Phil Duncan on hitting a crossroads, innovation as a curiosity driver, the essential work of great design firms and the allure of a banana seat.

By Debbie Millman

As vice president and global design officer of Procter & Gamble, Phil Duncan is responsible for the brand and design of thousands of products distributed all around the world. He has a design team numbering in the hundreds. With such a large organization, and with such extensive responsibilities, Duncan has mastered the art of management-one necessary part of his job is to lead and inspire his team to do stellar branding work.
That management must involve empathy, an ability to relate to people of all backgrounds, both in terms of consumers around the world and on the design team he leads. Duncan has mastered that, a quality that he developed early on when he was a young high school student involved in activities as diverse as glee club, swim team, and tennis.
Duncan talks in this interview about key moments in the brand experience. The “first moment of truth” happens when a consumer decides to purchase a particular brand. From there, the relationship evolves depending on whether the brand meaningfully speaks to the consumer values and aspirations.
In this realm, P&G has dipped its toes into the arena of “purpose-driven brands.” The company’s approach has evolved over time, and finding authenticity for a particular brand has been a process of discovery. But connecting a brand with a mission is, Duncan feels, essential. “I believe we have a powerful responsibility to do something constructive with the affinity we have with consumers,” he says. “The main idea of purpose-driven brands is about recognizing, embracing, and celebrating the fact that brands can enhance people’s lives and help them to feel better about themselves.” Perhaps P&G had some missteps in this arena in the past, but it has embraced the ethos with devoted gusto in recent years.
Duncan’s own career trajectory reveals the way in which we never know where things will go. Duncan started off as a freelance designer working on early Macintosh computers and using PageMaker for layouts. He wanted to learn more about the business of design, so he began an MBA program at Ohio State University, where he was a solitary fine arts major in a sea of business and accounting folks. Through a fortuitous happenstance, he was accepted into P&G’s summer internship program, where he worked for Marc Pritchard, then an “associate advertising manager” and now P&G’s global marketing officer. Duncan worked on Prell. Remember Prell?
After four years at P&G, Duncan went on to Landor, where he became one of the consultancy’s youngest managing directors and built up the company’s Cincinnati office, and later, its European division. Eventually, he went back to P&G.
In our discussion, Duncan shares invaluable advice on the crucible of consumer seduction represented by packaging. He speaks with great clarity on how to convince clients to sign on to innovation and what innovation means. And he praises the essential work of great design firms: “Their thinking capability matched with their creative capability represent some of the greatest talent when it comes to brand-building, bar-none.”

As vice president and global design officer of the biggest consumer goods company in the world, you have quite an extensive in-house design group. How do you inspire your team to do great work?

First and foremost, I think it’s the responsibility of a leader to have a sense of a vision. But it’s also important to build that vision with your colleagues. Over the course of the last 20 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with truly brilliant designers and great account people who have taught me an inordinate amount. But in order to inspire them to greatness, I must be able to instill a sense of possibility in them and enable them to see those possibilities. You set the bar high, and the people who work for you also know your personal standard. I always aspire to build strong relationships with my colleagues, and through this, you create a dynamic in which they want to work for you. They want to do work they’re proud of, and they also want to please you. I try to give them a sense of possibility, of inspiration.
I can’t do it as much as I used to, but I always loved to walk around and visit the teams, and begin impromptu discussions about how they are and what they’re working on. Through this, they see that I’m approachable and that I’m the kind of person who can break down barriers for them. I think a lot of people often build barriers around themselves, thinking that the solution to a design problem can only be of a certain variety. Well, why? So I like to challenge them.

What did you want to be when you were young? What did you imagine your life was going to be like?

