Profile: Experience at a premium

Roisin Donnelly, corporate marketing director, UK & Ireland, at Procter & Gamble, has just won a key industry role. Interview by David Benady.

You have to wonder where Roisin Donnelly finds the time. As if running the UK's biggest consumer marketing operation wasn't enough, Procter & Gamble's corporate marketing director for the UK & Ireland has just been elected president of The Marketing Society. She is the first woman to hold the role and has been tasked with setting out the body's strategy to promote marketing excellence 'for the next 50 years'.

An active participant in the British marketing scene, frequently attending industry events, debates and round-table discussions, she is the mother of three daughters aged eight, 10 and 13, whom she regularly takes to the theatre. A school governor and a member of the Marketing Group of Great Britain, she also serves on the University of Glasgow's business committee ... the list goes on.

Perhaps the most pressing task on Donnelly's agenda, though, is ensuring that P&G's 70 or so consumer goods brands in the UK - from Fairy to Olay and Pampers - maintain or grow their market share. Many P&G products are brand leaders or in the top three in their categories, making them the target of fierce attacks from rivals.

So she will have to fend off a revitalised Reckitt Benckiser in household cleaners, parry the relentless onslaught from L'Oreal in beauty and fight the old enemy Unilever, now run by ex-P&G marketer Paul Polman.

Performance focus

Donnelly breezes into a meeting room at P&G's UK headquarters, at the Brooklands business park outside Weybridge, Surrey, and explains that the previous night she took her daughters to see the musical The Phantom of the Opera. At work, however, there is one phantom she is particularly keen to exorcise - the perception that the recession is leading the market share of P&G's premium-priced products to be eroded by retailers' own-label products.

'Some consumers are switching to own labels, but become dissatisfied and are switching back. Very cheap face creams have appeared in Aldi and Lidl, people have tried them once, said "Never again", and are switching back to brands they love, such as Olay,' she says. Donnelly adds that Fairy washing-up liquid - which claims to last 50% longer than rival products because it is more concentrated - has increased its market share for the past two years, despite the onslaught of competition from value brands. 'In homecare, people have tried cheaper dilutes and gone back to brands like Flash,' she argues.

The recession has been a harsh testing ground for P&G's strategy of promoting premium-priced products that boast superior performance, driving home the message that performance equals value. However, Donnelly insists it is paying off. 'Up until the middle of last year, our business was flat. Since the second half of the year, we've seen some real growth across many categories, both in market share and revenue.' P&G stepped up its advertising in the second half of 2009 and point-of-sale activity in supermarkets.

As P&G battles to stay ahead of the pack, Donnelly's role will be crucial. She has been marketing director for the past 10 years, overseeing 110 marketers and a budget estimated at £400m - the UK's highest.

P&G has become the biggest consumer marketer in the world through a relentless focus on offering clear consumer benefits in products and building a strong presence in stores. 'We win by understanding our consumers better than anybody else. We have superior products (and) innovation is incredibly important to us,' says Donnelly. 'I spend a lot of time with consumers, watching them, looking at how they shop and how they use products. We film people when they are shopping and we use eye trackers, which people put on their heads so you can watch where their eyes are going when they shop and see how many seconds they are spending on your category.'

However, she denies that P&G uses its sheer scale to cement its position on supermarket shelves. 'We hardly have a monopoly or a dominant presence. The retailers are seeing great advantages in working with big companies to leverage scale - we can send truck-loads of products, as opposed to small pallets, and we can do multi-brand promotions.'

Donnelly joined P&G in 1985 as a graduate and has watched the organisation evolve over the decades. Unlike other P&G marketers who have seemed to crave anonymity, she has become the well-regarded face of a company noted for its inward-looking and somewhat secretive culture.

Those who have worked with Donnelly describe her as a straightforward person who gives clear directions and is happy when things go well, but can become 'stern and unbending' when they don't. One source says: 'She's quite human for P&G. She's a mum with three kids and that keeps you rooted in the real world. But I wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of her.'

Donnelly hails from Glasgow and is a graduate of the city's University, where she studied maths and economics. She 'stumbled into marketing', because the discipline 'was not something I was really aware of'. Careers advisers had earlier suggested she should become a social worker or join the Church. 'I didn't know whether I was analytical or creative, so I looked for a career that combined business and creative. When I looked into marketing, P&G was the obvious choice.'

Her love of public forums may stem from her university days, when she was an active debater, taking on the likes of future Liberal Democrats party leader Charles Kennedy and Conservative MP Liam Fox. She has never been a member of a political party, but says: 'In my heart, I am a Socialist.' There is no evidence that she has a problem reconciling this instinct with working for a major multinational.

A devotee of AG Lafley, the chief executive who transformed the P&G business after his appointment in 2000, doubling its size in 10 years, Donnelly believes he was 'the best chief executive P&G ever had'. Lafley made way for current boss Robert McDonald last year.

P&G once had a reputation as a conservative company that hired people with conformist outlooks and firmly imprinted its corporate approach on them; indeed, P&G executives were characterised as 'Proctoids', robotic executives who largely saw the world in a similar way.

That was another era, insists Donnelly. 'When I joined the company, there was a kind of person who came to P&G. You could tell the difference between P&G people and other people. Today, we are extremely diverse. We need to be, because our consumers are. We don't have Proctoids anymore.'

INSIDE WORK

1985-94: Assistant brand manager, Head & Shoulders, rising to marketing director UK, cosmetics and fragrances, Procter & Gamble

1994-96: Marketing director, global cosmetics and male toiletries, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa

1996-2000: Marketing director, fine fragrance, North and South America (based in Santa Monica, California)

2000-present: UK & Ireland corporate marketing director and head of marketing

OUTSIDE WORK

Family: Three daughters

Leisure: Celtic supporter, loves travel and theatre

And another thing ... Donnelly is also a school governor, chairman of Cosmetics Executive Women and a member of Women in Advertising and Communications London.

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