I know most people are over Pepsigate by now. That’s how the 24-hour news cycle works, I guess.
I pulled some quotes from an article in the Atlantic (How on Earth Does an Ad like Pepsi’s Get Approved? written by Joe Pinsker) a few weeks ago because I think there are some valuable lessons to be drawn that may have gotten lost in the initial shock and outrage (not to dismiss the shock and outrage because both are warranted, but as creatives, it’s hard to learn by just trying to avoid landmines).
So, let’s start here:
“How do these ads get approved?,” Jill Avery, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, wrote me in an email. “By brand managers who are not doing their cultural homework—relying upon surface-level understandings of the cultural phenomenon they are featuring in their marketing communications… “
I agree with Ms. Avery’s statement 100%, but I think we need to take it a step further. Doing cultural homework is important but so is having a diversity of thought, experience, opinion and identity at the table in the first place. When we’re under pressure to produce, we may not allow ourselves to zoom out to 30,000 feet. That’s understandable. But it’s not excusable.
We can and should create checks and balances within our organizations to help us better analyze how copy and creative will be perceived and received by people who don’t look, think, or behave like us. The first check must be to find balance in our hiring practices. We need to make sure that women and minorities are well-represented at every level of our organizations, especially creative agencies. But beyond that, we have to ensure that everyone in our organization feels empowered (and has the power) to express their concern with processes, products, and programs. It’s not good enough to give people a seat at the table if they’re not also given the opportunity to be heard and valued.
When there is an abundance of ideas (because we have created a space filled with diverse ideas, voices, and opinions), we can also resist the urge to latch on to the new, shiny thing. That’s not creative. It’s opportunistic. Very rarely can we draw straight lines from current events or pop culture to our core message without compromising or losing something. Usually, we compromise our core message or bastardize the current event or pop culture message.
What’s worse, when we run after the new, shiny thing, we don’t allow our team to be as creative as they can be. We should cultivate environments where creativity runs wild and new ideas flow freely. When we can find that balance, we do a better job of communicating in ways that deeply connect with people instead of confusing or infuriating them by “not understanding the deep well of emotions, identity politics, and ideologies that [our] ads will trigger.”
So, where does that leave us? What do we do?
My advice is to exercise patience—when hiring, when developing creative, when responding to our clients, when doing anything that will influence the work we do. We should be intentional about identifying and engaging talent that fills gaps in our agencies and organizations, seeking out people with different life experiences than us.
We should never stop at the first idea—no matter how great it might seem. And when we do have that great idea, we should scrutinize it from every angle we can conceive to be sure it aligns with the core message and is culturally sensitive.
Finally, and this is probably the most difficult thing to do, we must caution our clients to be patient. Fast isn’t always our friend. What’s now shouldn’t necessarily be what’s next for us. We are the protectors of our clients’ brands, so we have to make sure we protect it from any and everything that might do them harm.