Widely considered the world's most powerful marketer, Marc Pritchard probably wields the biggest global PR budget too, as part of his overarching remit as chief brand officer of consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble. But it is not just Pritchard's spending power that commands respect. His long tenure — he has led P&G's brand-building efforts for a decade now — gives him a unique vantage point on marketing disruption in an era when many CMOs last for considerably less time in their roles.

Pritchard has learned to use this influence to significant effect, regularly challenging and provoking agencies, media platforms and his own teams about the need for reinvention at all levels. Neither is this confined to rhetoric alone; his efforts include high-profile initiatives to create new agency models, increase marketing efficiency and improve digital media transparency.

Pritchard will headline the Holmes Report's PRovoke18 Global Summit in Washington, DC, on 24 October. Six years ago, at his last Global PR Summit appearance, he called on the PR industry to take on more of a leadership role. This was just one of the issues discussed when we caught up with him this week for an extensive interview that explored agency challenges, the PR industry's opportunity, reputation management in the fake news era, the changing nature of creativity, employee ambassadors, the fear of failure and much more.

In 2012, you challenged the PR industry to take on a leadership role, using ‘Thank You Mom’ as an example. Has the industry risen to that challenge? How is that demonstrated in P&G’s work?

I think the PR industry has absolutely been stepping up to reinvent brand communications and the industry can feel quite good about it. We’re reinventing brand-building to move to more one-to-one marketing and, frankly, a lot of that is being driven by the expertise and skills and competencies from the world of PR. If you think about our SK-II 'Change Destiny' campaign, it has stories and content developed like the 'Marriage Market Takeover' and 'Expiry Date', but it’s fuelled by influencers who do content creation and advertising for the brand, and that’s a PR skill.

The revitalisation of the Olay brand is another great example. They’ve moved from doing several different ads on mass media but ended up going to one, but they pivoted to several different influencers, where they ended up doing content. The 'Fearless 9', who are also being advocated for and talked about through PR and influencer content. Things like the Tide Super Bowl [campaign], there was a team of people around. You definitely had a lot of PR people at the command centre fuelling content throughout that entire effort. Back to the Olympics, that is largely driven by PR and influencers. We created this wonderful Thank You Mom asset — #LoveOverBias — with a family home that is in the actual Olympic Park, which is really a PR and content hub that is distributing and creating news and stories and endorsements that happen. Bottomline, I think the industry has stepped up quite a bit.There’s still plenty of things that need to happen in terms of stepping up. The content space is very wide open. Content and media partnerships. It’s right in [the PR industry’s] hands. Don’t blow it. It’s yours to lose.

You also said at the same event that the PR industry needs to lose its inferiority complex, particularly where creativity is concerned. Do you still think that is a concern?

I hear far fewer concerns about that these days. There used to be a lot of discussion about having a seat at the table. But I hear that less, because more PR pros are grabbing the wheel and showing their creative brilliance. Everything I just cited represented a lot of PR creativity that was integrated throughout the entire programs. 'The Talk' — that was almost completely fuelled by PR, including when there were some tough discussions we needed to have about that. The PR professionals stepped up. I think what’s happening today is that creativity is becoming so integrated that it’s starting to get hard to discern where the ideas are coming from. I was in Latin America last week and I saw this great program from Secret  — 'No Sweat, Move Forward' — challenging conventional stereotypes about women, and it's very much powered by PR. 

How hard is this equation for PR firms if advertising agencies are typically viewed as the brand guardians? How has P&G addressed this challenge?

One of the things we’ve done is reinvent our agency partnerships. We had been outsourcing too much of our work to all agencies. And our brand people had become too much like project managers. We want them to be brand entrepreneurs. Our expectation is that those brand entrepreneurs are the brand guardians. So we’re moving from outsourcing to getting our brand entrepreneurs' hands on the keyboard. That means they are the ones leading it. We’ve changed the expectation and our agency models. We’re talking now about a fixed and flow model — one fixed agency retainer partnership and then you flow different firms coming in as needed and that gives PR firms a much more direct shot at doing the work and, in many cases, doing it with the brand leader as opposed to another agency.

Our fabric care model brings in the best from various shops. In that one, it turns out MMC is a core partner and very much at a leadership level for that. The other thing is we’ve really invested in content partnerships that start to reinvent advertising to be less ‘ad like’ and more authentic. So, partnerships with Katie Couric Media, which today released her first instalment of 'Getting There', which is much more editorial in nature. And we have a relationship with Queen Latifah. Partnerships with VaynerMedia and BuzzFeed. It’s changing the nature of the creativity.

On fabric care, you have trialled a model that puts different holding company agencies under one roof. How is that working and will you look to extend it?

We call it a people first model. We brought them all together under one roof, one banner. It’s still pretty early days, but it’s off to a very strong start. It’s probably too early to decide whether we want to expand it but certainly we would be absolutely open to it. I’ve already seen the behaviour change in that it is really an integrated team effort where they are focused on solving business problems through creativity and there’s not this siloed distinction between the ad agency, PR agency, design agency, the instore agency. It’s really an integrated team of passionate people who are solving problems. Just recently for example, we brought some content creators here and members of that team showed up to engage with them. 

Does this kind of initiative negate the power of an agency brand or does that not concern you?

I’m not concerned about it because what I see is these people still feel very connected to their agency. Because creatives want to be with other creatives within their other agencies. But then they come and work on this. It helps keep them connected to their other agency partners. 

One of the PR industry’s big concerns is being able to demonstrate the effectiveness of its work. Are you happy with solutions that claim to link content to commerce, whether that’s in China or elsewhere?

