years, advocated that much of a brand’s work should indeed be done in-house. There is an understanding of the brand and efficiency of execution that only comes when your job is to walk into the company and think about its brand every hour of every day.

Also, in-house creative departments will always beat agencies at knowing its internal, key account and core loyalist audiences better—especially as the media landscape has shifted rapidly from broad, impression-based traditional media to digital ecosystems where success or failure reports itself in real time. The multitudes of award-winning work done by brand creative teams is evidence of this, and the bottom-line results they create are proof.

But there is one major consideration about in the in-house model—and that is loss of perspective. When you walk in every day to the same corporate culture, you can’t help but get swallowed up, to varying degrees, by that culture. The politics, the worries about job security, the sheer number of meetings where the brand is necessarily exalted in the extreme—these take a toll.

'Someone let the holy grail of in-house efficiency blind them to what’s actually happening just outside their walls.'

And that toll is losing touch with the realities of your customers. The best agencies provide a vital role to their clients by representing the consumer’s needs. They remind a brand how to stay in touch with them, that some corporate cultures can become their own worst enemy in staying relevant.

Someone at Pepsi forgot this. Someone let the holy grail of in-house efficiency blind them to what’s actually happening just outside their walls.

So here we have a piece of film, with excellent production values, obviously created by talented people from a brief asking for deep cultural relevancy and impact. And yet it lacks any sense of reality, any insight into the human condition, any soul that makes you want to see it again and again. There’s a reason Coke’s I’d Like to Teach The World to Sing became a radio hit after its airing. This ad wanted to be Pepsi’s “Hilltop,” but it didn’t come close.

If I were doing a post-mortem with Pepsi’s in-house creatives, I would tell them to go home, have a glass of wine, or beer, or iced tea—anything but a Pepsi (just this once). Put this behind you, reconnect with the world, and get on with being the talented creatives you obviously are. We all have misfires.

As for everyone else, a little thoughtful and grounded perspective never hurts. Even for one of the world’s biggest brands.

Mark Ray is principal and chief creative officer at Portland, Ore.-based North (@north).