To Procter & Gamble's global marketing officer, Jim Stengel, accepting the Cannes Advertiser of the Year award - along with the company's chairman and chief executive A G Lafley - constitutes a personal victory for a cause he has long championed: creativity.
The FMCG giant follows in the footsteps of such previous iconoclasts as Nike, Diesel, Sony, Honda and Adidas. Astonishing, considering that, until recently, this 165-year-old Cincinnati, Ohio-based marketing powerhouse was associated more with its slice-of-life advertising and product demos than for any creative risk-taking or dazzling originality. It boasts a portfolio of 300 brands that includes such household names as Pampers, Ariel, Tampax, Clairol and Gillette.
Then along came Jim. It was back in 1983, to be precise, when he joined P&G as a lowly brand assistant on Duncan Hines cookies and slowly began working his way up the P&G totem pole. In 2001, he was appointed to his current post, and the company's creative revolution began in earnest.
"P&G has always had wonderful brands, but over the years, creativity has been its Achilles heel," Mark Tutssel, the chief creative officer of Leo Burnett Worldwide, Chicago, which handles P&G brands such as Tampax, Always and Clairol, says. "Jim personally championed it, and ... (it) has paid dividends. P&G being awarded this huge honour is a testament to Jim's work. Jim passionately believes that creativity can transform human behaviour, and that it is the compass in this fragmented landscape."
Dave Lubars, the chairman and chief creative officer at BBDO New York, which handles Gillette, agrees: "It's amazing what he's done. P&G has gone through every aspect of marketing and nuanced it to the nth degree. Then Jim came in and decided that the one thing it wasn't leveraging was creativity in marketing. He believes creativity can be an economic multiplier, and decided they weren't getting the full leverage for creativity. And damned if he didn't, in a really short time, change everything."
Today, Tutssel says Burnett creatives from around the globe clamour to work on P&G accounts. "It's because P&G has finally put a stake in the ground by standing for communication and creativity. It's looking for breakthrough thinking that has a positive effect in life. It believes that creativity is the key that unlocks the door to the future. P&G briefs are wonderfully open-minded. It's become one of the rich feeding grounds for creatives around the world."
And if further evidence of Stengel's influence were needed, look at Cannes. In 2004, P&G won just two Lions; in 2006, it won nine, and last year its tally came to 14, including the print Grand Prix for Ultra Tide Stain Remover.
The roots of the turnaround might arguably be traced back to Donald Gunn's 1994 report on award-winning commercials and performance. Gunn, the subsequent founder of The Gunn Report, but then at Leo Burnett, studied the product performance of the most-awarded commercials at international shows. He found 86 per cent of those ads were successful in achieving stated goals compared with 33 per cent across all advertising on average. "When Jim and A G were presented with this study, they stepped over the line from the rational and realised you have to operate in an emotional way to connect with people," Tutssel says.
To speed up the process, Stengel began taking his troops to Cannes in 2004, the first year P&G had attended the festival in such numbers. "Cannes taught him how to connect with people emotionally," Tutssel says. "And if you look at (P&G's) quality of work over past two or three years, there's been a seismic leap in creative quality."
According to Tamara Ingram, the president of WPP's Team P&G, overseeing some $1 billion in business across 40 agencies, Stengel brought an openness and vision that led to more innovation. "This is important when you have as many brands as P&G has, and you're trying to galvanise people from New York to Colombia," she says. "Pre-Jim, P&G focused on driving growth, and was very private about its work. Post-Jim, if you look at the improvement in Lions and at the work, you can see the fantastic change. Jim made a commitment to Cannes, and said, 'we're going to deliver creativity'. It wasn't an end in itself, but it was about P&G wanting to dedicate itself to excellence in creativity in consumer relationships."
P&G's UK agency partners include Saatchi & Saatchi, which handles brands such as Head & Shoulders and Olay, Grey, which has Pantene and Gucci fragrances, among others, and Leo Burnett, whose charges include Max Factor. According to Ingram: "P&G has always had excellent relationships with agency partners. It excited and stimulated them, which led to a rise in standards and more involvement from more people."
Strategically, she says Stengel is very clear on what he wants to do. "He wants to create brands with more purpose. He recognises the world is changing. He's always ahead of the game. In a digital world, it's all about connecting with consumers and making a difference in people's lives."
Ingram points to the examples of Pampers in the UK and Pantene in North America. While Pampers invested in Unicef's tetanus immunisation programmes in developing countries, Pantene launched a campaign to encourage women to donate their hair to make wigs for cancer patients. "With Unicef, Pampers is having a terrific effect on people's lives," she says. "And people loved Pantene's 'beautiful lengths' campaign. They were very responsive and it made a difference to the business. As we all know, everything we do affects everything else, so there's an increasing commitment to making a responsible contribution to the world."
Stengel operates by setting goals and then making it realistic for agencies to achieve them. "Does he come and sit with us every day?" Lubars asks. "No, he's more like an overall global guy. It's very easy to have these processes hardened in cement and he likes to keep it liquid - like a disciplined messiness. And that's when great creativity happens." Tutssel adds: "He's an eternal student of advertising and communications. He loves the work and never tires of talking about it."
"He's a man of the people. He's humble. He listens. He believes in the power of partners. And that human skill set he has is amazing to be around because it's infectious. For one single person to have achieved so much in the past five years is a remarkable statement to the kind of character he is."
- He owns a 1963 Alfa Romeo and takes it for a spin through the country roads of Kentucky
- He loves to boogie-board while on holiday in southern California
- He always tries to fit in a game of tennis when travelling.