Magazine article Marketing

The Making of Marketers

Magazine article Marketing

The Making of Marketers

Article excerpt

Unilever and P&G are known as the 'Oxbridge' of marketing. Do they still deserve this reputation?

You come across them everywhere. Captains of industry here, top marketing strategists there - graduates of Unilever and Procter & Gamble demonstrating why their Alma Maters are known as the universities of marketing.

But what is it about the nature of these commercial finishing schools that produces such talent? Do they still represent the twin bastions of marketing excellence, or are companies like Mars producing more adaptable and creative people these days?

Some observers question whether Unilever and P&G have only ever produced marketers who conform to a model brand-management template. They argue that the notable and famous exceptions to this theory, such as Sainsbury's Kevin McCarten (who spent ten years at P&G) and Unilever's Niall Fitzgerald, were bright to start with and retained their spark throughout years of corporate systems.

While this is an over-simplification, it illustrates the importance of the culture of a company to the moulding of a marketer.

Central to the process of evolving smart marketers is the kind of environment that they are brought up in during their formative working years. Keen observers claim they can tell the difference between a Unilever - and a P&G-trained person within minutes of meeting them, illustrating the strength of the two companies' corporate ethos.

The over-riding influence on the culture of Unilever is its international, almost colonial, geographical spread. "Just visiting the Blackfriars head office, with its Art Deco decor, reinforces the idea that it is like a commercial representation of the former British Empire," says one ex-employee. "It was more pronounced in the past, but there certainly was a sense that you were part of this enormous, sprawling operation."

The upside of this is the huge number of opportunities offered to brand and marketing managers to sharpen their skills abroad in a very different environment to the UK. Lever Brothers household products marketing director Jerry Wright, for example, became marketing controller for all of Unilever's food and personal products in China when he was 27.

Wright was transferred to Shanghai in 1989, just as Unilever and its competitors were starting to move into East Asia. He had the task of starting Unilever's operations in the area from scratch, sitting in dusty warehouses to arrange local joint ventures. "A marvellous opportunity," is how he describes it.

Procter & Gamble is just as internationally widespread as Unilever but the emphasis is different. Whereas employees of P&G are left in no doubt that they are working for a US-controlled firm which h, as foreign offices, at Unilever the feeling is more that the company is made up of a multitude of different operating companies - a subtle but important difference.

"At P&G the rule book is king," says one former marketer. "People are given a thorough grounding in what works and what doesn't. Similarly, advertising agencies are told what kind of ad is required, what it will look like, and when the camera will cut to the technical explanations of the product.

Research worship

"There is an almost religious dependence on research, which is probably why they could detect the problem with Persil Power so early, but this can sometimes work against creativity."

P&G communications director Dick Johnson denies that creativity is compromised within the company. "We're not talking straightjackets here," he says, while accepting that managers are guided by empiricism. "We are a data-driven company and like to work to common principles."

Managing creativity in a large organisation is a delicate balancing act. Smaller firms will always be able to react quicker than their larger counterparts, and the innate politics of a large organisation can often strangle wilder ideas at birth. …

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