Marc Pritchard looks born to attend award shows.
The marketer’s signature white-smile-and-suit combo, so often at odds with the tattoos-and-t-shirts of his creative agencies, means he’s ready to gracefully swan in and out of the Ad Club of New York’s annual awards, collecting his trophy without having to stay for the coffee.
He’s allowed to – all bonafide ‘industry legends’ are.
The night, unfortunately, does not go that way. A death in the family means Pritchard apologetically chooses to skip the event entirely to remain close to home.
When the announcement that he's been honored as an 'industry legend' is made, the sympathy and disappointment in the room is palpable. Because a floor full of the USA’s brightest marketers wants to hear him speak – not about the industry, not about P&G, but about himself.
The 'good CMO' model
It was once only creatives that would dare hold the title of ‘industry celebrity’. Now, with their charismatic on-stage deliveries, rallying beliefs and (largely) impeccable wardrobes, it’s the brand leaders – JPMorgan's Kristin Lemkau, Fernando Machado of Burger King, ex-Airbnb chief marketer Jonathan Mildenhall, et al – that claim that venerable turf.
The longevity, authority and multi-billion-dollar budget of Pritchard in particular has turned the chief brand officer into some sort of mythical ad land messiah. And while he may not be as infallible a marketer as everyone may like him to be, there’s no denying he’s had a good run – a great, 37-year one, in fact.
Pritchard puts much of his success down to believing in P&G’s principle of “constructive disruption” since day one – literally – when then-boss Stanley Boric drilled into him that the company is “never satisfied with the status quo” during his induction in 1982.
“It means we're always striving to be better,” he says. “That’s never left me."
The mindset has led to some risk-taking, most of which has paid off.
In recent years Pritchard has very publicly denounced the way some parts of the industry have been left to run, calling out the “dark side” of the media chain, the failures of the duopoly, marketing's lack of diversity and the plodding archaism of the agency model.
Then there’s the work: the iconic ‘Easy Breezy Beautiful CoverGirl’ of the 90s, the empowering #LikeAGirl for Always and the more recent meta reworking of of Gillette's ‘The Best A Man Can Get’, which admitted the brand’s previously failsafe macho narrative was no longer OK.
‘The Talk’, a film that quietly yet painfully addressed systemic racism in the US, was bold enough to drop the blunt realities of the African American experience into almost every home across the country too.
“It would’ve been easy to drop the idea of 'The Talk' at several points along the way, but Marc didn’t,” recalls David Lubars, the chief creative officer of the spot’s agency, BBDO Worldwide.
“[Marc] believed in it, walked the walk. If you aspire to be a chief marketing officer, he’s a pretty good model to shoot for: soulful, thoughtful, creative, and believes in the magic good brands can bring to people.”
The perpetual student
Such risks are divisive. P&G’s shift towards social purpose in its comms did not sit well with the world's conservatives, a number of whom threatened to boycott the Gillette brand altogether after the release of ‘We Believe’.
And Pritchard has made some less subjective missteps too. P&G’s decision to bring programmatic buying in-house in a project dubbed Hawkeye was bold but perhaps premature; AdAge reported the company was left exposed to those “dark places” on the web that Pritchard so despises after freezing out agency partners.
Meanwhile, AdExchanger reported, its in-house relationship with tech supplier AudienceScience was nothing less than frosty.
But Pritchard is the first to admit he will always have a lot to learn.
“My early days [at P&G] were amazing, because I was learning a ton,” he says. “The reality is, I'm still learning a ton. It hasn't stopped. I would say it probably has increased exponentially.”
So Pritchard, at the age of 59, continuously sends himself back to school. He and his leadership team look externally in order to “figure out how to reinvent brand-building”, and are often found tapping into the wisdom of “academics, thought leaders, startups, entrepreneurs” and anyone with the ability to put P&G firmly “in touch with today’s culture”.
These experts include the line-up of P&G’s annual Signal conference, an event that reaches roughly 2,000 of its employees. Pritchard reels off past line-ups with glee: Arianna Huffington, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bozoma Saint John, Miranda Qu...
“I could go on,” he says. “But the point is, we wanted to find people who could inspire our organization into really innovating for the future.”
The unlikely mentee
Pritchard has collected his own personal sources of inspiration throughout his corporate career.
Sure, P&G titans such as Susan Arnold and John Pepper make the list, but so do the agency staff that got his campaigns off the ground: people like his long-term PR confidante Marina Maher, Alice Ericcson and Mark Fina from Grey’s days with CoverGirl, and McDonald’s legend Marlena Peleo-Lazar, who once upon a time worked with Pritchard when he was her client at Secret deodorant.
But the real guiding light in Pritchard’s life and career has been his father. The marketer has publicly spoken of his paternal Mexican heritage and the burden of hiding it, recalling how his father used to encourage him to tick the Caucasian box on job applications to help him get ahead.
But when the job offer at P&G came through, Pritchard recalls, it was his father who set the course for the rest of the marketer’s career.
“He said, ‘Woah, that's the greatest company in the world. Congratulations. Now you need to go in there with your hat in hand’. Which meant, you need to be humble.
“Frankly that’s one of the values of this company. Our values start with integrity, then leadership, ownership, passion for winning and trust. And behind all that there is an element of humility, because even when we're doing well, we always think we can do better.”
‘Industry legend’ status notwithstanding, Pritchard is unlikely to ever be finished. Content is the next item on his list to disrupt, while the industry curiously awaits the outcome of his Woven agency experiment for its fabric care business.
But don’t expect the arrival of the omnipotent marketing Messiah when Pritchard enters the meeting room. He’ll be there with his pencil poised, hat in hand, ready and willing to relearn 37 years of marketing.