Super Angst

Every year the pressure builds as Pepsi tries to produce the most popular ads on television. In 1993, the stakes are higher than ever for client, agency BBDO and director Joe Pytka. In an exclusive behind-the-scenes report, Betsy Sharkey documents the creative process of making ads for TV’s biggest audience.
It’s high noon on the first day of shooting the new package of Pepsi-Cola ads that will break on the Super Bowl next Sunday. Things are running well behind schedule this Monday in late October: Nothing quite clicks, and without momentum, tension comes in waves that sound like nervous laughter. This is how these shoots always begin, says one BBDO creative, as he chews on nails already bitten to the quick. Hours later, an elaborate set for a wedding reception, which will be a mere two-second flash in one of the new Pepsi ads, is hastily constructed on Sound Stage 8 at The Culver Studio, a few miles from Venice Beach, where the production will move the next day.
When the wedding scene finally unfolds that night, director Joe Pytka begins framing his shots. An image of 93-year-old Herman Finberg, sitting at a table distractedly nursing his Pepsi while party-goers whirl on a dance floor behind him, flickers across the monitor. Ted Sann, BBDO vice chairman/executive creative director and Don Schneider, senior vp/creative director, who are watching the monitor, start playing around with an idea. What if they gave Finberg a Coke to sip on? It might make for a short, funny bit they can use somewhere in the series of three commercials being shot this week. ‘It’s a cheap shot,’ says Sann. ‘Let’s take it.’
As the camera rolls, that random moment sparks a creative chain reaction fueled by instinct, a from-the-gut feeling that this might turn into something. It does – an entirely new ad, with Finberg as the unlikely star, in a spot that takes direct aim at competitor Coca-Cola.
That the spot exists at all is a testament to the system institutionalized by BBDO chairman/ceo Phil Dusenberry to insure that creativity does not get lost in the corridors of the giant agency. The New York office of BBDO has billings of about $750 million that come from such corporate heavy-weights as PepsiCo, General Electric, Visa, Gillette and Du Pont. Despite the agency’s size, Dusenberry has devised a remarkably fluid mechanism for sculpting advertising. Essentially, the agency is constructed as if there were 10 or so separate, small advertising shops, instead of just one large one. All of the creative teams are overseen by either Sann or Charlie Miesmer, the agency’s other vice chairman/executive creative director. The arrangement allows for radical changes in direction, for on-the-spot invention, for less second-guessing, for what Dusenberry calls ‘terrific accidents’ like the Finberg spot.
Throughout the week, along with shooting the three scheduled Pepsi ads, new scenes are designed for Finberg as the idea for the spot takes shape. He goes from the wedding to the beach, transformed from an ancient Coke-drinker a heartbeat away from eternity into a Pepsi-drinking surfer complete with an ‘Eat, Surf, Die’ T-shirt. The ad finally coalesces one night in an editing room when a collective of sleep-deprived people come up with copylines that give just the right spin to the images: ‘Some people we get at 16 . . . others, we have to wait a little longer.’
Although most aspects of the campaign had been laid out long before the creative team got to Los Angeles, at BBDO nothing is static, even for a huge client like Pepsi. Ideas are treated like amoebas – they are expected to keep dividing and mutating as they develop. ‘We never stop trying to take it to a different level,’ says Sann from an editing room phone literally 12 days before the Super Bowl. He and other BBDO creatives are still massaging the ads. Only two weeks ago, they added an entirely new twist to one spot, taking what had been just voiceover and casting a professor type to give the voice a visual context. They rushed to film the newly recruited actor, then intercut his scenes throughout the spot.
As conceived by creative teams at BBDO, the new series of spots required a massive number of vignettes that could be spliced together, often at warp speed, with narrative and music. The campaign is one of opposites, playing images and text off of each other, then weaving them back together in an intricate dance. The ‘Gotta Have It’ line, introduced by Pepsi last year, is also being pumped up with a new mantra to the Pepsi attitude: Be Young. Have Fun. Drink Pepsi.
