The Lowdown: Daz army and the record breakers at P&G

Procter & Gamble's UK chief talks to Abigail Townsend about 'moments of truth', 'love marks' and leapfrogging
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You can't avoid Procter & Gamble. Every time you watch an advert or do the weekly shop, the global consumer goods giant is lurking in the background. It gets into every corner of the home, its vast brand portfolio a checklist of modern life: Ariel, Daz, Flash, Fairy, Pampers, Clairol, Pantene Pro-V, Head & Shoulders, Olay, Max Factor, Old Spice, Tampax, Pringles, Vicks. The group is also in the doghouse, owning pet food brand, Iams, and the boudoir, producing perfumes for fashion houses such as Hugo Boss and Valentino.

It is the brands that the man on the street knows, not the American-owned colossus which has a market value of $132bn (£71bn) and is the biggest company in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. So it makes sense that the head of P&G's UK and Ireland operation, Christopher de Lapuente, is unassuming and underwhelming. He may head one of the biggest companies in the UK but, frankly, you wouldn't know it.

Lapuente, 41, is a P&G lifer (or Proctoid, as carping rivals call them), joining from university in 1983. Born in Portugal, he spent his childhood moving around with his family and came to the UK to study by way of Spain and Brazil. He then spent several years working his way around Europe on behalf of P&G. He speaks English without an accent and is also fluent in marketing babble. Gems include "the first moment of truth" and the allusion to every purchase being a "vote" for P&G. "We stand for election every time people stand in front of the shelf," says Lapuente, in all seriousness.

The marketing obsession is understand- able, however, for P&G's value lies in its brands and our desire to keep buying them. This is what those "moments of truth" refer to. The first one is when you stand at the shelf and buy a product, the second when you use and like it. The next step is to transform it into a "love mark" - a brand you remain faithful to and always buy. Strip away all the mumbo-jumbo and it comes down to the hard grind of growing revenues and profits.

As a result, the group's marketing budget is huge - well over £100m in the most recent year - and P&G is the UK's largest private advertiser. At one point, it was a vocal opponent of the ITV tie-up between Granada and Carlton, but the stance has since softened. Lapuente won't talk in depth on this subject, insisting it is not his beat, but Bernard Balderston, the associate director of UK and Irish media, is more forthcoming.

He believes a merged ITV will have greater investment resources and says the signs so far are "positive". But an air of caution remains, particularly over programming. "If ITV is going to trade successfully, it needs to attract investment from a range of advertisers," he says. "It's not really in ITV's interest to go too far down the mega-populist route of endless jungle fun programmes. These have a role to play but it also needs to ensure there is programming that attracts upmarket and younger audiences as well."

Balderston is similarly cautious about ITV's choice of chairman, the former Bank of Scotland boss, Sir Peter Burt. "We will have to remain neutral about his appointment because he's such an unknown quantity. But it would have been helpful to appoint someone with previous experience in broadcasting. How he can adapt to running [ITV], which is different to running a bank, remains to be seen."

Not that TV advertising is the only show in town for P&G. As Lapuente says: "Our focus once was 99.9 per cent on television, but consumers have become more pushed for time; they don't just sit in front of the TV and watch ads. You need to be more creative in how you get the message across." This includes using different media, such as print and radio, as well as a more subtle "below the line" approach. Programme sponsorship is one area that does not excite Lapuente, however. Daz once sponsored the soap opera Emmerdale and he has no plans for a repeat. "It worked at the beginning but like all these things, it ran out of steam," he says.

"There's a lot of sponsorship, but my view is that most of it doesn't work. Just putting your brand name up without a message doesn't do much and you don't get a good return on your money."

Lapuente is focused on achieving double-digit profit growth by driving up top-line sales between 4 and 6 per cent a year, and he does not rule out making select purchases to achieve this. As he says, "acquisitions are always going to be part of the business", and last month the US parent showed how second-quarter profits had been bolstered by the 2003 hostile take over of German haircare group Wella.

Organic growth, though, is being encouraged more by the way of The Office than the City. Each business unit sets a record it wants to break, be it upping marketing share or beating the last sales record, and goes off to do it. The whole UK arm meets once a year to discuss the results - "there's no bullshit", Lapuente intones - and to set about attacking yet more targets; a recent one was the world leapfrogging record. "It's all about running a successful business where people can have fun," says Lapuente. It is also, no doubt, about trying to maintain morale: costs and jobs have been slashed worldwide at P&G after a period of lagging sales and profits.

Lapuente may be a Surrey-dwelling, quiet-talking man, but he obviously likes the odd thrill. For example, he is running the London Triathlon again this year - hoping, of course, to break his personal best of just over three hours - and before that he will be doing a "dash" to the North Pole. The plan involves being dropped, with his team mates, 150km from the North Pole and then having 10 days to get there, all in the name of charity.

Until now, the North Pole was one of the few places where P&G didn't have a presence. Is nowhere safe?