This job was certainly not in the wheelhouse of my career options when I was growing up. I was a geek growing up. I was gangly, skinny, and gawky. I had diverse and unusual interests. The thing that defined me-a quality I find in a lot of people who work in our industry-was the ability to float between many different groups in school. I played tennis, and I was on the swim team-so I could hang out with the sporty group. But I was also in the equivalent of the glee club-the chorus. And I was involved in the art and architecture classes, and that provided a whole different set of connections for me in middle school and high school.
I’d say the first career I considered was architecture. It seemed like a smart choice. My dad worked for the same company for 30 years, so his mantra was, “Find something you think you’ll be good at. That’s what you’ll be for the rest of your life.”

What did your dad do?

He worked in marketing at Cincinnati Bell Telephone. My mom was the artist. She was a painter and an etcher, and she introduced me to the fine arts. She continually took classes at different universities around Cincinnati in an effort to keep exploring and growing. In our house, we had paint, woodcuts, and all sorts of other things that were part of her passion as well-which was certainly influential on me.

It seems to me that if you had that kind of cultural range in high school-art, glee club, sports teams-you must have been able to understand people and to connect on a lot of different pathways. You must have had a lot of empathy.

Absolutely. I think it serves an individual well. I’ve always felt like I can walk into most environments and figure out how to relate to the situation. In a company the size of P&G, there are a vast array of dynamics that you step into. As the Global Design Officer in an organization of 127,000 employees, your calendar is booked for several months out. So when the team finally gets you in their midst, they’re expecting the gospel. Sometimes you just want to walk in and say, “This really is not good!” Or, “This is brilliant-keep going! You don’t need me for the next hour or so.”
It’s been interesting from a career standpoint to learn how to build upon that element of empathy for different individuals. Clearly it’s also useful for understanding people around the world, in terms of different consumers, and how they’re going to look at brands. I wouldn’t have ever thought that I was gaining this proficiency through my experiences in high school. But it absolutely set me up well.

You studied graphic design in college, then you went on to get an MBA. Those are fairly disparate areas, so you must have experienced a ping-ponging back and forth between different ways of thinking.

Yes, I joke that I had a vision that someone would write a great book calledA Whole New Mind-the manifesto that Daniel Pink would write 20 years in the future. Knowing this, I began to prepare myself many years ago.

Were you a hands-on designer?

Yes. And I really enjoyed the hands-on aspect of designing. This was in the era, around 1987, when people had gotten their first Apple computers and were using PageMaker. Things were starting to evolve off the board and into technology, and I found it very interesting. But I felt that something was missing for me. I was doing a lot of freelancing, and I worked for a small agency for awhile. I had some projects here and there that let me be a little more expressive.
I felt like I didn’t have enough knowledge of the business side of the work, and I hit a crossroads. I was living in Lexington, Kentucky, which was not exactly the forefront of design. At the time, I had a family friend who was a professor at the business school at Ohio State. He encouraged me to come up to campus, and I had a great visit. I thought, “I could do this-this would be fun.” So I decided to apply.

Why did you feel so unfulfilled in your design work?

I felt like there was a part of me that was incomplete. There was so much I hadn’t been exposed to. I felt that, as a designer, I only had half the knowledge I needed to do the kind of work I wanted to do.

How did you feel about going back to school?

I remember the first day of classes: I was in an accounting class, and I had never taken accounting. All I knew was “debit on the left, credit on the right.” That was the extent of my knowledge.
I sat down next to a gentleman who, as it so happens, I still keep in touch with. We introduced ourselves to each other. He told me, “I was an accountant at one of the big eight accounting firms,” and then asked, “What did you do?” I replied, “Oh, I was a graphic designer.”

Was that the first time in your life that you really felt scared?

Yes, this was the first time I had put myself in a situation where I thought, “What have I done?” The first year was incredibly difficult. All the students took the same courses, and everyone knew where you ranked academically. When employers came on campus to interview, they knew exactly where you stood in the class. I realized how smart the people were around me, and I questioned how I, with a fine arts undergraduate degree, could succeed, considering that I was in a class with folks who had been undergrad accounting majors and employees at big eight accounting firms. I thought I was doomed! At Ohio State, a certain percentage of every class had to fail, and a B minus was failing.