The stakes are particularly high this year. BBDO has a legacy of creating Pepsi ads that capture the imagination and fuse with popular culture, as they did with Ray Charles’ ‘Uh Huh! You got the right one ba-by’ for Diet Pepsi. Pepsi’s ads ranked as the most popular ones on TV in 1990 and 1991, as measured by Video Storyboard Tests; Pepsi also has made the Top 10 list every quarter since the late ’70s (McDonald’s is the only other advertiser to do so). As a result of this success, BBDO is essentially pressed to top itself year after year. The client will be shelling out some $8 million to debut its ads on the Super Bowl, a hefty slice of the nearly $200 million that will be spent through the year to promote its various cola brands. Stretching the nerves even tighter, these Pepsi ads will go up against the best that Hollywood has to offer: The first campaign conceived and executed by the powerful Creative Artists Agency for Coca-Cola will be launched later this spring.
The blueprint for the 1993 Pepsi spots began last spring, when management at the client, headed by Craig Weatherup, president/ceo of Pepsi North America, outlined the company’s strategy. In broad strokes, the ‘Gotta Have It’ line introduced last year was a statistical success – consumers again rated all Pepsi advertising among their Top 10 favorites. But the campaign, which replaced the ‘Choice of a New Generation’ theme that had worked so well since Michael Jackson and the Pepsi Generation began in the early ’80s, took some of the edge off of Pepsi’s long-held position as owning the ‘young and hip’ franchise. The client wanted to get that back. ‘We’re strong, but that isn’t enough,’ Weatherup told Pepsi bottlers when he unveiled the new ads in mid-November and explained the refocused strategy. ‘Look at IBM, GM, Sears – they haven’t made it. Why? You must have a clear vision, have the capability, and the nerve to pull the trigger.’
Weatherup is willing to pull the trigger, as is BBDO’s Dusenberry. ‘On Pepsi, the kill rate is high,’ Dusenberry says. ‘For every spot we go to the client with, we’ve probably killed nine other spots. We’re selective about what we show, and we don’t try to kill them with poundage.’
The creative system at BBDO, refined over time, is designed to protect the fragile creative process, although not fragile egos. Rejection, Dusenberry says, is part of the game at the agency, which he concedes deserves its reputation as a sweatshop. Intense competition among small, mobile creative teams is blended with an almost complete lack of bureaucracy within the agency. Creative and strategic review boards no longer exist, dropped by Dusenberry to help eliminate the mediocrity that plagued BBDO’s work in the ’70s. ‘The best way is to get the work out of someone’s computer and into the hands of a client,’ says Dusenberry. Indeed, while the account side manages BBDO accounts, a direct link between creative teams and the client is nurtured by the agency. ‘We don’t and they don’t have layers of people,’ says Marina Hahn, Pepsi’s director of advertising, who in jeans, T-shirt and a ponytail looks like she could be in Pepsi ads as easily as overseeing them. ‘The advertising department at Pepsi handles the process, and the better part of my day is spent in liaison with the agency. And top management (at Pepsi) talks to top management at BBDO, so the work isn’t diluted.’ Hahn doesn’t merely drop by Pepsi shoots, she spends hours there. ‘A lot happens,’ she says. ‘A lot of decisions are being made every day.’ Because the work is not shrouded in mystery and clients are made a part of the process, they seem to trust the agency. That translates into a latitude to experiment at any point along the way, from concept to commercial.
Of the three spots BBDO came to Los Angeles with, two were created by Sann, who has headed the Pepsi account since 1983, and Schneider, on the account for the last five years. The third spot was conceived by senior vice president/group creative head David Freeman, a copywriter, and art director Ron Taylor, senior vice president/group creative head. (Three other spots for brand Pepsi, created by Todd Godwin and C.J. Waldman, were filmed later.) The first couple of days were relatively excruciating for Taylor and Freeman because nothing for their spot, ‘That’s Life,’ was being shot. It was also the first time they’d worked with director Pytka. At 6’5′, with his unruly mane of long blond hair, a sometimes acerbic temperament and a strongly personal artistic vision, Pytka is a presence not easily tampered with. Freeman and Taylor have watched him give a caustic assessment of the relative IQs of Sann and Schneider; scream about how cheap the agency is; storm off the set in the middle of shooting a scene to work out his frustrations on a makeshift basketball court; patently refuse to shoot other shots; and deliver absolutely exquisite film at the end of the day that has everyone psyched.
