June 2022, almost three months into an intense multi-agency pitch process, Publicis Groupe-owned creative agency Leo Burnett scooped the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) account of PepsiCo India from Wunderman Thompson.
This was a big win and an equally intriguing one, given that PepsiCo has chosen to end its three-decade-long partnership with WPP Group-owned agencies including Mindshare and Wunderman Thompson, after competitor brand Coca-Cola has signed the network as its partner globally.
"PepsiCo India follows a re-pitching cycle every few years for agencies and partners working on our brand mandates. This year Wunderman Thompson and Mindshare will not be participating in the process. We value our partnership and thank them for what we have achieved together over the years,” said PepsiCo India spokesperson in a statement.
A person familiar with the developments told Storyboard18 that Coca-Cola, being the account juggernaut, handing over the lion’s share of its $4 billion business to WPP, has essentially led its aligned agencies to resign from Pepsi's account in India. Even if WPP agencies were invited to the PepsiCo pitch they couldn't have participated because Coke wouldn't allow it, said the ad executive familiar with the matter.
"Essentially, all the aligned WPP agencies in India (Wunderman Thompson and Mindshare) had to resign the account," says the person quoted above.
WPP's departure created a massive opportunity for agencies in India to work with the global FMCG giant that spends close to Rs 350 crore worth of advertising money in promoting a bouquet of brands including Pepsi, 7UP and Kurkure among others.
The pressure was inevitable and so was the competition.
“On such a huge pitch one could be pressured to be somebody else but we chose to be our authentic self. On such a huge business and the interaction which will go on for months over 5-6 meetings you cannot say that this is what Pepsi wants and this is what we will project,” tells Dheeraj Sinha, CEO and chief strategy officer, South Asia at Leo Burnett and chairman, BBH India.
To take the competition head-on, Leo Burnett put together a 100-odd people strong team across its offices in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru to work on the PepsiCo pitch. For a pitch of this scale the agency brought resources from all functions including creative, strategy, art, animation, research and technology. It was a young team that went deep into it and started grappling with the problem that Pepsi had given the agency to solve. To be sure, Leo Burnett worked on briefs around two PepsiCo brands.
“In the Pepsi briefing we took the young blood from the agency. Planners, creative executives who actually know Pepsi's core TG comprising Gen Z and millennials. They understand their language. More importantly, when we were in the pitch, we had some really young creative and strategists making the presentation and Raj (Rajdeepak Das, chief creative officer and CEO, Leo Burnett, SouthAsia) and I were backing them and we were having fun,” Sinha adds.
PepsiCo India and its former creative partner Wunderman Thompson (earlier JWT India) has been credited with some of Indian advertising's most iconic campaigns. JWT India had put together a team called the Power of One (Po1) that worked exclusively on the 15 PepsiCo brands that the agency handled. During its tenure, it created memorable campaigns such as “Dil maange more”, “Nothing official about it" and “Oye bubbly” for cola brand Pepsi.
It is interesting to note that Coke has been a part of JWT portfolio in certain international markets including Brazil in different ways through different companies. However, Coca-Cola in India was always aligned to IPG Group owned creative agency McCann. But McCann Worldwide India no longer handles the Coke account.
Storyboard18 earlier reported that big global reviews and account movements tend to have different levels of impact on the local operations of networked agencies. At times, as big accounts move agencies, network companies have to deal with the “firefighting” as big-scale money is involved.
An email sent to WPP India on how its global deal with Coke impacted the India market remains unanswered. JWT India did not comment on the loss of PepsiCo account and possible restructuring at the agency.
JWT and PepsiCo marriage
While BBDO was the global agency for PepsiCo, in India HTA (later rebranded to JWT then to Wunderman Thompson) worked on the PepsiCo account in the India market.
Coke was always aligned to McCann, so we (JWT) have become the non-aligned agency of the brand in India, says former JWT South Asia CEO Colvyn Harris who now runs his independent venture Harris-Mint.
"If the Coke alignment is the reason for the change, then does it mean Coke is moving to its alignment? In my opinion, the area of conflict comes up occasionally in an agency when global alignments and local clients have competing brands. An instance was when JWT was the only agency that gave up Google in India for Microsoft just before the latter fired us in New York. So, we ended up with nothing and that’s the challenging bit about managing conflict and competing brands,” he adds.
Harris notes that big accounts pulling out of agencies bring multiple issues including loss of reputation and image. According to him Leo Burnett must have pulled a rabbit out of the hat to bag the PepsiCo account.
“It’s a big loss when you work with big brands then it seems almost like losing a number six or seven agency that’s the scale and size sometimes of their operations and revenue. It’s seismic for an agency to let go of Coke or Pepsi or even win them. There is an impact on your people who might have to go when you lose accounts,” he adds.
Harris says that usually loss of big accounts is triggered by bad work and the brand not doing well in the market place and they need a fresh look. Brands also change agencies when they fear that they are losing relevance amongst the consumer.
“When the brand loses its mojo, so to say, the pressure is on the client because he/she is running a business. At this point, the client has gone through two to three last chances to try and get a better communication piece out of its agency and when that continues to not delight them that’s when they decide to move. It’s a big change because it's already like a marriage where you carry the secrets and insights with you,” he explains.
He also points out that such changes happen when the brand or the category is losing relevance. In this particular case, for instance, growing consumers' perception of carbonated drinks being unhealthy.
“These are extremely complex issues for somebody to grapple with so if it is a category issue, then how do you make the category relevant again? If the category is shrinking and a brand’s market share is also shrinking then it is a cause of worry - market share becomes the critical game then. First is category and expansion, then it moves to market share so if the market is going to drop anyway then in a particular category if you are losing market share that means the competition is gaining that market share that’s when the alarm bells start ringing. There is always a trigger when clients would think that perhaps their advertising is not working; that's when they get into a firefighting mode to find a solution,” Harris explains.
Way forward for Pepsi
As more young consumers demand meaningful advertising from brands, Leo Burnett is looking to create more human solutions for PepsiCo India owned brands. Pepsi's portfolio is vastly stretched between mass market to premium top-end brands. It cuts across beverages, healthy beverages and food as well.
“It’s a wide spectrum of mandate. In terms of business, they are doing absolutely fantastic growing leaps and bounds therefore our job is to push that momentum further and ahead. Some of the brands are iconic. Look at Pepsi, Kurkure and 7Up - they are absolutely fantastic iconic brands and our job would be to get a degree of heroism and iconicity. Other than that, there are some other brands that are still building the category and it is yet to mature there our job will be to take a leadership stance and build those categories," says Leo Burnett's Sinha.
Leo Burnett has handled brands such as ThumsUp and Gen Z focused brands such as Spotify, so neither the beverage category nor the consumer segment is not new for them. It would be interesting to see if they would be able to hold the attention of the new-age consumer whose unquenchable thirst for meaningful brands and powerful messaging is stronger than ever.