How did you manage?

Ironically, I think this is where my empathy helped me. I found that I understood the rules of engagement very quickly. In many of the classes, about half of your grade was based on classroom participation in the case studies we were doing. I quickly realized that if I had a question, there were likely 30 other people in the room who did, too. But they weren’t raising their hands to ask it. I decided that I was going to. I began to understand the parameters around me and tried to make the most of them. Because I immersed myself and tried to understand the dynamics of the class and of all the people around me, I found I didn’t have to focus only on competition, GPAs, and the tension of graduate school. Instead, I was able to devote myself to learning, and I ended up getting the best grades of my life. That was what got me into P&G’s summer internship program. My first interview way back then was with Marc Pritchard [P&G’s Global Marketing Officer and Global Brand-Building Officer], who, after all these years, is now my boss.

Wow! That's serendipitous!

The summer I was an intern, P&G had a position called the “Associate Advertising Manager,” and Marc Pritchard was the Associate Advertising Manager on hair care, and I was working on Prell. Good old Prell! I had to present to him the work I did in my summer internship program in order to determine whether I would get an offer to come back. For me, this was when I began to understand the fundamentals of brand building, particularly from a marketing angle. It gave me amazing insight into the tremendously talented individuals who, at the time, were running P&G’s billion-dollar businesses. Those four years during my first round at P&G were invaluable in the development of who I am today.

What did you find most interesting about brand management?

I felt that brand management was at the intersection of creativity, strategic thinking, analytical thinking, and design thinking. I saw it as a fascinating arena in which to leverage both sides of my brain, in terms of creativity and my newly honed business acumen. It was the first job I felt that I could flourish in. At the time, P&G was an organization with a “promote from within” mentality, and it was the pinnacle of the summer intern programs around the country. I think P&G and General Mills are the two most coveted intern programs in brand management. For me, to land an internship at P&G was incredible. But there were some people who were really anxious to bring someone on from Ohio State. I was the last person hired into the intern class that year. My letter from the HR director stated that there were going to be 57 of us. But the “57” was crossed out, and someone had handwritten “58”! So, clearly, I was the last applicant accepted.

One small scratched-out number changed your life. Now that you have this long-term relationship with Marc Pritchard, have you ever asked him why he picked you?

Not explicitly. One of the things about Marc that I appreciated even back in 1993 was the very simple philosophy he shared with me about how he judges people. P&G brings in a lot of smart people, so there’s no question about their capabilities. Naturally, Marc would look at people’s leadership and relationship abilities. But he also looks to see if, at the end of the day, he would be willing to go have a beer with that person and spend some time together outside of work. I kept this criteria in mind while hiring people, and if I could say, “Yes I would,” then that’s a pretty good indicator of someone that I would like to have on my team.

And now it's 20 years later.

And he takes all the credit for me coming back.

As he should! When you first left P&G, you went straight to Landor. Had you been working with Landor while you were at P&G?

On the periphery. I was in brand management at the time, and they were working on some programs in hair care, but I was not directly associated with them. But I was aware of their work and was blown away by their ability to think strategically, push the creative envelope, and yet be on point with a solution. They were able to see things differently and come up with unexpected solutions. They could take a creative brief and turn it into a much bigger idea than what was articulated on the page.
At the time, I worked with a design director named Vicki Arzano. She now runs a design firm in New York called Toast. I remember my interview well. There I was, this Midwestern boy who was a bit green behind the ears, and she looked me in the eye and said, “I hope you realize this isn’t some cushy ad job!” It absolutely blew me away, and I knew in that instant it would be a privilege to work there. That was another of those moments in my career that formulated who I would become. She was the design director in New York and the most senior woman in the organization, and eventually, I was working with her from Cincinnati, responsible for building the relationship with P&G.
She set up the ground rules: She said to me, “You don’t just fax me the brief and tell me the client needs it by 4 o’clock. I need to know what your vision is for the work. And then you need to engage me as your hands to create that vision.” That profoundly impacted me, and we built a fabulous relationship on that. I was so appreciative that she gave me the latitude to say, “Vicki, here’s the Crest brand”-or whatever it was, and I would share inspiration with her that I had found in magazines, photography, or elsewhere. She set her expectations high, she worked hard, and she led by example. But it was hard. I had to help build Landor’s Cincinnati office from scratch. But I loved taking something from nothing and helping to create it.

