Is jaw-jaw better than Allan’s war?

It’s a bit of an understatement to say recessions don’t bring out the best in companies. They blight hope, blunt career aspirations and stifle creativity. But there is at least one exception to this pageant of gloom: what might be called the Churchill moment. Sometimes, things get so bad that conventional means of coping with the situation break down and an inspirational leader, prepared to act unconventionally, is drafted in.

Interim marketing appointments are nothing new in themselves. What does seem to be new is the trend towards more strategic appointments. Last week, for example, we discovered that a senior WPP executive was being parachuted into Burger King to conduct a fully-fledged brand review over the next six months. Embodying the trend – and its strengths and weaknesses – is Allan Leighton, the famously ‘plural’ marketing-bred executive. Leighton has deployed the skills he learned at Mars and Asda to good effect at Bhs and Lastminute.com. With Consignia – admittedly a much more difficult case to crack – the jury is still out. Yes, he has been a breath of fresh air in a remarkably stuffy organisation; and no one should underestimate his Herculean achievement in consigning the ill-fated Consignia brand to the waste-paper bin of corporate history. But his recent calculated appeal – over the heads of his own managers – to the workforce led to an embarrassing rebuff by the unions, which have accused him of cosmetic insincerity. It illustrates, apart from poor judgement perhaps, the difficulties facing an outsider hell-bent on rapid culture change in a large organisation.

Contrast Leighton’s pyrotechnic behaviour at Royal Mail with the slower-burning achievements of Alan Lafley at Procter & Gamble. P&G was never a corporate basket case but two years ago, when Lafley took over as chief executive, it was certainly in the throes of a severe crisis. Something was wrong with the mass-marketing techniques that P&G had played so prominent a part in pioneering many years earlier. Not only did they not work any more, no one seemed to know what the remedy was. A slash-and-burn regime under Durk Jager simply resulted in severe disruption, severer demoralisation and the first firing of a chief executive in P&G’s 116-year history.

Yet P&G has weathered the crisis under Lafley’s leadership – and not simply because of the performance of last year’s Clairol acquisition. Improvements have been seen across the board, in the healthcare and fabric and homecare businesses as well as in beauty care. Not many companies can boast ‘high teen’ earnings growth, or ‘strong buy’ recommendations on Wall Street.

Lafley may be many things, but Churchillian is not one of them: indeed, he is the ultimate insider – a P&G lifer. His success in reinventing P&G’s marketing formulae sends out a number of signals. It says that effective change can be engineered from the inside, even in a company as conservative and rigorous in its approach as P&G. And that it can be achieved through a patient consensus management style. It may also suggest – though this remains to be proved elsewhere – that the classic packaged goods companies are rather better at sorting out their own problems than are companies in other sectors.

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