Siesmic shift at Unilever: P&G-er as CEO!

I fell off my chair when I read today the news about Unilever's new CEO. Not only has Unilever hired an outsider as CEO for the first time in its 100+ year history. It has poached a guy who worked for 26 years at none other than …. P & bloody G.

The headlines refer to Paul Polman as a Nestle guy, but he only joined them in 2006. No, Mr Polman is a Proctoid, that's for sure.

Now I know both companies well, having worked for P&G in brand management, and with Unilever on brand strategy projects. These two great companies remain today the best places in the world to start a career in marketing in my books. But the cultures are totally different, and it will be fascinating to follow the fall-out when Polam takes up the reins at the end of this year.

Unilever places a lot of importance on intution and tapping into the emotions of consumers. When they get it right, they have produced some of the best marketing campaigns ever: think Dove, Axe/Lynx, Persil/Omo/Dirt is Good, Timotei (for our younger readers, this was a big shampoo in the last century). The way of working has been much more collaborative, with plenty of discussion and debate. And until recently, there was a lot of local autonomy, althought that is now starting to change.

P&G could not be more different. I always say that if you cut a P&G-er, product comes out, not blood. There is an unrelenting drive to improve product performance. And historically, the story was that agency creatives would run a mile rather than work on P&G business. However, this has changed in recent years, with more effort put into also communicating more creatively. This saw P&G crowned Advertiser of the Year at Cannes, as covered in this post. But its the culture that is totally different. There are NO people hired from outside, ever. You start at the bottom and work up. There are extremely rigorous processes with a way to do everything. And its a command and control organisation that has been running brands globally for over a decade. Its the US Marines.

Boy its a brave and bold move from Unilever. I just hope that the cultural shock is not too much. Sometimes, a new leader can be rejected by the organisation, like a body rejecting an organ transplant. This is what happened at P&G itself, when it appointed Dutch Maverick Durk Jaeger as CEO in the late 90's, first non-US CEO. He pushed the company to both acclerate innovation, and make it more radical. Core products were neglected, market shares suffered. According to the book Pay Without Performance during his 17 months in the job the share price of P&G dropped 50%, wiping $70billion off the value of the company (see this blip in the share price on the chart below).

 He was replaced in 2000 by a more classic P&G-er, A.J. Laffley, who repaired the culture, and got things back on track. Since then P&G has again been a stellar performer.Picture 1

So, it really will be fascinating to see how Poll fares at Unilever. Check back in a year's time to see how he is getting on!