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Global snack-maker Frito-Lay is expanding its in-house creative shop after three years. We talk to agency chief Chris Bellinger about Super Bowl spots, international ambitions and how the pandemic has helped draw new talent.

Frito-Lay’s brand portfolio is a  starchy global empire that includes many, if not most, of American and British consumers’ favorite snacks. 

Its sheer scale is what attracted Chris Bellinger, a former founder of a Dallas indie agency and now vice-president of creative and digital, to run its in-house creative agency three years ago. He’s turned a small creative team into an internal business that produces Super Bowl ads. Now he’s leading it into a new phase of expansion, with headcount set to grow over 25%. 

In 2018, Frito-Lay’s in-house creative team, then just two people, was set up to handle digital design for banner ads and digital toolkits. But the company decided to upgrade its ‘creative IQ’, and headhunted Bellinger to lead the outfit.

Just 10 months into life as the owner of his own agency, Hybrid Creative, he initially turned the Doritos-maker down. ”I was like: ’I don’t know about going in-house, I’m kind of doing my dream [already].’ But when I thought about it, I was like: ’These are iconic mega brands, I like the people, I like the work and I like the ideas I can do. Why would I not do this?’ And honestly, I kind of wish I’d done it sooner. It’s all the cool shit with none of the bullshit.”

Recounting the unit’s development, he explains: ”The ultimate goal was to lift the creative IQ and the creative capability of the entire marketing department. What better way to do that than build out a supporting creative agency internally that works side by side with the brand teams in real-time?”

Super Bowl and oats

Bellinger’s team now handles much of Frito-Lay’s marketing in North America alongside the company’s roster of external agencies. It was entrusted with its last two Super Bowl efforts, featuring Terry Bradshaw in 2021 and Tracee Ellis Ross in 2020. The big game ”is our stage,” he says, proud that his team managed to bring in big names for the annual advertising blitz.

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Last year, it produced 1,000 pieces of content for the company’s brand portfolio and managed to resurrect mascot Capn’ Crunch for a new television spot. It was recently brought in by PepsiCo (which owns Frito-Lay) to work on briefs for its Quaker oats brand. 

Bellinger now has his eyes on other territories. ”I would love to continue to grow the internal agency and actually start to work with all the international and global teams, so that we create a global network of creatives and strategists and account team members and social – so that we can not only tap into the best and brightest across the world, but give them the opportunity to work in all these different markets.”

Expanding team

While Bellinger declines to share how much the firm has invested in the agency, it’s built a sprawling production and editing studio for the team. This year, Frito-Lay plans to add another 10 members to its 36-strong in-house team; it also works with a large stable of freelancers.

His pitch to potential colleagues is ready to go. ”Your ideas will see the light of day. You’re not leaving the environment of a creative agency – the only difference is you’ll be working internally. And we’re gonna do it quicker and get more opportunities to take bites of the apple.”

Recruiting talented staff to Frito-Lay’s base in Texas – out of the way, for those conditioned to face toward Chicago, New York and London – has been difficult, Bellinger concedes. ”The Dallas draw is great for people in Texas... outside of Texas, it’s a little bit harder.”

But the pandemic, and a newfound acceptance in corporate America toward remote working, means he’s been able to fish for new recruits in a much larger pool.

”We’ve started hiring a lot more of our agency team externally and remotely, which has been one of the best benefits of everything that happened, to be honest. We were able to expand our search to include team members from Chicago to New York to LA to Seattle. It’s given us the opportunity to bring in a ton of people that may have not been interested in joining an agency in Dallas, Texas.”