"There was quite a gap between the two," Mr. Roberts says.
Then, last Christmas, he showed recent versions. "You really couldn't tell the difference," he says.
Even so, the jury is still out. While P&G has cleaned up in media awards at Cannes in recent years and had a strong showing in print this year, it still has lagged rival Unilever overall in creative honors and was bested or matched by such smaller rivals as Kimberly-Clark Corp., Reckitt Benckiser and Energizer Holdings in video.
P&G shops and Mr. Stengel see substantial progress. "Some people can knock the work," Mr. Roberts says. "I'm not in that school. I think we have been getting better and better work across every brand, category and geography."
Neil Kreisberg, group exec VP of WPP Group's Grey Global Group, sees P&G's raising of the creative bar more broadly: "P&G has infused creativity in every aspect of their communications with consumers. They recognized that's what you need to do today when consumers are boss."
Mr. Stengel likewise sees broad creative improvement. "I do feel like if you look at us today vs. five years ago that we have surprised people," he says. "We'll always be relentless in this area. ... I would say we're pleased with the progress, but we could do more."
To that end, P&G brought on creative heavyweight Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., to the roster in June and Publicis Groupe's Team One, El Segundo, Calif., a month later. In November, it named Voluntarily United Group of Creative Agencies to handle two prestige-fragrance brands.
"I keep telling them it should be with [Publicis siblings] Fallon and Team One," Mr. Roberts says. But he adds he welcomes a broader pool of roster agencies.
Noting the appearance of WPP's Martin Sorrell, Omnicom Group's John Wren and Publicis's Maurice Levy at P&G's recent internal marketing awards program, he says: "I was looking at [Messrs.] Stengel and Lafley and going: `Not bad, boys.' "