For Pytka, the brief emotional thunderstorms are part of his creative process. In the midst of what often seems a cross between iconoclastic rage and sheer indifference, he takes the problem of the moment, dissects it, then finds a way to shoot it that will give the agency what it wants, and a bit more. ‘You have a story to tell,’ says Pytka, ‘and you have to understand the vocabulary of the process. Most stories stripped down to the basics aren’t that interesting. Your vocabulary is the actors, the sets.’ Over the years, Sann and Pytka have developed a rhythm to their relationship that is played out day after day on the shoot. ‘Ted will give you in a quick phrase, a point of view about what the punchline is,’ says Pytka. ‘Once you have that, you understand how to get there.’
Sann essentially has learned to make room for Pytka’s style. Pytka’s requisite excesses, in everything from temper to experimentation with endless different technical styles, has been an integral part of Pepsi’s commercial success from the early days with Michael Jackson to the recent Ray Charles series. Sann, however, is a quiet force on the set, an understated counterpoint to Pytka. If Sann wants a specific shot, he won’t leave it alone until he has it. In a flannel shirt and jeans that have seen years of wear, he and Schneider spend the days moving between the monitor and Pytka in a frame-by-frame analysis of what is being shot. Their dialogue sounds a lot like the bizarre discussions Jerry and George have each week on the TV show Seinfeld. One second they’ll be debating whether the food used for a particular scene looks more like road-kill in a blanket (Schneider’s assessment) or, as Sann supposes, possum tarts. The next, they’re evaluating whether the narrator of one spot should be a kid or an old, Pat Paulsen-type.
The spot, ‘How You Spend Your Life,’ takes a numbers approach, with a narrator detailing how the average person spends his life – among other things, 24.5 years sleeping, 2.4 years in the bathroom, 3.2 years listening to boring lectures. During the first days of the shoot, a kid had been cast to handle the narrative. ‘Just for the hell of it, we decided to have an older, boring person read,’ says Schneider a few days later. ‘Casting starts to bring a script to life. We loved the kid, but we see other things coming out with the older guy.’ Although the general consensus is that they’ll use the older actor, Pytka shoots it both ways. By the time the shoot wraps, the agency creatives have come full circle, opting to use the kid instead.
In large part, such decisions come down to how something finally plays on the screen. The idea of the narrator strolling through the ad, intercut with images of sleeping, eating, bathrooms and lectures on ‘the aquatic dung beetle,’ has evolved, too. The kid, whose clothes are classic grunge set off by Pat Riley-styled slicked back hair, now contemplates the nature of life and time in an overstuffed chair unearthed by set designer Geoffrey Kirkland, whose credits include Midnight Express and Fame. The scene is filmed not on a set but an expanse of Venice Beach on a cold, hazy day. Somehow the complete incongruity of it all works.
‘We grab moments as they happen,’ says Schneider. ‘What allows you to do that is having a strong idea, then you have more options while you’re shooting.’ Pepsi is estimated to spend about $500,000 on its top-line spots, building into the budget the ability to maneuver through the unexpected.
Tuesday and Wednesday have been set aside to shoot beach scenes that will form many of the images that will be laced throughout all three ads. What BBDO wants to capture in these shots is the Pepsi attitude. ‘We’re looking for our version of what’s young, cool and hip,’ says Sann. ‘That doesn’t have to do with being good-looking; it’s a kid with some character and attitude.’ The BBDO team along with Pytka spend downtime on the set going through tape after tape of teenagers. There are hundreds of Polaroids of kids tacked up on a series of bulletin boards. About 60 are told to show up at Venice Beach for the Tuesday shoot. Everyone is hoping for typically sunny Southern California weather. What they get instead is a confrontation between the front edge of a hurricane blowing up from Mexico and a major storm system moving down the coast from San Francisco. Tuesday goes from hazy to threatening, and by the end of the day, a series of beach scenes set for Wednesday are in jeopardy.
Bad weather would be a disaster. There is no room in the shooting schedule, either BBDO’s or Pytka’s. The day after the Pepsi shoot is set to end, Pytka is due halfway across the country to start directing another campaign for another agency. And BBDO has to take thousands of feet of film back to an editing house in New York and turn it into finished ads in time for the Pepsi bottlers convention in Scottsdale, Ariz., less than two weeks away.
