Jim Stengel’s Advice to Marketers

This week the advertising world takes over Manhattan for Advertising Week. Digiday editors are moderating several sessions during the week. We will also cover the highlights, lowlights and key personalities. Our coverage is made possible by Specific Media.

Jim Stengel was the de facto leader of the world’s marketers as Procter & Gamble’s CMO from 2001 to 2008. His tenure coincided with what will probably go down as one of the most turbulent of all eras for brands, as the Internet empowered consumers and challenged traditional notions of brand control.

Now, as a consultant, Stengel preaches that every marketer’s mandate is to be creative and to experiment. Stengel, who spoke yesterday at the Mobile Marketing Association’s Smarter Mobile Marketing event in New York, said taking risks has moved from a career-killer to a must for smart marketers. Greg Stuart, CEO of the MMA, conducted the interview.

What’s the biggest risk you took as the CMO of P&G?
I left P&G four years ago after being there for 25 years. It wasn’t a good time for the company: We lost market cap, and the morale was terrible. I’d say the biggest risk was probably just taking the job. I never thought of doing that. I never envisioned it. I went very public about changing the culture of this 126-year-old organization. It was the only choice I had, so very early on, I said we would boost creativity. We were good in operational discipline, but not so creative. I needed to be the catalyst and the change agent, and whatever comes will being healthy. It was always about the company, brands and the history.

I called out a problem, first internally. The day I was appointed, I got every marketer on the phone. I said none of us are happy. I set an aspiration: that we would be and be seen as the best marketer in the world. That’s how we put our plan together and that is what we aspired to be. That was my job for seven years: to make us the best marketer in the world.

One specific thing we did was, I asked every business unit to do something they’d never done before and take a risk. The combination of all these experiments was great.

You work with a number of companies today. What’s their anxiety today?
We know people are communicating really differently and spending their time differently. And everyone is talking about moving from telling and selling to servicing and delighting. Actually doing that creates tremendous anxiety. That I see in every company I work with. They want to be more service oriented, but it’s hard to make the change.

But is there real anxiety? You came to P&G in 2001, the worst days of the Internet. What was you perspective then, were people fighting the Internet?
They did not know how to scale things back then. It all seemed very one-off. The questions were: What does an Internet campaign look like? How do I build brand equity? And video was best for storytelling, but no one knew it. Measurement was an issue, as always, but I think it’s a bit of a cop-out. Then we spent half a day on the West Coast with new mothers in Seattle. Based on this, we were able to do a communication plan on how to reach these mothers with Pampers messages. Then we visited a lot of the leading tech companies and asked for their input. Giving them [the brand managers] an immersive experience with today’s consumers and thought leaders was helpful. I was able to say, “Here are the questions you need to be asking.” That is the type of stuff that spurs innovation.

Every great company has a strong center on making a difference for people. Your head is in the sand if you don’t see where people are spending time now. Try stuff. Experiment. It is good for your career to try stuff and experiment, especially in mobile. It’s good for your career to have this experience because you learn things from it and you stand out.

[Now that you are a consultant to many large brands,] what is the process like to work with these companies and help them create change?
If someone calls, the first questions I ask are, “Why are you calling? How is your business? What motivated the dialogue? Are you happy with your marketing? Where do you rate your marketing and sales group? What are you trying to build?” That’s just to begin the dialogue. I’ll tell you, there are a lot of the issues in the industry because people don’t know how to answer these questions. You have to start with: What does excellence look like? Our [marketing’s] function in business is least understood. That’s why marketing is still a discipline that needs elevated standards. We are very activity-based, not results-based. We move to tactics without strategy. Always start with business objectives and then the tactics. That line of thinking makes sense for all brands.

How would you begin to talk about mobile at the companies you work with?
Understand the consumer. Be good at communications planning. Understand how consumers live their lives, how they relate to things around them. Then put together ideas. Don’t worry about technology. “It’s complicated” is just an excuse. Get the idea, and you can do anything. The partners [vendors] do everything anyway. The problem is really understanding the consumer and generating ideas based on that. Mobile lets us be closer than ever to consumers. We’ve never had an opportunity like this before.

Main image courtesy of Shutterstock

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