Sunday, April 01, 2007

47. Back Into the Mainstream

As a young manager in a corporate organization I aspired, as most young managers did, for a position that will make me solely responsible for the operational as well as the financial goals of a business unit. My having gone through an extensive and exhaustive marketing experience in fast moving consumer goods for more than three years gave me the confidence that I can run my own organization. Years in brand work exposed me to all the workings of a company. We were told that as brand managers we were the world’s leading experts of the brands under our care and were like presidents of the product’s enterprise. Therefore, we should be knowledgeable about all the aspects of the brand from commercial, technical, legal, policy formulation and the product’s market. Needless to say, we had to be equally knowledgeable about our competition’s brands. Success hinged on how much you know about the market and competition and how well you use the information to position your brand successfully as well as to assemble a marketing plan and determinedly implement it.

The well being of a brand is the sole responsibility of the brand manager and yet he does not have the authority to make the decisions on so many of its basic aspects. He has to work with division directors, department managers and his bosses in marketing. The important tools to do the job are a dogged determination to succeed, persuasive skills and the ability to interact with most people in order to transcend cultural, social, racial and traditional professional biases.

My chance at running my own organization started when I was given my own division in the Philippine Refining Company after being recalled from a secondment in Lintas. The research unit was no longer a part of the Marketing Division. It became an autonomous unit, a quasi division, reporting directly to the Chairman of PRC and was operating like a separate company with its own trade name, Unisearch.

The secondment to the ad agency was not a bad assignment at all. I enjoyed the prestige as well as the clout of the position but I was glad, ecstatic in fact, when I heard the news of my recall. The organizational shuffles at the senior level were quite infrequent and I was glad that I was to be brought back into the mainstream organization of the concern after only two years. My secondment to the ad agency was a promotion to senior management and so I was quite happy to take it then but at the same time I had fears that it might be a dead end post. At the time of my transfer some kind of sour graping was the reaction of a few who said “Yeah, you’re up but you’re also out.” To them I promised to be back.

I was some sort of an executive in exile. The job though senior in level did not have any direct impact on the concern’s financials and the fact that I was in a different location the danger of being forgotten by the wizard with the pointed hat was a real possibility. One of the popular myths in our corporate lore in Unilever is that appointment fortunes were in the hands of a whimsical wizard who lived in a tower in the main headquarters building in Blackfriars, along the river Thames.

My former boss, Tony Tolentino, took over from my secondment Lintas-Hemisphere. His position as marketing manager in the personal products group was taken over by, Nonoy Reyes, the head of market research and I, in turn, was assigned the market research post. A musical chairs’ round with nobody getting out of step and being bumped off.

Although happy from being sprung free from the secondment I later had mixed feelings about the new post. In the first place I never had even a day’s experience as a market researcher and secondly, I knew that the days of market research within the concern were numbered. Much like the advertising business, market research as a business was non-core in Unilever and would, in time, be spun off. The important thing was I was back into the mainstream. The research division was eventually spun off but it took some time for it to happen. Market research was playing a critical role in the development and growth of brands during those times. It was felt that the market research service should always be on call and must work seamlessly as a team with the marketing and technical development groups. This was an imperative in order to keep pace with the frenetic race to develop break-through product ideas and to fast track their readiness for launches into the market way ahead of Colgate, Procter and Gamble and other companies in competition with Unilever.

Despite the existing directive to spin off the market research unit the local management of PRC was not in a hurry to do so. The highly competitive situation prevailing at that time could not afford a disruption in the research service no matter how little. More than ten years later the market research unit was finally spun off, actually sold off to a large market research network, SRG, the largest in Asia Pacific.

The chairman, Nene Zayco, assured me that I should not worry about my inexperience in research work. He pointed out that it was just another management job. When I told my father about my appointment as head of the market research division he did a double take and asked me how such a thing could happen. I could tell that my father, who was a professor of mathematics and statistics and also an actuary, did not share our chairman’s confidence. I can still recall during my college days my father gave up tutoring me when he couldn’t introduce the snobbish company of chi squares, confidence levels, significance tests, distributions, means, percentiles et al to my acquaintance. I envy people who see numbers come alive before them. I never had the aptitude for numbers. During my younger years my father’s friends asked why I did not follow in his footsteps or my other relatives who were renowned actuaries in the insurance industry. The same questions were asked my brothers whose careers were in broadcast media. One of them, Dado in particular, in exasperation, replied that he did not want to perpetuate a family mistake.

Unisearch was directly under the president of PRC, Nene Zayco and he said that he picked me because I have already proven my mettle in handling people and have had grounding in brand work. With this background experience I would, from a user point of view, be able to help provide practical market insights to the marketing group. He, also, pointed out that my experience in brand management would have developed my business acumen and that I would have a sharp eye for commercial opportunity exploitation to make the unit a profitable enterprise. Just like our market research division some research units of Unilever in other countries were quasi business entities. The units could get commissioned by third party clients to do research projects for as long as they were not competing in the same markets as Unilever.

It was just like a little company. The opportunity to gain experience in managing a company was there for the taking. I needed little convincing. Unilever Marketing central offices had taken a practical approach to market research leadership. A nice bit of wisdom coming from the center suggested that the true market researcher although expert and technically competent in their field, may not be adept or may even be reluctant to run organizations, much less have the interest in making research service earn a profit. Appointments to research unit headships, then, had as requisites management ability as well as entrepreneurial skills. Most appointments to research leadership positions made at that time in Unilever came from the marketing executive pool. That’s how I got back to the PRC mainstream organization.

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