Words by Harry Mosquera with Interviews by Angel Guerrero
There are three kinds of people in the world, reckons James Lafferty, recently retired president and general manager of Procter & Gamble Philippines.
The first group is comprised of people who do not get to fulfill their dreams. The second comes close to realizing their dreams: “You never marry the person you thought [you would] or [get] the job you thought you [would].” The third reaches their dreams or even exceeds them, through the choices and risks they take.
“I’m not a believer in having a perfect life because it never happens,” he states.
“I say, how many of you have dreams. And then I say whatever your dreams are, they won’t happen.”
Except that James is one perosn who exceeded his wildest dreams. His unconventional rise from fitness consultant to one of the world’s top marketing experts has taken him to four continents in the Procter & Gamble network.
Having taken up psychology and physiology in college, his management style involves an integrated approach to mind and body.
“I’m basically a coach at heart or a teacher, and that’s my strength,” James admits.
He believes a good marketing man must have two fundamental skills: strategic thinking and leadership.
“There are things I look beyond,” he adds. “It’s going after things that can’t be taught…that sense of passion, aggressiveness, desire to go after ‘it’. The [other] which is harder to teach, is creativity…the people who make an impact on your business who you can’t ever replicate is in areas like creativity.”
James assumed his post in Manila three years ago with the global economic downturn happening on his watch. This made business for the country’s largest fast-moving consumer goods company even more challenging.
“Some categories contracted in double digits,” he reveals. “Consumers economize. They’d take a sachet designed to be used one, and use this three times.”
His response was not cut on marketing costs.
“We try to stay true to the fundamentals,” James explains. “If you look at history, there are two brands that stand out: Toyota and Procter & Gamble. And the main reason is both stick to the basics of trying to deliver the right value to the consumer.”
He resisted diluting ingredients as a cost-saving measure.
“We made a real stand that we would stick to delivering what we say in advertising,” he says. “Some of our products we actually upgraded the performance in the middle of the crisis.”
“Crisis has led Procter & Gamble to tweak its marketing communications strategy.
“We’re not as TV-reliant as we used to be,” James avers. “We’ve started to spend that money and look at other media…the consumer has more areas where she’s looking for information.”
“I’m a big believer that some marketing is a matter of faith,” he continues. “And if you think this is the right thing to do, you have to believe it. When we used to do school sampling for certain products, [some said] it takes a long time [to get results]. You have to believe that sampling young adults when they are in a moment of making choices for themselves is important.”
In a business that relies on competitive information and consumer research for strategic and tactical decisions, James presents a different point of view: “Sometimes you can have too much data and it can paralyze you. And you still have to have faith!
Of course, simply relying on faith entails risk.
“You’ll never hear out of my mouth ‘I want a 100-percent success rate,’” he says. “I want to fail 30-percent of the time…because I want people to push. When I lived in Geneva and I would ski, the ski instructor always said the same thing. If you didn’t fall, you didn’t try enough.”
New media offers possibilities for additional avenues of consumer contact. I this, James remains ambivalent.
“We use digital as part of our marketing mix,” he clarifies. “It depends on the brand. It depends on the mix and what media that can target that.”
Procter & Gamble has been involved with different digital marketing campaigns worldwide. A few years ago, James worked on one featuring the toilet paper brand Charmin.
“It was one of our first attempts to get the viral concept spreading through e-mail, through word-of-mouth,” he recalls.
There was little or no cost in media space.
“Viral is a hit or miss, but we had a real hit. We were everywhere,” he says.
Many could not believe that Procter & Gamble would engage in such a campaign.
“P&G gets an interesting rap,” he muses. “We’re always seen as traditional. Whenever we do something a bit innovative, people would say, ‘I can’t believe it.’ You have to give us more credit. We’re incredibly adaptable in learning.”
Among the available digital technologies, he remains cool to the internet.
“I found that some of the bannering hasn’t worked out very well,” he says. “If I look at it from the point of view of the user, sometimes I don’t appreciate some of [them]. I don’t look at it, I don’t click on it.”
On the other hand, he is excited about mobile phones.
“Mobile–that’s where the big one will be,” he claims. “A big problem in digital today is that everyone comes around and makes these propositions on why [digital] is good. There are certain brands that digital is a no-brainer: niched categories, affluent categories.”
“I think the last frontier is traditional consumer goods going heavily into digital,” he says. “It is the company that cracks the cost nut that will control the game. The margins are still too high. The pricing is still very high.”
For digital technology to become more attractive, James offers this suggestion: “Get the cost per impression lower. Get it right, and the money will flow right into it.”
There is also not enough research on digital usage.
“Pretty virgin stuff,” James says. “I haven’t seen anything definitive. You need more longitudinal studies.”
James share an anecdote on effective advertising: “There’s an old joke that says: half of your advertising works, and half your advertising doesn’t. The problem lies in learning which half is which. It’s a tough call.”
“We believe advertising should communicate a message,” he says. “Our focus is still looking for market share. There are ads that win trophies, but nothing happens. The ultimate measure of brand advertising is on your brand equity.”
He then reveals one of many lessons in his career.
“The most important thing that took me a long time to figure out was that it has to be watchable,” he says of TV commercials. “If a consumer doesn’t want to watch it, then it doesn’t really matter how or what you say.”
At the end of the day, successful marketing is not about technology, but about people.
“We need people who are on the cutting edge,” he explains. “We still [need to] have a guy going digital, [others] doing grassroots marketing, going out to the provinces and doing demos in the town square. Demo-marketing. Letting people touch the product. That’s still part of the marketing mix. Force the pyramid structure.”
James’ career in global marketing would not have flourished, for as soon as he arrived in Morocco for his first overseas assignment, he was ready to return home. Then he received a call from an old-timer in the company.
“Don’t be an idiot,” he said. “You get a chance to live in Africa. Look at me–I’m 65, and I never got to do anything. All that I regret in life are the risks I didn’t take. You will regret it the rest of your life. Don’t stay in your comfort zone.”
He took the advice. But most importantly, he also took a leap of faith.
This article was first published in the March-April 2010 Issue #26 of adobo magazine with David Droga of Droga5 on the cover.