As one of the world’s leading marketers, Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at Procter & Gamble, is driving a transformational agenda of equality and transparency. He speaks with WARC’s Anna Hamill for WARC Marketer's Toolkit 2021 on reinventing brands post-COVID, prioritising media transparency, and pursuing accountability on diversity. 

You've worked in marketing for many years. Is this the most extraordinary year that you've experienced in your career?

I would have to say that, yes, it has been the most extraordinary year.

I expected 2020 to be busy and started it excited, but also a little uncertain. I thought at first it was maybe because we had so many big plans – we had the Tokyo Olympics, we had Global Citizen, the Superbowl, CES, Cannes Lions, a bunch of new content partnerships … Then coronavirus happened and, in mid-March, we went into lockdown. So I realised, “A-ha; now it's changed.”. That uncertainty turned to resolve, and that has led to a real flurry of activity to step up as a force for good and, of course, for growth.

When you realised that COVID-19 was going to be here for a long time, and that it would be a defining moment for your brands, what were those initial decisions you made to get the ball rolling?

Key insights:

  • Brands need to reinvent themselves in the wake of COVID-19 and social justice movements by focusing on brand benefits and making tangible, measurable efforts on boosting equality. 
  • P&G is leaning into programmatic and over-the-top streaming as major opportunities in the next year, but TV continues to play an important role in Western markets. 
  • In the e-commerce space, P&G is focusing on winning share of search.

The first job that we focused on, and we said this very clearly, was stepping up as a force for good: job number one was ensuring that all of our employees were safe … The next job was supplying our cleaning, health and hygiene products, which are more in demand than ever. The third thing was we made a decision that we were going to really step up to serve and help communities in need. 

We immediately started looking at our marketing, and made sure that all of our advertising and marketing was focused on being useful to people. Now was the time to reinforce how to use the products and how to get the best benefits. We did “how-to” things on sanitising surfaces, shaving for a better mask fit, skincare, free laundry to frontline responders, etc. We really wanted to make sure we were focused on being useful. We already had a major disaster relief effort, and we pivoted all that disaster relief to donations.

We did public service work. We teamed up with Charli D’Amelio for “The Distance Dance Challenge” on TikTok to remind people to socially distance, and that received more than 17 billion views. We also did “Masks On, Ohio” to help the people of Ohio wear masks. 

We started looking at the inequalities that were happening, too. Seventy-five percent of workers on the front line are women and they are dealing with the majority of job losses. They're dealing with the double jeopardy of working at home and more work with home schooling.

Then we focused on the Hispanic community, the Black community and the LGBTQ community. We really stepped up donation efforts, but also worked with broadcasters and digital companies to create benefits like Global Citizen: Together at Home, Black Entertainment Television’s Saving Our Selves … you name it.

Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer, Procter & Gamble

You said back in June that it was “inescapably clear that we have a responsibility to reinvent ourselves” in response to COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter. What does that look like in practice at a big picture level?

It’s about reinventing ourselves with what we like to call “constructive disruption”. It’s leading the reinvention of ourselves from being brands and companies that are about themselves, to brands and companies that are being a force for good and a force for growth. That's what reinvention looks like. 

What that looks like, then, is you have to, first and foremost, focus on what you do in terms of the benefit you provide. That’s really job number one, and that's what we did. We really focused, during COVID-19, on stepping up to make sure that our products – which are cleaning, health and hygiene products – are doing their job, being useful, and communicating to people about how to use these products.

The second one is stepping up for things like helping the community and stepping up big time for equality. In the past several months that has been, I would say, the biggest effort that we have focused on. I mentioned gender equality, but also [we’re focused] big time on racial equality.

As the social unrest occurred after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and so many others, we really focused on stepping up for equality, firstly in our advertising: So, using our voice to make sure we always accurately portray everyone regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, and so forth. We invested in the “‘Take On Race”’ programme to drive equity.

The other action that is key is getting equality in our creative and media supply chain. It’s about ensuring equitable investment. That means investing in Black-, Hispanic-, Asian-, Pacific- and Native American-owned companies. By the way, it should be done for any race or ethnicity in any country. Then, it’s stepping up on eliminating hateful content. 

That's what brands really have a responsibility to do. 

WARC’s data indicates that many brands will reduce investment in brand advertising in 2021. P&G has chosen to double down on brand visibility this year and increased its media investment. Tell me about that decision.

In our company, the business model focuses on everyday use. For cleaning, health and hygiene products, performance drives choice of the brand. When performance drives choice, then we have to make sure we have a superior offering. We really look for an offer that we call “irresistibly superior”: so superior that you really notice it. That means the product and packaging has to be that way, but also how we communicate, the in-store or purchase experience, and the value. 

