After more than a decade of chief marketing officers vowing to raise the creative game, P&G has made tangible progress on the creative front, marked by an Advertiser of the Year honor at this year's International Advertising Festival. It's added shops such as Wieden & Kennedy, TBWA and BBDO to its once-compressed roster. And, following the advice of some agency and internal executives, it's created VP-level "brand-franchise leaders" to steer creative development of its biggest global brands.
At the same time, however, the business results of some of P&G's most-heralded creative accomplishments appear mixed. The minds behind some of P&G's greatest creative glories -- the press Grand Prix and film Silver Lion last year -- have moved to non-P&G agencies owned or backed by P&G holding company WPP Group to work for, among others, Unilever. And P&G continues to struggle for more wins in its biggest medium, TV, or to match Unilever's award count.
Cannes, on the other hand, has become a place where suits and creatives must mingle (though some on both sides, loudly if privately, don't want to). And the festival's categories -- and entries -- in part due to P&G's influence, have swelled to include such things as shopper marketing and design.
Has it all been worth it? Absolutely, said P&G Global Marketing Officer Jim Stengel. "If you go back to 2003 and look at the state of our shares, our equities, our innovation and our creativity, I think we've taken it up to a different level," he said. "This has been a cultural intervention both for our agencies and P&G."
One goal was for P&G executives to get closer to their agencies. Of course, it wasn't hard for agency executives to notice them getting closer to new agencies as well.
On P&G's first trip to Cannes, Dan Wieden couldn't find time in his schedule to join a panel critiquing P&G ads. TBWA's then-CEO, Jean-Marie Dru, was there. A few months later, Mr. Wieden made a stop in Cincinnati to speak at a P&G seminar on influencer marketing. Wieden & Kennedy was on P&G's roster after two years, and TBWA joined last year. "I think [going to Cannes] did help us bring some of these agencies in," Mr. Stengel said.
But that wasn't the goal, he said. "Our objective ... was really to lift our standards on creativity and innovation. ... It was to be the magnet client for our agencies. We knew five years ago that we had talented agencies, but they weren't working to their potential on P&G brands."
Clearly it's also helped inspire competition among P&G shops and holding companies for awards and talent. It's less clear whether the competition has always been healthy for P&G.
By November 2007, Jan Jacobs and Leo Premutico, who created Tide to Go's talking-stain ad for the Super Bowl (a Silver Lion winner) and press ads for the brand that won a Grand Prix, had formed Johannes Leonardo, New York. Leonardo is backed by WPP, which also owns P&G shop Grey. Initial work includes the global launch of the Norris soccer-wear brand, Ford, HSBC -- and what Mr. Jacobs described as a potentially groundbreaking experimental project for Unilever in Italy.
Around the same time, WPP recruited Tony Granger, chief creative officer at Saatchi & Saatchi, New York, as worldwide creative director at Y&R, which handles another key P&G rival, Colgate-Palmolive Co.
"If someone is incented and wants to change companies," Mr. Stengel said, "there's limited impact anyone can have on that." He said agency creative talent on P&G brands is markedly stronger than it was five years ago.
Mary Baglivo, CEO of Saatchi's New York office, said in a statement: "Our team on the P&G business is stronger than ever, and we're incredibly excited that our client partners will be honored at this year's Cannes."
Of course, Unilever has been on a largely parallel journey to stronger creative and, at least by last year's Cannes hardware count, has moved further than P&G, with two Grand Prix, a titanium Lion and 37 Lions in all. But Unilever tends not to send nearly as many people to the festival as P&G does, leading to some skepticism about P&G's Advertiser of the Year honor.
Mr. Stengel has little doubt it's deserved. "It's the festival's call," he said. "They do look at history. They do look at trends. And they do look, I think, at a long-term commitment to changing the game."
An easy retort a few years ago -- that Unilever may win more awards but doesn't deliver the business results -- is no longer available. Unilever has matched or beaten P&G in organic sales growth in the past year, most recently by a 5% to 7% margin last quarter.
And it's unclear P&G's creative triumphs always bear fruit in the market. Despite Tide to Go's Super Bowl effort, for example, the brand's share has been down year over year in the first quarter and second quarters, according to Information Resources Inc. data reported by Deutsche Bank.
Mr. Stengel cautioned not to put too much stock in IRI scanner data, which don't cover fast-growing channels such as Wal-Mart and club stores. Tide to Go, for example, got club distribution. And Mr. Stengel said the product reversed a declining share trend going into the first quarter. "We invigorated growth in the variant," he said, "and that had a nice halo effect on the entire brand."
Broadly, Mr. Stengel said, he believes award-winning work sells for P&G and others.