Rains drive them inside on Wednesday. The stage looks like a patchwork quilt in the making: sets being built, others being torn down, thick coils of power cords snaking across the floor. Except for the dozen or so actors who are meandering around the stage waiting for their call, there is an undercurrent of urgency among the crew and the agency. They get a few scenes out of the way, but time is running out.
On Thursday the crew moves to Colonial Street on the backlot of Universal Studios to shoot most of ‘That’s Life.’ Packed tour buses circle past the shoot hour after hour. Bees cut everyone’s lunch short. Finally Freeman and Taylor are seeing their ad shot. At times the pace is deadly – progress seems to come a frame at a time – but once again the film looks good and, remarkably, they are making up for lost time. The spot visually tracks a kid through his adult life as he imagines it, including ‘wife, kids, barbecue with the in-laws, bowl on Wednesdays, kiss a little butt at the office, make middle management, retire to Miami, buy some white shoes and pants that come up to my chest and complain about the government full-time.’ The main sight gag of the spot is that while everyone else around him ages, our hero remains a curly-haired 13-year-old with a baseball cap. Nevertheless, hours are spent trying to milk the visual impact of each scene. To go along with ‘kiss a little butt at the office,’ a number of scenarios are proposed. But having the kid say, ‘Nice tie, sir,’ as he passes his boss plays best. The shoot wraps on Saturday, a day late. This is, says the nail-biting creative, how it always ends. But the process actually is far from over.
Two weeks later, more than 1,500 Pepsi bottlers and their spouses have gathered in Scottsdale, Ariz. at The Phoenician, a 130-acre luxury resort built at the base of Camelback Mountain. It rises out of the desert north of Phoenix as a monument to what was perhaps Charles Keating’s grandest and most outrageous S&L scheme. Seminars, exhibits and strategy sessions have been liberally broken up by desert trips and time for golf, tennis or a dip in one of the seven pools that stretch, like a liquid football field, below the resort’s terrace. As night falls, a band floating on a barge in the man-made lake and an open bar make the long wait for photo sessions with the Uh Huh! girls easier.
The BBDO creative teams are exhausted. They have pulled a string of all-nighters editing the spots into reasonably good shape. But on Saturday night, at the close of the convention, the spots will face their first real public test. Bottlers are a tough audience, and over the years Pepsi has built in high expectations for its advertising. As Weatherup says in an interview later that night, ‘We are our advertising. At Pepsi, it is no secondary issue.’
After dinner, Weatherup warms up the group with a brief pep talk that closes with the warning, ‘The ’90s owe us nothing. We have to do the changing, we have to accelerate the rate of change or pay the price. Is our speed of change too fast or too slow? I just don’t know. What I do know is that you can correct things if you’re going too fast, but not if you’re going too slow. As Wayne Gretzky says, ‘You miss 100% of the shots you never take.’ ‘ It is the right setup for ads that hammer away at the Pepsi image with a precision not seen last year. There are Diet Pepsi spots; ads that will launch Pepsi’s new clear cola, Crystal, set to the Van Halen hit ‘Right Now’ and shot by Bob Dylan’s son, director Jesse Dylan; a series of high-energy Mountain Dew and Diet Dew ads; and seven spots for the flagship Pepsi brand. By the time the house lights go up, the bottlers’ applause is thunderous.
Late that night, after a Ray Charles concert that closes with the Diet Pepsi song, Weatherup is lingering in the corridor outside the banquet hall. He is pleased with the ads but not yet satisfied. ‘I’m happy, but we have some work to do,’ he says. ‘But we also have a real focus.’
Usually there is only a week between the bottlers’ convention and the Super Bowl. Sann can’t decide if he’s comfortable with the extra four weeks yet. ‘There’s an intensity I like when you’re facing that kind of deadline,’ he says. But the weeks become an ally. Refinements and additions are made that time normally wouldn’t allow.
In New York, Dusenberry moves in and out of the process. He and Sann and Schneider hashed out the line ‘Be Young. Have Fun. Drink Pepsi.’ together in the late spring. He’s handling the voiceover for a couple of the spots. He works through some of the editing sessions. ‘Phil has a very acute eye,’ says Pytka. ‘He doesn’t have to look at a spot for hours to identify what needs to be done. When we did the Madonna stuff, he came in and made a fantastic suggestion for a couple of cuts in a complicated spot that made a real difference.’
