That's what some executives at its agencies, frustrated with trying to get the marketer to approve creative, privately concede. Still, P&G has not stopped trying to raise its profile. This year it's invited creatives from top-flight non-roster shops-Wieden & Kennedy, Red Cell, TBWA and Fallon-to present their award-winning work for the likes of Honda Motor Co., Adidas and BMW.
A clue as to why P&G has not made much creative progress can be found in how those shops were chosen: They were rated as among the hottest in a sort of creativity equivalent of college sports' Sagarin ratings, using software that calculates the value of each award won handicapped according to the level of competition.
That P&G needs computer rankings to justify its pick of hot creative shops shows just how deeply rooted its data-driven culture really is, and how much it resists creative change. But there's an even bigger question here: Whether the marketer should really be concerned about awards at all and whether its agencies or its culture are at issue.
Prospects for P&G at Cannes this year don't look great, based on early results in award season. At the Clios, for instance, P&G walked away with one award to Unilever's 13 and five for Reckitt Benckiser, a company one-tenth P&G's size. P&G did come away with seven Effies last week, compared to zilch for those competitors, but P&G's Effies haven't often translated into creative award wins in the past.
"What we want is good work, and we're getting that," said P&G Global Marketing Officer Jim Stengel. And he believes watchability scores for its TV ads, which P&G added to its copy testing protocol two years ago, are broadly on the upswing, though, when pressed, P&G did not have data tracking that.
"We're on a journey," said Stephen Squire, the advertising development director who has spearheaded P&G's efforts to develop a presence at Cannes. He compares P&G's journey to that of Publicis Worldwide Creative Director David Droga's in turning around that shop creatively. "Change is difficult, and it doesn't happen overnight. P&G is quite a big company. We have about 3,000 marketers."
Certainly it's not for lack of effort on the part of its agencies if P&G doesn't score many Lions at the International Advertising Festival this year. Pressure on its agencies to step up their work, already intense, has mounted thanks to the new rating system. P&G's shops have placed more than 200 entries for the marketer at Cannes this year, believed to be a record, though this is the first year P&G has tracked the number.
NOT BY DESIGN
"It doesn't make us tense," said Vaughan Emsley, general manager of P&G business for Saatchi & Saatchi and senior account executive on the marketer's creative business across all of Publicis Groupe. "From a Publicis point of view, I wouldn't worry about any ranking system, because we'll do just fine."
Some close to P&G, however, see faster results springing from Chief Design Officer Claudia Kotchka's efforts to raise the company's game in design, which has yielded top honors or bold new looks for such brands as Olay Regenerist and Quench, Pampers, Luvs and Tampax Pearl.
One advantage Ms. Kotchka and her team have over their advertising counterparts is that while few P&G managers say they fully understand design, most think they know good advertising when they see it. And their insistence on ads that favor functional benefits over emotional bonds can at times frustrate the best creative efforts.
Sarah Barclay, a Lion-winning creative director whose recruitment to Saatchi's Tide team was one of the signature accomplishments to stem from P&G's first trip to Cannes in 2003, asked off Tide a little more than a year later. She left after Steve Bishop, VP-general manager of laundry for P&G in North America killed a completed ad he didn't believe hit hard enough on product benefits, according to executives familiar with the matter.
P&G declined to comment, but said a new campaign remains in the works with Saatchi. But for now, Tide is running side-by-side demos and direct-response TV ads as it searches for a campaign that can replace the more emotionally centered "Family Tide" campaign abandoned nearly three years ago.
That Ms. Barclay has since gone on to create work for P&G's oral-care business-the current ad for Scope featuring Eskimos who go from nose rubbing to more vigorous making out-shows how things can differ dramatically from one manager and business unit to the next at P&G. Even Tide's sibling brand, Ariel, currently runs a more emotionally rich ad in Europe (again featuring Eskimos) for the same Coldwater product currently getting side-by-side demos in the U.S.
Saatchi CEO Kevin Roberts bristles at any suggestion P&G's agencies are having trouble attracting or keeping creatives. "We have Bob Isherwood [of Saatchi], Cheryl Berman [of Leo Burnett] and David Droga all working on P&G business," he said.
In the case of Tide, he believes the recent re-assignment of Peter Carter, a veteran advertising development director, from hair care to laundry can help break the creative logjam. He points to Mathilde Delhoume, Geneva-based advertising development director for baby care, as instrumental in steering advertising for that brand from its almost exclusive focus on functional benefits years ago to more emotional appeal now.
The Tide flap is reminiscent of others at P&G in recent years, such as with an Old Spice campaign from Saatchi scrapped despite strong test scores, which led or contributed to resignations both of agency and marketing executives in 2001. Others of the company's most creative efforts-such as a 1990s campaign for Millstone that savagely lampooned Starbucks or Cascade's humorous 2002 "Skip the Sink" effort-either never made it to national TV or were, in the case of Cascade, quickly replaced with more conventional product demonstrations.
One sticking point is that reforming P&G's internal processes-in particular the "single-point accountability" policy of naming and sticking with a decision-maker for each ad-hasn't been easy. This was obvious when Mr. Stengel essentially renewed P&G's commitment to what was then a five-year-old single-point policy during P&G's first trip to Cannes in 2003 and some agency executives were thrilled, believing it was new.
Oral care, baby care, feminine care and over-the-counter drugs have been among the business units whose top managers have been most open to new ad approaches in the U.S. But key global brands, such as Pantene or Head & Shoulders get the same sorts of ad treatments with the same swaying hair shots used for the past decade or more.
One former P&G executive now on the agency side sees two key impediments to the company breaking through with more daring ads. Getting edgier work approved, he said, "all depends on who the general manager is." Beyond that, he said even the brand managers and marketing directors mainly focus on becoming general managers themselves and usually have limited understanding of or time for advertising.
NO CHANGING TIDE
By contrast, Unilever, which already was besting P&G in creative competitions (if not in the marketplace) is focusing most of its marketing managers even more squarely on the discipline as its new global brand development function strips away much of the day-to-day management duties along with profit-and-loss responsibility.
P&G has been building up its ranks of advertising experts, such as Messrs. Squire and Carter, reporting to Mr. Stengel. But while they can consult, guide and troubleshoot, P&G's advertising development managers don't make decisions on ads.
Ultimately, however, Mr. Squire believes P&G managers seeing the business success that such brands as Pampers or Tampax are having with more creative, emotional or daring ads (a recent Tampax TV ad shows a woman plugging a leak in a rowboat with a tampon) will help build support for edgier creative.
But the fact that such brands as Tide and Pantene continue to thrive without shaking up their creative and that P&G continues its strongest run in decades makes it harder to argue for change.
So why worry about creative awards at all, particularly when juries at Cannes and most other ad competitions remain overwhelmingly male and P&G markets primarily to women?
"The useful thing about awards is that they're very transparent," said Mr. Squire. "They provide a level of comparability that's quite useful. Are they the only measure? No. Effies are a measure. There are new business wins and financial health of the brands, too. But [awards are] helpful to see who's doing well and who isn't doing well on a creative level."
He added: "We've very happy with the agencies we have." So why bring in all those other shops to talk at Cannes? "It's really training for our marketing directors," he said. "We want to expose them to cases and agencies they haven't been exposed to. ... It makes the conversations with their roster agencies much richer."