Did you ever worry about failing?

Oh, completely and absolutely! I kept asking myself, “What did I leave? What have I done?” My dad, who had worked for so long at one company, told me, “You left P&G? Are you crazy?”

It's interesting how our parents never considered that the criteria for a job included how happy or fulfilling it was.

My father’s mantra was, “Stick with it and you’ll learn to like it.”

If you were worried initially, when did you feel that you had made the right decision?

I think it was a moment when I was in Cincinnati, doing a joint partnership with an agency that we would eventually acquire. We were working together, but the cultural sensibilities in the two companies were very different. It was extremely challenging. I was in my mid-thirties. When it looked as if the acquisition was going to happen, Landor began interviewing for a managing director for the office. I wanted that job, but kept my thoughts to myself, as there was a concern that the office needed some “grey hair” to lead the agency. The CEO sent down the lead candidate so the senior management team in our office could meet him, and largely, they didn’t like him. I remember scheduling a conference call with the then-CEO when our whole team said, “With all due respect, we’re actually not thrilled with this individual.” At that moment, I realized I deserved the job. I had built the business. And at that moment, I crossed over my hesitation and put my intention out there. Suddenly, I had courage in my convictions. And I got the job. I was probably one of the youngest managing directors in the company at the time.

Did you ever worry that you weren't going to get the job?

Once I put my interest out there, no.

Was it a moment of aberrant courage to do so? Were you surprised with yourself that you did that?

I was surprised. I typically didn’t ask for things like that. I let my history, my work, my team, and my ability speak for me. At the time, I wasn’t articulate enough to be able to say, “This is what I’m going for.” But I also knew I had the full support of my colleagues.

How so?

I didn’t explicitly ask them, I just knew.

What was the first thing you did after you got the job?

I wanted my team to feel like they were doing great things. After I became managing director, one of my goals was to be the biggest office in the network. At that time, Landor’s biggest office was in San Francisco. So I got my team together and we set out to beat them.

How long did it take?

It took about three years.

And it's still the biggest office now to date? You left it in good hands.

Yes. After that, Landor sent me to Europe to build the business there. Their European business-particularly the Paris office-was really struggling. Within two years, we turned it around to record profit.

Having worked on both the agency side and the client side, are there things that you feel CEOs could learn from design firms?

Great design firms must be able to create solutions that can last for many years. Their thinking capability matched with their creative capability represents some of the greatest talent when it comes to brand-building, bar none. What we create in our work-whether it’s a package, or whatever it might be-it can’t speak, it can’t move, it can’t dance. It has to embody so much of the brand. The design firm has to be able to make the right choices around what’s going to be the most critical thing that will break through to consumers to build that relationship-that familiarity yet distinctiveness that connects with consumers.
The design agencies house these individuals who are trying to create design solutions for the long term, and who have to consider all these interesting aspects of the brand that are going to be expressed through very few elements. To be honest with you, that’s really hard. But when it’s right, it’s brilliant, and it will last. So deepening CEOs’ awareness and appreciation of that process and the designers’ role would be great.

Any advice for how design firms can create brilliant work?

A design firm needs to bring some interesting, innovative ideas on how to validate the work, so the client is convinced the proposal is the right approach. One strategy is to show the work in the context of an unusual competitive setting. If the designers show their work in the context of brands that have done breakthrough work in other categories, they can demonstrate how their design is picking up that same feeling and will be able to break through in its own category.

How can designers create solutions that can last for many years?

