THE BROADROOM PLAYERS: KAREN GUERRA - Colgate Palmolive formed the biggest ever global advertising alliance with Y&R in 1995, which its UK general manager likens to a marriage. She tells Claire Beale how she views it

As general manager of Colgate Palmolive, Karen Guerra has rather more pressing issues on her mind than advertising. Working out the implications of recession, streamlining computer data-bases under the company’s new SAP information system and persuading her bosses of the need to implement a number of unbudgeted projects that could prove critical to future growth all take a higher priority.

As general manager of Colgate Palmolive, Karen Guerra has rather

more pressing issues on her mind than advertising. Working out the

implications of recession, streamlining computer data-bases under the

company’s new SAP information system and persuading her bosses of the

need to implement a number of unbudgeted projects that could prove

critical to future growth all take a higher priority.

But as a former Colgate marketing director, you can be sure that

Guerra’s detachment springs neither from lack of interest nor

understanding. Rather it is a testament to the company’s long-standing

and increasingly successful relationship with its global advertising

partner, Young & Rubicam.

It’s a relationship endorsed by Colgate’s triumph in the Campaign poster

awards the evening before our interview, where Y&R picked up the

effectiveness prize for its Colgate ’red’ work. Proof positive, a proud

Guerra insists, that advertising toothpaste, shower gel, deodorant or

any of the other brands in the Colgate portfolio needn’t be an exercise

in trite and boring creative work.

’Definitely, we can be very creative. It’s about two things, it’s about

quality of impacts and it’s about relevance, and if you can make a

campaign impactful but still relevant, you’ve cracked it.’

Over recent years, Colgate has been pushing back the boundaries of

advertising in ways that may seem minor to the likes of a Tango or a

Volkswagen, but which have helped break the mould of traditional fmcg


The company’s bold yet simple poster work for Colgate, which slashes the

walls of Guerra’s office with vivid stripes of blood red, is just one

example. But Soft & Gentle’s sponsorship of the Louise No Sweat tour

last year, and developing partnerships with media owners such as Sugar

magazine, have helped take its brand communications well beyond the spot

and space norm.

’Some of our advertising is seen by my corporation as very avant-garde,

though within the UK advertising market that’s probably not the


For us it’s definitely cutting edge,’ Guerra says.

And as we hurtle towards recession, we can probably expect more creative

innovation from Colgate. Guerra is not one to shy away from the

challenges of economic downturn and while budgets are sure to come under

the spotlight, innovation will not be compromised. ’You’ve actually got

to push the boat out in a recession. It’s easy to wind yourself up about

doom and gloom, but recession is an opportunity to be a bit different,

to take more chances, to push at the edges. You have to, particularly if

your competitors are cutting back on spends.’

Other business issues may have the edge when it comes to boardroom

debate, but advertising is a subject Guerra has strong views on. In

fact, advertising gave her her first job, as an account executive at

Wasey Campbell-Ewald and, through her roles as Colgate’s sales and then

marketing director, she’s kept a passionate interest in the


Yet ask Guerra what motivates her, and the answer is as far from luvvie

land as it’s possible to get. For all the advances Colgate is making in

its creative and media strategies, Guerra is very clear that advertising

exists to serve a purpose. ’The ad agency gets its buzz from producing

great creative work, but my buzz comes from seeing the sales, the

margins and the profitability that the brand and the company can deliver

from wealth-generation. I guess that’s why they’re doing their job and

I’m doing mine.’

As managing director she’s happy to leave the job of advertising to her

marketing department, but as marketing director she also keeps a careful

watch on advertising effectiveness.

With ad budgets of pounds 16 million a year, spread across brands

including Colgate, Palmolive and Soft & Gentle, advertising is, of

course, a huge investment and one that is carefully monitored and

regularly appraised.

It’s a clear focus on value for money that forms the basis of Colgate’s

relationship with Y&R.

Back in 1982, Colgate struck what was then the largest ever global

agency deal, appointing Y&R as its agency of record around the world,

forcing it to dump Procter & Gamble at home, and later consolidating its

entire portfolio into the agency in 1995 when it dropped FCB from its


At the time, the appointment was something of a talking point in


Rumour had it that for the global prize, Y&R had pledged to handle the

business for nothing, with all remuneration based solely on


Well, it doesn’t work quite like that. But payment by performance is

clearly an important part of this client/agency relationship. Y&R is

reviewed twice a year and those appraisals are taken to New York to

assess what the agency has delivered to the business on a global basis.

Guerra has her UK perspective but, in terms of overall payment by

performance, that’s measured on a worldwide basis.