But the agency chairman tries to tread lightly. ‘I’m like an extra hand on a tiller at a critical time in the development of a campaign,’ says Dusenberry. ‘I never insinuate myself into the process just for my own jollies.’ In fact, Dusenberry works hard to keep his contribution in perspective. ‘I burn my own stuff as quickly as someone else’s,’ he says. The transition one of the new ads underwent is a case in point. In ‘Smiling,’ a sociologist muses about the serious ’90s. As he spins out theories of introspection, moderation and the return to ‘quiet elegance,’ the camera grabs kids in various states of excess, cranking up the speed to the point a pizza is single-handedly devoured by one teenager in a three-second blur. The closing scene captures one kid body-surfing across a huge crowd on a beach while the professor offers, ‘Hey, a lot of research went into this.’ Initially, the ad was conceived as pure visuals of kids with the professor relegated to a voiceover – using Dusenberry himself as the voice. But in the editing process, the creative team became convinced there had to be a visual to go with the ‘voice.’ New footage was shot and Dusenberry’s voice was dropped from what had been a finished ad only three weeks earlier.
Like Dusenberry, who joined BBDO in 1962, most of the people in the creative department are home-grown. Sann and Miesmer have both been at the agency for two decades, starting in their mid-20s and rising through the ranks. The department, which consists of only about 80 people (120 when the producing staff is included in the count), is small by most standards, and the relationships are close and intimate. As a result, BBDO has had mixed success bringing in top creative talent from the outside. It is a culture that is not easy to break into if you weren’t raised there, as outsiders who came and went, such as Lee Garfinkel, Mike Becker and Irwin Warren, found out.
‘Occasionally we’ve had to go to the outside for creative talent,’ says Dusenberry. ‘Sometimes the fit isn’t right, and we’ve made some mistakes in the past. But we’ve also been fortunate in recruiting people like Michael Patti (executive vice president/senior creative director) and Ted Shane (senior vice president/senior creative director). You have to find someone who can fit in with your culture. If they can learn that culture, they can become a part of it.’ Patti helped shape the launch campaign for Crystal, Pepsi’s new clear cola, which will break in January. Ted Shane, only two months in an official capacity at BBDO after five months as a consultant, says it already feels like coming home. ‘It’s the kind of intense, creative, competitive environment that I experienced years ago at DDB,’ he says. ‘So it doesn’t feel foreign.’
As much as Dusenberry’s personal style and the system he put in place have been keys to BBDO’s creative success, they raise the question of what happens post-Phil. The 56-year-old Dusenberry has been at the top since 1980 to backstop the work and to allow for creative tension. Succession is one of the most sensitive issues at the agency, one that everyone, including Dusenberry, declines to discuss publicly. Inside BBDO, there is much speculation about whether the two separate-but-equal factions headed by Sann and Miesmer could continue without Dusenberry. If either were promoted, would the other remain content? And would BBDO suffer if someone were brought in from the outside to take over Dusenberry’s role? It’s clearly a dilemma, one that even Dusenberry hasn’t quite figured out how to resolve. The closest Dusenberry will come to framing BBDO’s future is to say, ‘We’re deep in talent, not just the names you know or hear, but beneath those top levels are some young up-and-comers who are going to be the stars of tomorrow.’
Tomorrow will hold for a bit. For the moment, Pepsi dominates the creative department’s attention. Less than a week before the Super Bowl, BBDO is still deciding which Pepsi spots from the new pool will end up airing during the four minutes of time bought during the game. There is also consideration being given to taking a couple of the spots and dropping them into adjacent, pre- or post-game time slots. ‘Up to a point, you’re looking at these ads as individual ads,’ says Sann. ‘Now we’re looking at them as a package, how one will play against the other, how they’ll play together and what’s the best combination.’
Sann will follow a Super Bowl tradition and head over to a friend’s house where a group gathers to watch the game. Some are in advertising, some are not. ‘I’ll be in a sort of panic,’ he says. ‘Part of me will be watching the game and part of me will be watching for everyone’s reaction to the ads. It’s tense.’ Dusenberry got his yearly invitations from clients to join them at the game, and once again he turned them down. ‘I prefer to stay at home and watch it in my own living room,’ he says. ‘See our spots, see the other new work. It is the Super Bowl of advertising, too. It all comes down to this.’
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)

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