Sann and BBDO are used to being in a glaring spotlight with Pepsi, but in some ways the stakes are higher these days. Cola market experts say Pepsi has lost some ground to Coke of late, and the youth-oriented assault by Coke's new roster of agencies-including Chiat/Day, Wieden & Kennedy, Fallon McElligott and CAA-has helped Coke move onto Pepsi's sacred youth turf. At the same time, a slew of new age soft drinks like Snapple and Fruitopia have clearly targeted Genera
tion X, with some success. Hence it's more important than ever for Pepsi, and the 49-year-old Sann, to think young-at a time when some critics are questioning whether BBDO's Pepsi brain trust might be starting to show a few gray hairs. Says one insider: "The creative leadership here has been together for a couple of decades, and on Pepsi, a lot of the same work has been done by the same people for quite a while." The same baby-boom people, one might add. Twentysomethings who toil on the Pepsi account usually end up with twentynothing to show for it, more of which later.
But first, let's look at Mr. Pepsi. Sann has certainly been a key-if not the key-player on Pepsi, going back to the mid-'80s (he's worked at BBDO for more than 20 years, as have executive creative directors Charlie Miesmer and Al Merrin). And since being named the New York office's chief creative officer in mid-'93, taking over those duties from Phil Dusenberry, Sann's hands-on involvement in Pepsi work has not diminished. Along with 40-year-old Michael Patti, BBDO's executive creative director in charge of the Pepsi creative group, Sann has had a hand in the writing and production of much of the most high-profile Pepsi work of the last two years. Sann and Patti, working with art director Don Schneider, co-wrote "Summer of Love," the spot set at a Woodstock reunion; "Chimps" (in which a chimpanzee drinks Pepsi and ends up cavorting with babes in a dune buggy); and a couple of large Shaquille O'Neal spots, "Playground" and "Big Thirst." In addition, Sann supervised the creative team of Patti and Schneider on "Deprivation Tank," in which "Seinfeld" weirdo Michael Richards transforms Cindy Crawford into Rodney Dangerfield.
Sann believes that those spots-three of which were unveiled at last year's Super Bowl-are part of a recent slate of Pepsi work "that's as good as anything we've ever done on Pepsi." While there are those who may argue that these spots aren't quite knocking on the door of "Apartment 10G," the acclaimed Michael J. Fox Diet Pepsi opus of some years ago, "Playground" and "Summer of Love" did win Gold Lions at Cannes, while "Chimps" won a Bronze. And according to Video Storyboards, "Playground" was America's second most popular commercial last year. Patti sees the work as a return to a golden age of Pepsi advertising: "If you look at 'Shaq' and 'Woodstock,'*" he says, "it feels like the old days again."
While that may be debatable, even if it's true it may not be such a good thing, critics say. "At this point, when you look at the latest Shaquille O'Neal or Cindy Crawford spot, you get the feeling BBDO is chewing the same creative cud that's been around for a few years," says Bill Oberlander of Kirshenbaum & Bond. That observation may not be far off the mark: According to one source close to the agency, both "Chimps" and "Deprivation Tank" were rehashes of old scripts that had been written but never produced a couple of years earlier. (Sann says the spots may have incorporated some ideas from earlier scripts, but were nevertheless "fresh.")
In any case, the ads have a certain creakiness to them, as do others inthe recent Pepsi batch. "Chimps" echoes Patti's "Missing Link" chimp commercial from four years earlier, while the Shaq playground spot plays off the famous "Mean Joe Greene" Coke commercial (unintentionally, according to Patti) from a quarter-century ago; the sensibility is updated, with a wiseguy kid instead of a worshipful one, but not by much. Even "Summer of Love," though buoyed by Joe Pytka's energetic direction, seems years late in its skewering of the hippie culture. And in "Deprivation Tank," the hip Richards comes off looking like an unfunny Jerry Lewis, while the anachronistic Dangerfield looks almost dead.
Some creatives within BBDO feel Pepsi's broad humor could use some narrowing in the '90s. With the preponderance of big stars, cute chimps and slick production values, the recent Pepsi spots "feel like they're stuck in the '70s," says Gary Goldsmith of Goldsmith/Jeffrey. "It's kind of like the Johnny Carson of advertising-but everybody else has moved on to David Letterman."
That's a particularly salient point given that Pepsi's youth turf has been under siege. While Coke's MTV-style work from CAA has gotten mixed reviews in the ad business (Sann dismisses them as "billboards," strong on visuals but "lacking an idea"), market observers rate the spots as very successful. According to Beverage Digest newsletter, Coke Classic's market share rose slightly last year to 20.1 percent while Pepsi's declined from 18 to 17.7 percent. "Coke has come back to life and that's partly due to the advertising," says Tom Pirko, president of Bevmark, a beverage industry consulting firm. (A BBDO spokesperson, however, claims that Pepsi's internal research shows the company has pulled even with Coke in market share.)
When asked whether BBDO's Pepsi work is in danger of losing its hipness, Dusenberry counters that the agency's straightforward storytelling style is both timeless and ageless. "If you look at what has been the spine of Pepsi work, such as a commercial like 'Shady Acres,' there's a humanity, a sense of humor, that appeals to all ages," he says, referring to the classic spot in which the frat house gets the Coke and the retirement home gets the Pepsi and the obvious occurs. Still, Pepsi has always targeted the youth market; is there a risk that the sensibilities of Sann and Patti may be getting too old for the Pepsi generation? "That suggests you have to be young to write for Pepsi, which isn't true," Dusenberry responds. But he adds: "We are sensitive to having a young feel to the work, and our young people are vocal about that-they're the first to tell us if something doesn't feel right."