Innovation. In the context of branding, I often define “innovation” as that which connects the familiar with the unknown. Because if the brand evokes connections that are completely unknown, then people don’t know how to respond to it; they can’t build empathy toward it. It’s too odd. They would be left thinking, “How does it relate to my life? Into what part of my daily regimen am I supposed to incorporate this thing?” So when I look at great innovation inside or outside of P&G, it has always been about taking the familiar and connecting it with an unknown context. That then requires some curiosity and inquisitiveness on the part of the consumer, which leads them to explore. And that’s when the brand becomes really endearing to them.

How do you define the word “brand”?

A brand is something you have an unexplained, emotional connection to. A brand gives you a sense of familiarity. At P&G, we talk about the great emotional connection that resonates with consumers when they see a brand on a shelf and decide whether they want to bring that particular brand into their lives. We call this “the first moment of truth”-that moment when you decide whether you’ll invite that brand in and let it be a part of your life.

Do you remember the first time you had that experience with a brand?

When I was growing up, I was more fixated on objects than I was on the brand. I had to have a bike with a banana seat, for example.

Why did you want a banana seat?

It was distinctive and different.

But what was it that made you decide that was what you wanted? Did you see other people with it?

It was new and distinct, and I knew that I would be the object of envy in my neighborhood.

An object of envy?

Yes. People would covet my banana seat. But I didn’t really care what brand it was-the social influence the seat wielded mattered most to me. I think this is when, for me, branding became about recognition and attachment. Now, I think that brands are a reflection of one’s personal compass.

In what way?

In earlier years, I think branding was a lot about a recognition and an attachment to a person that you aspired to or held up on a pedestal. So we went through an era where brands focused on an association with a celebrity or an inspirational individual. Now I think we’ve evolved, and brands now have the responsibility to enhance the communities in which they exist. By virtue of that, once a brand is in a community, it can quickly be built up or shut down. And branding is no longer about “I’m going to tell you why Pantene will make your hair x.” It’s about how Pantene can enhance women’s lives. Marketers can no longer inflict their personal opinions of the brand on unsuspecting consumers. People are more attentive than they’ve ever been about the brands they allow to become part of their lives, because the brands are so reflective of their values as individuals.

This goes back to the notion of “purpose-driven” brands. How do you determine the purpose the brands at P&G are going to have?

We were asking our brands to have a purpose, but at first our initial approach to this was “purpose as cause.” There was this “purpose” work where, for instance, we were going to provide clean water for underserved communities around the world. And yet the specific brand might be-and this is an invented example to show you what I mean-about enhancing the home décor through fragrance. So this kind of a purpose wouldn’t be authentic for the brand. It was disassociated from the essence of the brand. But I think we’ve quickly evolved in a smart way. We now understand that people buy into a brand purpose with their heart, but they buy a brand based on its benefit. Everything about the brand has to work together and be congruent.

How has this affected the type of work that you do?

I believe we have a powerful responsibility to do something constructive with the affinity consumers have for brands. The main idea of purpose-driven brands is about recognizing, embracing, and celebrating the fact that brands can enhance people’s lives and help them to feel better about themselves-whether it makes them look better, do a task better, or even gives them the opportunity to do good in the world.

There have been brands that have enhanced my life just by making me feel better about myself.

Even in a down economy, the ability to afford a CoverGirl lipstick can improve someone’s psyche. Virginia Postrel would be the first to celebrate the notion that even in moments of great hardship, the maintenance of one’s emotional psyche is critically important.
Ultimately, I think a brand should help you feel better, look better, or be better. Brands should help you reach a destination or a goal. I think there are some brands that people use because they fulfill a strictly utilitarian need. Other brands help people in lovely and interestingly small ways. Take one away, and I’m not sure anyone would fall over and declare, “If I don’t have my valued paper towel, my life is going to fall apart.” But without these small, but important, benefits, life would be different. When you put them all together, you have something very powerful. BP
Reprinted from Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits by Debbie Millman, Allworth Press