Confessions of an Accidental Headhunter

Chapter 3;

P&G and Unilever developed marketeers; whom will Google develop?


“How do you do it”, people asked? How did we find those people in the ’90s, some of whom are highly respected in the marketing world today? And if I am honest, I didn’t have a clear answer then, and looking back, I cannot clearly recall now, how we did it then.

I can recall what we did not do. In the UK in the early 90’s, the recruiters in marketing and advertising often ran advertisements in “Campaign” or “Marketing Week”, with short descriptions of the roles they sought to fill. We considered doing this in “Strategie”, but I am pretty sure we did not do it. It was clear that it was not read as widely as the UK magazines were. Many corporate roles were advertised  in MfD or HN, but the space was expensive, and most readers would be completely outside our area of interest. In the first months, I just met more or less anybody who had something close to “marketing” on their cvs or even just seemed to suggest they had a “spark” and spoke fluent English. That was another piece of good fortune. Everyone wanted to work in international companies and agencies, and they required English skills, so it didn’t matter that my Czech language skills were developing very slowly.


However, by around 1996, it became clear what was creating talented young marketing people: Training! And the best place to get this training was at an international FMCG company, and especially at P&G or Unilever. Both these companies had decided to invest heavily in the country, with big factories and graduate recruitment schemes. I knew what kind of training they would get as young marketing people, because I had been through it myself. FMCG marketing required and taught clear, focused thinking. Objectives – Strategy -Plan. Primary objective: contribution to profit. They wanted you to treat your brand as your own mini-business. If you get this training early (in the UK I was 22 when it all started) it never leaves you, like learning a language when you are still a child. And slowly I saw that it was happening here. Some of them were already coming to my office. And because it was clear that word of mouth was driving people to our door, we would get several people from the same company at more or less the same time. They started coming from P&G.


There was a bit of a problem with some of them. P&G was clearly running an army-like regime. Several were Slovaks, and it was said that P&G deliberately took graduates from Slovakia because they would come to Prague as strangers to the city and focus on their work. All were certainly very committed and serious people, but some were in danger of losing their independence of thought. One evening interview sticks in my mind, even if details may have been blurred by history


“So, you are working on Head and Shoulders? Can you describe any successes?”


“Well it is a successful brand of course.”


“OK..have you increased brand share since you have been working on it?”


“Sorry, that is confidential information”


“OK, well have you perhaps been able to increase distribution?”


“Sorry, that is confidential information”


“OK do you know if it will stop raining by tomorrow?


“Sorry, that is confidential information”


Of course I made up the last question, but I did sometimes worry that P&G had everything so regimented that if they put a chimpanzee in charge of Head&Shoulders for 6 months, not much damage would be done. Which is not a reference to this guy, who eventually escaped the P&G cocoon, and outside that cocoon revealed himself to be one of the nicest people in the business.


But those with the self -confidence to use their training and develop their critical faculties went on to be highly successful. Some, from that era such as Peter Keleman, are still with P&G in senior positions abroad, others such as Petr Pistelak and Erich Čomor rose to senior positions elsewhere, bringing FMCG discipline and focus to financial services sectors, among others. Who remembers e-Banka? It was an internet bank pioneer, but with Petr as marketing director its TV spots had the same relentless logic as those for Fairy Liquid. Petr asked me to have an account there as a mystery shopper, (another typical P&G move) and I am very glad he did. It was the only bank I ever actually positively liked. (And because of that I got to meet Klara Lohniska too, but that’s for another chapter…)


But the young P&G person who had most impact on our business was unquestionably Glenice Macllelan. We met a little later, in 1997. She was Czech, maiden name Kapusta, but had been brought up in Australia. Over there (as in the UK) your business career starts at age 21 -22, so as a 24 year old, Glenice already had 3 years P&G marketing experience, and the self-assurance to be taken seriously by older male managers. She bided her time and eventually we had the job she really wanted…marketing manager at Eurotel, just as the competition really started to shake that company out of its complacency. By the time she was 27 she was running the marketing department, which she re-organised into something like an FMCG marketing team; for which we supplied a number of other good people who flourished there until it was merged with Česky Telecom and then sold to Telefonica.