In the UK, over recent years, a carefully regulated system has been

developed to measure both the agency and Colgate’s own communications

manager, Linda Wallace, against set targets based on the cost and

quality of what’s delivered.

And it’s a two-way street. Y&R is also encouraged to report back to

Guerra on Colgate’s marketing team and how the company performs as a


’Now we are confident of getting value for money,’ Guerra explains.

’Five or six years ago if you’d asked me for an honest answer, I’d have

said I hope so, but I wouldn’t hand on heart have been able to say I

think we’re getting extremely good value from our agency.’

At the same time, Colgate is now developing its own armoury to begin

tackling the Holy Grail of eliminating advertising wastage. The engine

for this will be external data - from tracking studies by Epos and IRI

research - which will be used to model the impact of each area of the

marketing mix. According to Guerra, the answers lie just a couple of

years away.

Such reassurances are vital if, like Guerra, your agency is imposed upon

you through a worldwide deal. ’It’s an interesting issue,’ Guerra


’Having to work together because of this international relationship has

actually made both of us really work at it. Both Colgate and Y&R have

their own chequered histories in the UK, and I think it would have been

very easy for either party to throw the towel in if we’d only been

operating on a local basis.

’But because we’re not, this has been like a marriage with almost

unbreakable vows. You really have to work hard to keep the relationship

going. Since Toby (Hoare Y&R’s managing director) and Charlie (Wrench,

the head of the Colgate account in Europe at Y&R) came on to our

business, it’s genuinely been a very happy marriage indeed.’

Even so, ask Guerra if she sees her agency as a true business partner at

the broadest level, and her answer is unequivocal. ’How could they be?

How could Toby Hoare have an input into our strategy for getting SAP up

and running around Europe? I wouldn’t expect him to, just as I wouldn’t

expect to know all about Y&R’s new-business strategy.’

She clearly draws a line between the role of the advertising agency and

that of the management consultant. One is about brand communication -

externally and even internally, the other, where necessary, is about

broader business issues. ’We do manage brands and we do manage

categories, but the business is about a whole host of complexities to do

with our customers, our distribution and so on. I spend a lot of time on

human resource issues, for example.’

Nevertheless, Y&R has been critical in helping redefine the strategy for

Soft & Gentle. When tracking data showed that the brand was beginning to

date and move into the older age demographic, Guerra says Y&R was

invaluable in analysing the brand strategy and working out how best to

communicate with a younger, and notoriously difficult to reach, female


’If you’re looking at communication across the spectrum, that’s where a

true partnership with an agency can be enormously challenging and

enormously rewarding,’ she explains.

Guerra is clearly demanding of her agency when it comes to understanding

advertising’s role in such broader business issues. The adman she most

admires is Y&R’s own Wrench, who works very closely on Colgate around

Europe. And why does he elicit such praise? ’Because Charlie is someone

who is very passionate about advertising but who’s also an all-round


When I first met him he was passionate about advertising as an end

product in itself and I’d tell him, ’you’re just a bit of the process’.

Now he’s very strategic, very creative. I guess I admire him so much

because I’ve seen him change so much and I think he’s a better adman now

for being a more rounded business person.’

Agencies themselves, though, haven’t adapted enough to meet the changing

needs of clients, Guerra warns in her parting shot. ’A lot of the basic

structure of the advertising agency is the same as it was when I worked

in the industry in the late 70s and, as we move into the 21st century, I

think that agencies will have to change a lot of their working practices

and skill bases because mass advertising is going to be very difficult

to achieve.’

Guerra says agencies still tend to favour approaches that look good on

their showreels and, while TV is not the be-all-and-end-all any more,

agencies must wake up to the fact that manufacturers and retailers

increasingly want to talk to consumers on a one-to-one basis.

She cites in-store loyalty cards as one example of how retailers are

developing a new language with their customers. ’As manufacturers,

unless we understand that and manage it, life could become very

difficult. Advertising agencies are part of that whole communications

issue but I’m not sure how many have really understood it and have a

clear strategy in mind about how they’re going to deal with it.’


1996: Promoted to Colgate’s general manager for UK and Ireland

1992: Becomes marketing director

1986: Begins a two-year stint at Pepsico before returning to Colgate as

European projects director

1983: Joins Colgate Palmolive


Colgate Palmolive’s annual adspend is pounds 16 million through Young &


MOST ADMIRED ADMAN Charlie Wrench, ’a passionate adman who’s become an

all-round businessman, with a little help from us’

FAVOURITE AD Tesco Dudley Moore campaign

BUSINESS GURU Archie Norman, ’because he can be anything he wants to


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