Despite previous speculation that the pandemic could throw cold water on the agency housing trend, major marketers like PepsiCo have continued to ramp up their business in the space. On the contrary, the food and drink giant had to take a more measured approach to projects to avoid getting overwhelmed.
“When we grow, we make sure to bring people in a way that will allow them to be successful,” said Louis Arbetter, vice president of content and production at PepsiCo Beverages North America and head of the internal Studio division of contents. “We’re growing a lot, but you don’t want to grow too fast.”
The group’s recent initiatives include a Showtime documentary produced with Boardwalk Pictures and directed by Nadia Hallgren that took viewers behind the scenes at the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show starring The Weeknd. Arbetter previously helped helm the viral digital content series “Uncle Drew” which portrays NBA star Kyrie Irving as an old man whose on-court skills shock unwitting street players. The concept was turned into a feature film – the first to be based on a series of branded content – in 2018, where Arbetter served as an executive producer.
Below, Marketing Dive spoke with Arbetter about the challenges and opportunities of the pandemic streaming and social video boom, how PepsiCo is learning from external agency partners, and the role of the intern in the metaverse. .
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
MARKETING DIVING: You just returned from a shoot. What was your project volume like in recent months compared to the rest of the pandemic or even before the pandemic?
LOUIS ARBETER: Volatility is something we all need to be comfortable with, but it has had an impact on our business, which is growth. Necessity is the mother of invention. When you need to find new, innovative ways of doing things, you’re more open to changing them a bit. Having an internal think tank is a real advantage. I think a lot of brands have adopted it now, so our partnership with brands has grown significantly – the number of projects, the number of strategic discussions before we even get to turn on a camera. We are much more involved upstream to define what should be the common strategy and how this great idea should come to life through the different channels. It’s at the point where we balance our ability to deliver everything with the team that we have, so we had to say no to some things. You can’t ask new people to take care of a million things at once.
When you say new people, I imagine you have hired more?
REFEREE: The team is constantly growing, but we are trying to limit the amount. It’s not like we’re going to double in a month, because it’s a sure-fire way to start doing nothing. We don’t have to do everything, but once we agree, we have to do too much. Building trust with your brand partners is important, and you don’t want to hurt that trust by dropping the ball.
In terms of the types of people you were looking to add, are there any new areas?
ARBETRE: Totally. So our strategy function within the studio – and it’s really focused on communications strategy – is probably our most robust. In terms of bringing in new people, we have built a whole social listening capacity. The way we used to think of social listening was pretty responsive: How do people react to what we broadcast? Now it’s about leveraging that ability to proactively understand what consumers are talking about, how they are feeling, and then incorporating that information into the brief. It shapes the creation that we make.
We kind of look at our internal capabilities in a little bit different way than I think other companies. We are here to support our brands and partner agencies to help them succeed. I’m going to sit down with our external partners and ask them what works, what doesn’t. They didn’t hesitate to say, sometimes those briefs are pretty s —- y. So we need to improve what we do.
You say it’s something PepsiCo does differently. Internal agencies versus external agencies are often positioned as very competitive in the media. Do you think other companies have a unique idea when it comes to internal housing?
REFEREE: The simplest way to justify building an internal team is efficiency, and efficiency is often defined through the singular prism of “I can do X for less money”. But we can also save time. So, if I help to reduce the creation rounds between a brand team and an external agency, it is more efficient. This agency spends less time working on the project, charging less hours. It’s another kind of efficiency that I think people need to understand. There are lots of ways to speed up and save money. Sure, we certainly bring in certain types of work, but we’re never going to want to bring it all in. It does not mean anything.
Your past work has been really focused on product integration. There is so much programming right now, I imagine there are a lot of opportunities. How has your thinking changed?