When it comes to how we communicate, that's advertising and media. Our intent is to reach as many people as we can – with as little excess frequency as possible – with strong messages to help people understand: what is this product? How does it help you? Why is it better? Why should you buy it? That's why we're really doubling down on communication and advertising. People need our products and we want to make sure that it’s available for them, so that's why we're continuing to press ahead.

In terms of channels, are there any priority areas of investment or opportunities that seem most obvious?

When it comes to media, it depends on the country. In China, 80% of our spending is digital in some form. A lot of that goes to Alibaba or, the e-commerce platforms. There's also social platforms like WeChat and the Chinese version of TikTok.

In the US, we are still spending a pretty good chunk on TV but that's starting to shift to over-the-top streaming. Digital is still a major area. We're shifting more of our spending to programmatic because we want to make sure we can reach the many, many publishers out there. There’s more going into voice.

It really depends on the country. But if there's any one trend, I think it’s the trend toward over-the-top streaming. 

Have you evolved your e-commerce strategy in the last six to eight months to be able to capitalise more on those new opportunities?

We’re working pretty hard on making sure we can win search in e-commerce, as well as helping people understand how to use the products most effectively. That's probably the biggest thing we focused on. We are [also] increasingly seeing brick-and-mortar retailers like Walmart and Target integrating greater and greater degrees of e-commerce as part of their business model.

You have talked about investing more in programmatic, which is more accountable than advertising on digital platforms with opaque algorithms. How is that guaranteeing brand safety? What changes would you like the major platforms to make to attract more of your investment?

On programmatic, we have a system that we work with that ensures we find sites and publishers which are clean and safe. We also work with exclusion filters that allow us to screen out sites or places where we don't want our advertising showing up. So it's actually a very, very effective system. 

The beauty of programmatic is that it allows us to reach many, many publishers and platforms in a way that is brand safe, and in a way where we can cap the frequency. We don't keep sending the same message over and over again to the same person, which is just annoying and wastes money. That's why we like programmatic and why we're increasing investment in it. In places like China, the vast, vast majority of our digital spending is programmatic, as well.

What we want the platforms to do on brand safety is eliminate hateful and harmful content online. We've made some progress by aligning to the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) … We've aligned on the standards of what constitutes hateful and harmful content, but what we need now is reporting. We need to know how much is on the platform, how much has been taken off, how much is adjacent to brands. We need to know how much is eliminated before it’s seen, and we need third-party, objective auditing from them. 

And we need alternatives. YouTube has done a nice job on alternatives: we worked with them [for] over a year when we weren't on YouTube. They reduced the number of channels that they monetized; they set terms on how many views are going to be required before monetizing; and then they worked with an outside firm to ensure that the channels on which we advertise are safe. 

That's a great alternative for us. I appreciate that. And we need a similar type of thing with all the platforms. 

How are you applying that philosophy to the emerging platforms that you're working with? You mentioned TikTok, but for some of these emerging platforms, there have been concerns around data privacy and safety. What are your thoughts on that?

Not having hateful, harmful content is table stakes. It is really foundational … The broadcast world has very clear standards; it’s actually regulated. It's astounding that we're 30 years into the digital world, and we're still self-regulating. This is not where marketers want to spend their time; we want to spend time on creativity, innovation, doing good and driving growth. 

So, the expectation that we have is that any platform has got to find a way to ensure that they don't have harmful and hateful content on their platform. However they need to do that, they need to figure it out.

They either need to clear it out when it shows up, or they need to make sure that it's isolated and not seen by people, and that there's never a chance for a brand or an ad to be next to harmful or hateful content. That's what we expect. We're spending way too much time on this as an industry. There's better things we should be spending our time on than something as basic as not having hateful and harmful content online.

TV buying is another area which P&G have disrupted, recently pulling out of the up-fronts. Are there other areas, media or creative, that you're thinking about bringing in-house?

We've done a lot of media planning and analytics in-house, and now we've done a lot more of the direct negotiations in-house. In some cases, we’ve done some of our commercial production in-house and there’s a lot of stuff we can do now with our marketing assets. 

We've got an example in our Asia, Middle East and Africa business: they’ve got this hybrid that’s got the agency people in the in-house agency. What it does is accelerate speed and creativity. You can really move at the speed of culture when you have that. It lowers costs, increases speed and I think it increases creativity. It's actually dramatically increasing job satisfaction and building the business.

The WARC Marketer’s Toolkit survey suggests that sponsorship spend is going to take a battering in 2021, and perhaps that's expected. P&G is an Olympic sponsor. How are you amending your Tokyo 2020 plans in terms of creative and media channels? Are you investing that money elsewhere in the business?