Glenice was a classic example of what became a guiding principle. Good FMCG marketing people could take their experience and learning to most other sectors and be successful; perhaps as Glenice and Petr did, bring discipline and focus. But it hardly ever worked the other way. Few people could join an FMCG company from a different sector and be successful. Why? I think that FMCG businesses are the most marketing- driven, and focused on their customers. Most banks for example do not really care if you take your account to a competitor. They make their big money elsewhere. An exception is Air Banka, a retail -only bank, launched by Erich Čomor; and who is their top marketing guy? Jakub Petrina, who started his career at what was then Bass-owned Prazske Pivovary, learning from Mirek Tomka (ex Unilever) and Marek Tovaryš (ex Philip Morris). As the 90s progressed the pattern became clearer. If we met with someone who had spent 3 or more years in P&G or Unilever, that person generally answered questions precisely, and described their personal achievements in tangible terms. This was generally true if they came from other international FMCG companies too, although we started to see differences which correlated with the extent to which those companies had invested in training of their Czech managers. But if the person had started in financial services, or automobiles, or even an FMCG company from outside the international “league” they would struggle with our questions. Yet at the same time they could not understand why we could not recommend them for Unilever (or SCA or later Vitana). They did not know what they did not know, and it was difficult to explain to them, as I really never want to let anybody leave feeling “rejected”, that they had “failed”. I believe that everyone is good at something.


The influence of P&G and Unilever extended to the advertising agencies, at least in account management and media roles. Their budgets were big and reliable, the financial foundations on which McCann, Ogilvy, Saatchi and DMB&B built their Czech businesses. But in return they expected agency teams who understood and enjoyed working on their brands. This meant recruitng people with a certain mindset, and then making sure they were trained. Often, the two companies spent a lot of time training their agency teams themselves. My wife is an example of this. She started her marketing career in Saatchi’s media department, working on P&G. She appreciated that her boss was an experienced Irish woman,but she also recalls how the client managers would help to educate them. When years later she joined Unilever as the media manager she found herself doing the training and coaching of her agency team. We were successful in recruiting for the big agencies, because we understood that an account director on P&G required a different skill-set to an account director on Delvita or Volkswagen.


This maxim held true for at least 15 years even though by early 2000s both Unilever and P&G had scaled back their investment in Czech management, and were no longer seen as the most „aspirational“ destinations for ambitious marketing people. The arrival of Oskar as the third mobile telco really fired up that sector, but they still valued FMCG experience because they were still companies who had one key objective which guided every decision: to optimise medium term profit.


Finally we have seen the arrival of companies who do not appear to have optimised (declared, taxable) profit as their clear ultimate goal. I’m talking about the Silicon Valley giants, whose names now dominate the lists of companies that graduates would like to start a career with, e.g.Google; Facebook; Uber. Experienced marketing people also express this desire, even though Facebook in particular has no Czech office. So I ask you now, what I ask them: what is the role of „marketing“ in such companies? What will you actually do there? How will you measure your contribution? Many otherwise smart people still cannot answer correctly what „business“ Google and Facebook are really in. They tend to say „they are tech companies, of course“.  Of course? To be fair, I only really got it myself when I attended a dinner hosted by Sir Martin Sorrell in 2008. „They call themselves tech companies“ he said „ but don’t be fooled. They are media owners. They sell advertising, just like ITV or News Corporation“.


Of course we can still say that optimising profit is the ultimate goal in the Czech Republic of CME, or JC Decaux. But this cannot be said of the national operations of the Silicon Valley companies. They avoid paying national corporate income tax in a way which almost seems to be part of their base business model. Advertising sold by Facebook or Google in the Czech Republic targetted at Czech consumers is invoiced from Ireland. What do all those smart young people in the Google Czech office actually do?  (Facebook has no such office). I would love to see their „KPIs“ in their annual appraisal.


Now of course I sound like a really grumpy old man. The marketing  world really has been changed by the advance of web based business, and so my role in it has become less relevant. I suppose that I am lucky that I can step away at this time, just when I reach the age when „work“ ought to be something I should do less of anyway.


But there is one principle that remains true. Marketing flourishes in countries where there is freedom to choose. It took a long time here before it was widely understood that there is also a free market in „people“. Marketing people can make choices. I made a choice from the beginning; I would not work for the tobacco companies. I was happy to steal their marketing people because these companies also spent time and money on training and development. Their people are smart.However they are marketing products which when used according to the manufacturer’s intention, will make you very ill and eventually shorten your life. As time went by, I found that more and more candidates informed me, spontaneously, that they would not wish to consider positions in tobacco companies.


So now there is a new ethical dilemma. Do you, as a marketing person, wish to work for a company which goes to great efforts globally to avoid paying taxes in the way intended by national legislators; taxes which are paid by more traditional competitors in the same business sector?


Is that „cool“?



Below are links to people mentioned in this chapter, where I was able to find the links. If you are one of them…thank you!


Peter Keleman


Petr Pistělak


Erich Čomor


Glenice Macllelan


Jakub Petrina


Mirek Tomka


Marek Tovaryš


Hana Huntova 😍

One comment on “Confessions of an Accidental Headhunter”

  1. Really interesting, Richard. You are right, the big companies have lasted a century or more for a reason, and that rigour stays with you throughout the rest of your career.
    The investment made in CEE in the 1990s created a generation who could shape something meaningful – I am not sure even those going into tech companies today can shape something as much as one person could influence a campaign back then.

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