But this raises a question: Why aren't younger creatives at the agency, of which there are many, actually writing the Pepsi ads, instead of consulting? The agency did produce a couple of spots from younger creative teams last year, including Diet Pepsi's "Cog in the Wheel," written by Barton Landsman. The spot is part of a distinctly Gen X-targeted campaign that equates the decision to "settle" for a Diet Coke to opting for a life as a miserable failure, a wage slave toiling in the bowels of the infernal machine (many Gen Xers wish they could be so lucky). But most of the other work was from the considerably more upbeat Sann and Patti. "It seems like the agency uses the kids primarily just to generate additional ideas on Pepsi and to get a window on what's hot and new," says headhunter Sandy Berger of Berger Jacobs Kozuck. Several younger creatives who have left cited the difficulty in getting their work produced as one of the key reasons for leaving. Says copywriter Justin Rohrlich, now at Goldsmith/Jeffrey, "I enjoyed my time there, but it was time to go somewhere where I could get the work done." Another former BBDO creative refers to the young talent at the agency as "fodder," adding, "I'm not sure what the point is. They put 20 teams on Pepsi, but it's always the same three guys who win out."
"I've heard that complaint," Dusenberry responds. "I think our senior creatives want their younger people to succeed; they don't want them to lose their enthusiasm. But you have to remember, those senior people happen to be first-rate talents, so naturally, if they come up with a great idea, it's going to be tough for a younger person to compete."
Dusenberry refers to Sann and Patti as "the money players, the guys who come through in the clutch," and they are, indeed, top guns at an agency that often resembles the O.K. Corral. Internal creative shootouts and "gang bangs," in which multiple teams go head-to-head, are a way of life at BBDO, and particularly on Pepsi. Each summer and fall, as many as 20 teams may be working simultaneously on the same campaign-including the top-level creative directors. "The people at the top here continue to write and art direct," says Sann. "That's one of the things that makes BBDO different, and I think better, than other big agencies, where top people become administrators." Hence, on Pepsi, the seniors often outproduce the legions of younger creatives working under them.
But some younger creatives contend that the competition isn't always fair. Says one former young creative, "It's a problem when you're working on the same assignment as your boss, who's the one that's dealing with the client. That's just not a level playing field." Another former creative adds, "It's very political. You're competing with Sann and Patti. You don't know what goes on in the client meetings, but you have to assume that the people presenting the work are going to favor their own ideas."
Sann insists there's no favoritism shown when ideas are presented, and that all's fair in the BBDO bangs. "My work goes into the batch with everybody else's," he says. "I realize some people might feel like they're getting closed out, but that isn't the case. There are a lot of screens an idea has to pass through here, and only the best ones get through." (Patti notes that typically about one out of every 30 ideas presented to Pepsi gets bought).
But in any case, the situation can be demoralizing for younger creatives. "I can understand why the agency believes in gang bangs, because it supposedly generates so many ideas," says a creative who left this year. "But I think they end up losing quality effort, particularly from the younger teams who might not try as hard because they feel the odds are against them." That may explain why the agency has had trouble holding onto young talent in the last year, even though it's known to be one of the best-paying agencies in the business, and even though the allure of working on Pepsi remains almost irresistible to many creatives. Eric King, who left BBDO this year for Wieden & Kennedy, says he doesn't miss the internal wars at the agency: "At Wieden & Kennedy, you're battling with yourself, as opposed to everyone else at the agency. It's just a more comfortable situation for a creative person." Steve Dildarian, a young writer who recently jumped from BBDO to Cliff Freeman, says, "It seemed like everyone my age at BBDO was champing at the bit to get out."
Sann calls the defections of young talent to smaller creative shops unavoidable. "It seems like every two days, somebody here gets an offer from Kirshenbaum & Bond or from Deutsch," he says. In his view, young creatives leave because they mistakenly believe that they'll do more good work at those agencies. "Then they get there and discover that they've gone from working on Pepsi to doing a Christmas ad for a glove company," he adds. Some even come back: Barton Landsman left BBDO for K&B, but returned recently. "I missed the size and scope of the work at BBDO," he says. "And I missed being able to take a good idea and push it even further because of the bigger budgets."
Exec CD Al Merrin adds: "Older creatives, too, can go for a long time here without being produced, and it's frustrating. We try to convince young people to stick it out, because eventually what they do produce will be seen by everyone."
Sann insists that the creative leadership at BBDO has not become insular, and points to the recent hiring of Donna Weinheim from Cliff Freeman & Partners. Weinheim, who'll work in Michael Patti's Pepsi group, is seen as a breath of fresh air; she's a strong woman in an agency that's been characterized as a boys' club, and, as one BBDO creative notes, "Her style is different from BBDO's, much more campy-it'll be interesting to see what comes of that." Weinheim realizes "it may be harder to get work produced, but I already have a lot of work produced. Now I want to prove I can do well in a bigger environment, working on a grander scale."
Sann is certain the new Pepsi work will reflect the contributions of a number of younger creatives; "we're excited about some of the work that younger people here have been doing," he says. And while he's clearly concerned about young people feeling unproductive at the agency, don't expect him to radically alter the environment. "As far as making changes in the system, there's really no system here to change," he says. "I don't want to mess with the environment; it's more a case of trying to protect it."
But he does acknowledge that as BBDO's newest Pepsi work takes the field at the Super Bowl, it will be facing more than one opponent. "A few years back, the enemy was Coke and that was all we had to worry about, but now it's a much bigger playing field," he says. "I don't mind that the competition is heating