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PepsiCo’s Chief Design Officer shares how they built their design team from scratch

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More than 7 years ago, we were tasked with building a new Design capability from scratch within PepsiCo. Fast forward to today, and we have 13 Design hubs around the world, hundreds of designers in house, and a state of the art Design & Innovation Center in the heart of New York City. But most people forgot, or are totally unaware of, how it all started.

It was July 2012 when I personally joined PepsiCo. I found less than 10 designers in house and we immediately hired a couple more people. It felt exactly like building a startup. We were a small group of passionate creative individuals, with the dream of creating the most unbelievable design capability in the planet, having a real impact in our society as well as in the business world, while supporting the economic growth of PepsiCo and its cultural evolution.

We started from a small office close to Bryant Park in Manhattan. We called it “The Dungeon”. Some of us, more optimistically and ironically, called it “The Palace”. We were literally working one over the other, squeezed in the space like sardines.

Our companions were cockroaches and other species of bugs – those unique creatures, probably genetically modified, magically emerging from the undergrounds of Manhattan. Every other day there was a water leak from the ceiling, even when the sun was shining outside the building.

The first time it happened it was pretty disrupting, but then we just got used to it, and we just made sure to promptly cover our computers, and the ones of any colleague that was not there, anytime something like this would happen. Tech was letting us down every other day too, so sometime working from home or from a Starbucks was our best option.

We were perfectly aware that the best way to begin the journey was to roll up our sleeves and not ask for much: ‘The Dungeon’ was perfectly fine to start, we just wanted to do the work, prove the value, and then ask!

Mauro Porcini, Chief Design Officer, PepsiCo

We didn’t have budget to decorate the space, so we would build some interesting design architectures by piling Pepsi cups one over the other, and the only other form of decoration were the graphs and the charts that we would draw on the whiteboards hanging on the walls, and the tons of colorful Post-it notes used for brainstormings, plastering the entire place.

I was hiring people and I didn’t want them to be exposed to that situation at our first encounter. It wouldn’t have given the right first impression, I needed to sell them the dream first! So, every interview was either a breakfast or a lunch or a dinner or a drink in the restaurant of the nearby Nomad hotel, or a car ride towards the (beautiful) PepsiCo headquarters in Purchase. Every day of mine would start with some form of meeting or task at 6am and end at 10pm or later.

And that went on for a long time, because there was not enough time in one day to interview people, to do the work and to evangelize as many colleagues as possible on why they should invest in something that many didn’t consider necessary at all (yet). So, if an interview would become also my way of having breakfast or dinner that was a way to save time too. That was the case for each of us, for that small team that was surrounding me and that was slowly starting to grow.

While all of this was happening we kept a constant smile on our faces and the greatest enthusiasm in our hearts. We felt like pioneers, we were grateful for that opportunity: each of us could have got a very well paid job in any design organization, and each of us was coming from a very stable position in another firm, but we knew that in PepsiCo we had the opportunity of doing something new, something that nobody ever did before in the business world. That was our dream. That gave us all the energy we needed.

We had a few sponsors at the top of the company (the CEO Indra Nooyi and the President of Global Beverage Brad Jakeman) that gave us the funding to start, but we knew that the most of the company back then was skeptical, as they should have been as we were a new capability without any credibility.

Therefore we were perfectly aware that the best way to begin the journey was to roll up our sleeves and not ask for much: “The Dungeon” was perfectly fine to start, we just wanted to do the work, prove the value, and then ask! Incrementally, organically, step by step, show the value and then ask for more funding, because with more funding you can deliver even more value.

Deliver more value and then ask for more funding again, in order to deliver even more. And so on so forth. The more value you build, the more the company will invest. The more value you build, the more credibility and trust you generate. The more value you build, the more your organization will be stable and sustainable in time. So many new functions ask for too much upfront, and they end up alienating the organization, building unbearable pressure, growing unrealistic expectations, to then crumble under the weight of that investment a few years later.

We got our possibility to escape “The Dungeon” in early 2013: that’s when we obtained the funding to create our first design space in Manhattan. We did so by making the case with the top of the company that we could cut a small portion of the budget invested by PepsiCo with external design firms, while delivering the same amount of projects and much better and consistent results, by mixing our internal work with our ability to manage more efficiently and effectively external agencies.

They believed us – credit to them! – and so we started. We found a location, a raw space in Soho, just columns and concrete floors, and we designed it all by ourselves. We defined the proper organization of the spaces, we picked every piece of furniture. Like startup owners we put our heart in every detail of that project, and we treated every penny like a prisoner, like if that money was coming from our personal pockets: with the small budget we had we wanted to create the most unbelievable, charming, efficient, inspiring space you could ever imagine.

While doing all of this we were working hard to deliver the first proof-points of what kind of value Design could generate for the company. In that first year we landed the re-design of the Pepsi brand and the design of the hi-tech Spire equipment family. Those two projects became game changers for the organization, and after those more and more people started to realize that there was some value in this “new thing called design” and decided to invest in it.

One year later we started to build the first team In Shanghai, completely funded by the China business team. In the following years we grew to hundreds of designers and a dozen locations, purposefully without central funding, all self-financed by the business units, with a few new co-conspirators in marketing and R&D every time, adding a few more designers each time, running a few more projects at the time, growing the organization organically, step by step. 

And that’s what made this capability more stable than ever. Many initiatives often crumbles with the change of management and sponsors. This function was instead created from the ground up, with the right foundations, with the proper integration, organically grown as an healthy tree, like a start-up built on the idea of generating tangible and concrete value for the organization, one project after the other, one business success after the other. Always as a cross functional effort, always working with other functions, always sharing credit, always building connections instead of burning bridges.

You can be new and disruptive without alienating the rest of the organization. Actually, that’s not just a nice to have, it’s the only way to make things happen. Confident in the value generated as well as aware of the untapped potential, when the new CEO, Ramon Laguarta, took the helm of the company he decided to double down on the design function, taking it to next level, making it “faster, stronger, better” than ever. With the entire executive team onboard. The journey continues, and it just got exponentially accelerated.

Today our team retains that same smile, that same enthusiasm, that same passion that we had when we started 7+ years ago. That’s our culture, those are our values. And that culture is our bond. We nurture it every day, we celebrate it every time. It’s embedded in the way we act, in the way we behave, in the way we think. Probably also because we know that we are just scratching the surface of what Design can really do for our company and for our society, and as a startup we want to keep building and growing, to be able to positively influence the world at a bigger scale, with a faster pace, with a deeper impact.

Recently our PepsiCo executive team came up with a formal list of values that we want every employee of the company to embrace and be an ambassador of. Those values are exactly what have been driving us all for all this time: embracing consumers and people centricity, acting as owners and thinking with integrity, celebrating success and having fun, embracing diversity and respecting different cultures, moving fast and nimble as a startup, always with the mission of building value for the world in our hearts. And the substrate and common denominator to all of this is one, and only one: we search, we hire, we retain and we celebrate good people, good human beings, good souls, trustworthy and kind individuals. That’s the base of everything. That drives quality, efficiency and effectiveness.

All of this is who we are. That’s who we are proud to be. That’s our super power. That’s why design at PepsiCo is much more than processes, strategies, tools and frameworks. Design at PepsiCo is all about people, is all about culture, is all about dreams, is all about passion, is all about love. It’s genetically written in our DNA.

This article was originally published on
Mauro Porcini


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