George Parker: how I played and lost the P&G numbers game

News in last week’s Ad Age that that Procter & Gamble is reorganizing its management structure to get greater efficiencies from its semi-autonomous business units, almost made me choke on my breakfast beer. No matter how it reorganizes itself it will remain as a perfect example of how fucked up most giant corporations are.

I first was blessed to work on P&G during my early Mad Man days at B&B, New York (which coincidentally was housed at 666 Fifth Avenue, the one that Jared Kushner owes billions on after the worst real estate deal in the history of the fucking universe.) I was warned that unless I shaved my beard off before visiting its Cincinnati headquarters I might be black balled from future visits. My boss overcame this hurdle by explaining that I was English and therefore had decidedly Un-American personal hygiene habits. Also as I was to work on the Charmin account I was warned that in no circumstance was I to refer to the product as “toilet rolls”… They were “bathroom tissues.”

I hasten to add, that I did not invent the ubiquitous Charmin character Mr. Whipple (left), I inherited him from John Chervokas who created him a year before I arrived at B&B. At least, you can’t blame me for that. Although, Mr. Whipple was the longest running TV ad character played by the same actor, Dick Wilson, who appeared in more than 500 spots over almost thirty years. A little known and surprising fact is that Wilson, who was Canadian, enlisted in the RAF in 1939 and become one of the most decorated Spitfire pilots in the Battle of Britain… “Squeeze that” indeed.

Anyway… To the point of this screed… The first time I went to P&G headquarters in Cincinnati, I went for pee in one of the men’s bathrooms to discover that half the stalls were roped off. When I asked why, I was informed that management had done a time & motion study that showed employees were wasting time by preferring to use the far away shitters. Hence the rope.

Executives were also permitted to place pictures on the walls of their offices. However these had to be acquired from the P&G picture library (they all looked like Hallmark greeting cards.) Depending on your seniority, that determined how many pictures you were allowed.

The highlight of my first visit was when I was taken for lunch in the P&G commissary. As I was with management, we sat in the section behind the plastic potted plants. When it came time to order, everything on the menu had a number next to it, you then took an IBM punch card from a box in the middle of the table and circled the numbers of what you wanted. (Yes, it was a long time ago.)

The lunch arrived on compartmentalized mess trays, but at least was edible (obviously, no booze) At the end of the meal the waitress then brought everyone a coffee. I didn’t get one, I signalled the waitress and asked if I could get a cup of coffee. “You didn’t circle number 21 on your order” she said. “Oh, sorry” I said, “could you still bring me a cup of coffee,” I repeated. “You didn’t circle number 21 on your order” she said and walked away. I turned to the senior P&G executive sat next to me and asked if he could persuade her to bring me a coffee… “You didn’t circle number 21,” he said.

I wonder if they’ve reorganized that part yet?

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About George Parker

George Parker has spent 40 years on Madison Avenue. He’s won Lions, CLIOs, EFFIES, and the David Ogilvy Award. His blog is adscam.typepad.com, which is required reading for those looking for a gnarly view of the world’s second oldest profession.” His latest book, Confessions of a Mad Man, makes the TV show Mad Men look like Sesame Street.

4 comments

  1. Thanks…very interesting story.

    One correcton, thought:

    Dick Wilson was in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

    And not the RAF.

  2. I also had the misfortune to work on Charmin in New York at ‘Benton and Bowels’ as the observant gentlemen at the American embassy in London wrote in my passport.
    I remember this first time I went to visit the client in Cincinnati and thinking to myself Albert Speer is alive and designing P&G buildings, needless to say it went downhill from there.
    On a lighter note, I’m an avid reader of your website and often nick your pearls of advertising wisdom to show my advertising students in sunny California

  3. Thanks Andrew – Benton and Bowels, brilliant.

    All the best to you and your students.

  4. Douglas… Yes dead right. He was in the RCAF. Tried to find a picture of him in uniform. No luck. Even though he obviously knew I was British, he never mentioned his wartime experiences. Just a nice unassuming chap who didn’t want you squeezing his “Bathroom Tissues.
    Andrew… Yes indeed, P&G architecture is very “Speeresque.” As a P&G ad alumni, you must have done your fair share of “Slice of life” TV spots. Usually two women sat at a kitchen table discussing the merits of detergent. A giant box of which is sharing their table. We used to call them “Slice of Death” spots. Ah, the good old days.
    Cheers/George

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