I still think there’s more work to be done. But what I think is that we’re making more progress than we’ve made in the past. We’re reinventing media and advertising and what this has done is give us consumer databases which enable us to more directly connect with audiences and consumers with much greater precision. We’re better able to see the instant effect of content so that helps us better connect PR activities with sales outcomes. 

Impressions are good to know because you get a general sense of whether something was popular, but that’s still pretty blunt. The more we move to mass reach with one-to-one precision, the more valuable PR is, because it’s actually directly linked to sales outcomes. We’re starting to see this as we get into more of the, for want of a better term, 'performance brand building'. We’re seeing influencer posts drive engagement on a particular asset and then ultimately connect to the sales. We’re getting much closer to daily, business outcome activities and that bodes well for the PR world. 

A couple of years ago, you whittled down your global PR roster to five agencies. Has that been as effective as you hoped in terms of driving stronger outcomes for your brands, and what could agencies be doing better in this structure?

That was part of our overall agency reinvention which we’re feeling is really making a difference. The fixed and flow model also applies to the PR world. All agencies, including PR, have really stepped up. They have invested in creativity which is what we wanted and focused much more on working together with each other and taking out the unnecessary touches. We just absolutely have no time for all the extra touches. We still need to constantly step our game up for content creation that is moving at the speed of popular culture. We need more people stepping up and getting their hands on the keyboard. That requires a greater degree of agility and, in some cases, as part of this model we are using smaller, more agile boutique shops where needed. 

Brands these days are expected to be a force for good as well as a force for growth. It’s one thing making that case externally, but how do you turn your 95k employees into brand advocates?

As we make the case externally that same case is made internally. Our 95k employees are also consumers and they are as interested in what the rest of our consumers are interested in too. They are looking for companies and brands to have a point of view and express that point of view and serve consumers with our superior products. But, go beyond that to do good for the world, whether that’s gender equality, racial equality, environmental sustainability. And what we see is tremendous pride in our company.

We just did our annual survey and 90% of our employees say they are proud to work for P&G and that they use our products and recommend them to family and friends. Our internal PR pros created a brand ambassador program that is thousands strong and growing every day. Literally every time we do something, they go ahead and distribute that to their social networks. I really believe that P&G's people are P&G’s most valuable asset. What we’ve had is the opportunity where we’ve been able to have some of our own people be spokespeople on our products. Like Sara Giovanni, the researcher and scientist who created Pampers Pure. Doing something good for her own babies inspired her to create Pampers Pure. We filmed her and made her an Instagram ambassador.

People take tremendous pride in #LoveOverBias, #WeSeeEqual advertising. Gus Kenworthy on Head & Shoulders. The Vicks campaign featuring the transgender mom [#TouchOfCare]. That stuff, people are jazzed by and that’s what gets people to be advocates, when they are proud of work that our brands do, they talk about it with their family and friends.

You want your brands to be trusted. But how much harder is reputation management in a world where fake news has become weaponised and more of a threat than ever before?

We really go back to our core values. We have a set of values and principles. One of which is integrity. As a result of that, and this is something we always think of in the PR world, we are a company and a set of brands that focus on substance, and proof and action to be useful, not just talk. In this world, our belief is that eventually the truth prevails. So that’s why we stick with this integrity point. And why it’s so important and ingrained. Eventually, it all works out. 

Agency complexity, as you have pointed out, should not be your problem. But should client complexity — whether that’s different silos or budgets or fiefdoms — be an agency’s problem?

You know...no. One of the biggest enemies for all of us, is unnecessary complexity. The world is complex enough. What that does require is all of us to be constantly diligent at eliminating unnecessary touches. One of our agency partners talked about this — we want more focus on creativity. We want agencies to focus more of their resources on creativity. What that does is reduce the amount of client service we expect. So we had a buddy system, where every P&G person had a client service buddy. We’ve really had to focus on reducing that. The whole mindset of getting our hands on the keyboard to do the actual work starts to facilitate that. Then we want to work with the partners in our agencies who can make that go faster. It increases speed, it cuts down on cost and it accelerates brilliant creativity. For the influencer model, you need to be moving at the speed of the market. You don’t have time for complexity. 

Why is P&G trying to trademark textspeak acronyms like LOL for its products? 

IDK. I guess you’ll have to wait and see. You’ll see. There’s some good creativity involved in that. Smiley face emoji after that. 

You’ve often said that marketers need courage. What is it they fear most and has that changed at all in your decade overseeing P&G’s marketing?

There are a lot of people who have tremendous courage to try things. What I’ve tried to encourage people to do is, every once in a while, stake your career on something. If you have the courage of your convictions go for it and trust your instincts. What I think people may fear, and I just had this conversation with a group of brand people, they are afraid of failing. That is a bit of human nature.

So, we’re adopting lean innovation techniques. We went to Silicon Valley and learned from the likes of Steve Blank and Eric Ries about how startups operate and we’ve started applying those techniques. You’re doing a lot of experiments on a small scale, so you have to try and be willing to fail, pivot and eventually hit the winner, and expand. It brings the cost of failure down.

What has happened in the mass marketing world is that it has involved such big bets that there is a high cost of failure. That’s one of the reasons many spend a lot of time trying to qualify something before it gets to market. What we’ve done is try to flip that. Act like a startup, take the small bet, learn, fail, pivot, learn, expand. That is quite exciting. People get to make things happen, they get to see the effect immediately, failures are not catastrophic, and that’s bringing an explosion of creativity.

Zevo is a startup brand. Olay Skin Advisor is a classic example of an app we’ve created. We’ve bought Native. We’ve bought First Aid Beauty. We have more than a 100 different small scale experiments going on in totally different types of innovation. It’s pretty pervasive now. A lot of the influencer work we did on Olay was taking that approach.