ARBETRE: If I could add one word, it’s opportunity volume. We are constantly looking for new ways to collaborate. The companies that will succeed and prevail are those that are able to collaborate without ego, without clinging to the way things have worked in the past. We have now had great success with this. Go out and take what’s an existing platform from the Super Bowl halftime show, and then expand that fairness through a documentary, which pairs in a very different way with the NFL, with Roc Nation, with Nadia Hallgren, our director. Publishing a documentary on Showtime is innovative and it’s just the kinds of things we’re going to keep doing.
The flip side is that there is so much content right now. Does this create challenges?
ARBETRE: You can’t see your competition and the work we create as content and commercial time. The work I’m talking about is really any piece of content that any streaming platform, studio, or whatever you have to offer. It just needs to be entertaining for the sake of entertainment, period. The good news is, we are able not to hope for the stars to align. We are able to really reach and align the stars and call in partners and bring people to the table. Many brands are starting to realize that they can’t just create compelling content, but also create compelling content with a purpose and move some conversations in a positive direction that we couldn’t otherwise. I understand there are challenges, but we will take this glove with the opportunities it offers.
You have said that you are delighted to work with partners who recognize that things are not working the way they once were. Have your indicators of success changed?
ARBETRE: It’s the one where sometimes people complicate things too much. Before the project, we need to align with our goals. People are always focused on, well, how are we going to measure things? In the case of the halftime show, we already have a lot of looks on this. But if we want to extend equity; if we want to prolong the conversation on this platform; extending the brand connection to the most exciting time and culture, these are goals we can understand and then figure out how to measure them through feelings, opinions, engagement, etc. But every measure starts with every project and the goal you want.
Looking to 2022, are there areas in your strategy that you are eager to complete?
ARBETRE: Overall, we just want to make sure that each of the brands has a well-defined strategy. Then, like any good strategy, we really make choices about where to invest our resources and don’t sprinkle too thin peanut butter on the piece of toast. This is probably one of the safest ways to fail by making too many small bets all over the place. We believe that some of the long-term work that we do is a great way to bring the brand story to life, to bring the brand purpose to life. You can often tell these deeper and more meaningful stories. So we have a lot of work in the pipeline to do just that. And brands can’t get to where they’re making these choices without a solid strategy, so we’re helping them a lot. Just like social listening, we can do to give them more data to help them make decisions.
We’re helping to strengthen some levers they are already pulling, but maybe improve the precision of the lever. Influencer marketing has been something everyone’s been doing for a long time, but has every brand done a great job of incorporating that leverage into their larger plans or is it in some cases an afterthought? Some tools like influencer marketing, I think we could do even better.
There is a lot of technology, the pandemic has really forced people to innovate. When you watched NBA games and saw virtual fans in the stands, no one really wanted to have to think about it. But, that’s pretty cool. Why don’t you just keep doing this?
The big buzzword is “metaverse”. I don’t know how much of that falls under your jurisdiction.
ARBETRE: We’re not deciding that all meta-ideas will go to one place. We believe that great ideas can come from anywhere. So it is not an internal or an external anything. Everyone recognizes that there are many exciting new ways to interact with our consumers, just like Nike has done with Roblox. We’re working on some things now that we’re feeling good. You just have to learn by doing it to some extent. The same with NFTs and all that. I don’t think you can say, ‘Oh, we’re gonna punch a hole right out of the door.’ You have to go for it, roll up your sleeves and maybe stumble a bit trying something, but it’s okay. A lot of people are paralyzed waiting for the perfect thing. [Editor’s Note: Pepsi released its first NFT collection with VaynerNFT in the days following this interview, though Arbetter’s team was not directly involved with the project].
Operationally, what does your team setup look like right now? How do you see it in 2022?
ARBETRE: At this point, wherever the most talented qualified person is, I think we’ve proven that we can work really well together. So we have people based all over the place: LA, New York are definitely the hubs, but we have people scattered across the country. We bring people together for filming as needed. And I’m looking forward to a time when everyone can come together and have more fun. But at the moment, it’s working very well.