When P&G enters a partnership, we tend to enter those partnerships on a long-term basis ... The Olympics sponsorship has been from 2010 to 2020, and we just renewed up through Los Angeles [in 2028]. We've found a pretty good model on this that works for us, in that we work together with our brands, which basically use this as a tentpole opportunity and convert some of their marketing work to an Olympic focus. 

At the same time, P&G typically creates an ad, such as the “Thank You, Mom” work, then we work with retailers which use this as an opportunity.

On Tokyo, we’ve obviously had to delay some of that work and other efforts. But we have to wait to see what exactly [the Olympic Committee] are going to do … We’ve really got to look and see how they're going to do that, so we can figure out what's the best way for us to be able to activate. Our teams are still activating and still ramping up to it, so we’ll see.

For us, the Olympics is not just about the Games themselves. They're really about the athletes and their families, as you've seen with the work we've done. It’s more about the human aspect, so that’s why we’ve pivoted a lot of our Olympic efforts towards our “citizenship” platform.  

Have you found that P&G’s work in the purpose space has gained new relevance this year, given COVID-19 and a fraught political climate? What are your 2021 priority areas in terms of messaging and evolving this going forward?

At P&G, we call it citizenship. Our company focuses on its purpose to improve the lives of the world's consumers … Then, that translates into being a good citizen, which basically means being a force for good and a force for growth. We literally built in citizenship to how we do business. It's in the areas of equality, inclusion, environmental sustainability and community impact. 

I think, because we had already been doing those things, 2020 has been an inflection point and it's risen to a new level. We were ready for it, because we’ve been doing it. We were able to pivot our disaster relief efforts to COVID-19. When it came to equality and inclusion, we'd been working on gender equality, racial equality and LGBTQ equality, so we were able to pivot instantly and do more – both within our company and our brands.

We are working on the climate as well – we made a major announcement on what we're doing to reduce carbon emissions over the next few years. I think it has taken on a new permanence, and it’s been important. We were ready for it, and consumers are really ready for it

Consumers are now demanding to know what brands and companies stand for. [They] want to know what you're doing beyond just making money. They want to know what you're doing is good. 

The WARC Marketer’s Toolkit survey showed that only a small proportion of agencies and brands surveyed have a diversity and inclusion programme underway. Many still don’t have a plan at all or aren't focusing on it. What's your reaction to that? And what would your advice be for those agencies or brands looking to make a change in 2021?

In some ways, it does surprise me, because I thought there would be a greater emphasis on that. 

I think what happened over these last few months, especially after the death of George Floyd, is that it became inescapable. The scourge of racism has literally been around for centuries; it's not like it’s brand new. And I think many have just not faced it and dealt with it because it is hard. But it is inescapable this time, and people need to step up. 

My advice is, basically, step up. In our industry, create an equal supply chain. In other words: equal representation in your own company, with your agencies, with your production crews, and with your media providers - 50:50 men and women, and the race or ethnic composition should be equivalent to what it is in your country.

Put the wheels in motion to make that happen. It requires systemic work. It doesn’t just happen. You’ve got to create your staffing plans, you’ve got to set the goals by level. 

Every quarter, our senior leaders really define how we are going to make sure that we get people in the right positions. You have to be deliberate about placing women, as well as Black, Hispanic or Asian people, because if you don't deliberately place them, it won't necessarily happen. You’ve got to make it happen. 

You’ve got to, also, bust the myths and have those hard conversations. One of the myths is the “pipeline myth”, which is an inaccurate statement that the talent doesn't exist. Not true. It’s out there; your job is to find it. Find the talent, and make it happen. That's what I think the industry has to do: break down those barriers and make systemic change.

What have you personally learned about being a leader of a marketing team through this period of crisis?

What comes to my mind most clearly is the importance of humanity, of really spending time to ensure that you're connecting with people on a deeply human level. The silver lining about working remotely is that the playing field is levelled. We're sitting here in our homes … That humanity comes through, and I think that's been great. It's actually created a higher degree of inclusion, collaboration and creativity.

 We’re deliberately defining who needs to be on a team, and how we get everybody to come together to make it happen. Then you're on your “Brady Bunch”-style video call and you see everybody [and think,] “Wow, this is a diverse team, this is cool,” then you make things happen in real time.  

The other thing I would say is that the degree to which human suffering has occurred [during COVID-19] is deeply personally affecting. I've been around a long time, but it still really deeply affects me.

I think, if nothing else, it’s been a much more emotional time because there's some really wrenching problems. But it's also dramatically increased our resolve, and we are more determined than ever to make a change and make a difference.