Careers in the fast lane

Companies in the 'fmcg' (fast-moving consumer goods) sector have always offered good training in marketing - and now they are becoming a lot more fun. By Richard Cook
In the past 11 years, the British Design & Art Direction council, our premier arbiter of advertising creativity, has made a solitary gold award to a British agency. Most of the ads that were rewarded over that period were palmed off with a silver or a bronze statuette and the unspoken exhortation that they could have done better.

In all that time, only one British agency has managed to climb the podium, and of all the ads it produced, for a whole range of clients, it was garlanded for work with just one of them. That client wasn't Levi's or Guinness or the star of any of a host of glossy, well-produced, well-regarded commercials that have graced our screens over that period. The award went instead to the agency BMP DDB for its work on Doritos crisps, and it was awarded last month.

That might be impressive enough on its own, but it becomes more impressive still when you consider that Doritos is what is referred to in marketing speak as an fmcg brand - a fast-moving consumer good. These, the likes of soap powder and such packaged goods, might be the staple of your supermarket basket, but they have long also been the traditional final resting place of uninspired advertising.

But no longer. The position of fmcg marketing is changing fast as it starts to adapt to changes in the marketplace and to a more ad-literate consumer. This is leading in turn to a relaxation in some of the rigid marketing rules that have held sway since Proctor & Gamble first discovered what advertising really could do for sales of soap powder.

The changes might be partly enforced by growing competition, but they are certainly helping to reinvigorate the marketing of this particular sector, and helping to produce more distinctive advertising. Currently, for example, Proctor & Gamble is believed to be toying with the idea of using Julian Clary as its new spokesman for Daz, a position filled in the recent past by the rather more solid mainstream frames of Shane Ritchie and Danny Baker.

It's a powerful example of just how fast the sector is changing, and how fast the marketing is having to change just to keep pace. But then, it isn't difficult to see why this should be so. All that is required is a trip to a supermarket. Go to the detergents aisle and stand in front of the own-brand display. Marvel at the breadth of the supermarket's own- brand range, take in the wide diversity of various biological and non- biological powders and liquids available. Compare the prices. Then check out the Persil display or the Bold range, and their rather more niggardly displays and their rather more expensive prices and realise just how the marketing of fmcg brands has had to change in a few short years.

According to a survey by the retail search consultancy Verdict, 52 per cent of all consumers now believe that own-brand products are at least as good as branded goods. Last year, own-brand products had a turnover of pounds 1.1 billion at Britain's four largest supermarket groups - Sainsbury's own-label products, excluding fresh foods, are now responsible for 55 per cent of its turnover. The fmcg brands are facing their toughest challenge yet; increasingly, they are turning to marketing to face down that threat by looking to be more innovative in the way they present products to consumers.

Last month, for example, a survey published by the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers confirmed that many of the major fmcg clients were now preparing to increase their expenditure on direct marketing. When Lever Brothers relaunched its Radio brand in April, it didn't use the traditional TV campaign based around a couple of housewives extolling the product's virtues in their kitchens. Instead, it used an innovative direct-mail campaign and, uniquely, bus tickets that gave off a Radio- clean smell, to get its message across. It's not the way fmcg advertisers would have operated in the recent past, but it's helping make the sector more appealing to creative marketing thinkers who might previously have been put off the idea of simply selling soap powder.

Even better news for those wanting to work in the sector, though, is that while the brands are changing the way they market themselves, and changing it for the better, they aren't changing their impressive commitment to staff training. Companies remain dedicated to attracting top-quality recruits and to providing them with training schemes that are the envy of other marketing departments.

"There is almost a rule that the sexier a product is, the less challenging its marketing is," explains David Cuff, broadcast director at Unilever agency Initiative media. "Strange as it may seem from the outside, marketing products such as cars and jeans is actually less satisfying than looking after fmcg brands. In fmcg, what you are doing is pure marketing. That and the fact that the big fmcg clients are committed to training has always meant that they have been able to attract recruits of the highest quality and provide the best springboard for careers in marketing."

In fact, what tends to happen is that people who market cars and jeans received their training at one of the fmcg giants. Companies such as Proctor & Gamble, Unilever and Mars are regarded as the best possible training school for would-be marketing executives, and increasingly, for senior staff in almost every area of commerce.

"Our advice to graduates is still that they should try to get onto one of the fmcg company training schemes," says Rob Hoolahan, joint managing director of the marketing recruitment specialist Ball & Hoolahan. "These are the only companies that offer a grounding in what we call full mix marketing skills. For all the development that retail companies, for example, or financial service companies have made in their own marketing departments, it's still only really in fmcg that you can learn all the skills you will ever need."

This helps to explain why graduates of the major fmcg companies are so highly sought after by other companies, why the competition for places is so intense and why the rewards they offer are so competitive.

Graduates can expect to receive around pounds 17,000 as a starting salary, and fast-track marketers - and fmcg companies produce more of these than any other sector - can expect to be calling in at least pounds 30,000 and a car after four years.

"It's definitely a young person's business, and successful recruits can expect to make marketing director at some time aged between 30-35," says Hoolahan. "Even if you don't, there are so many areas that you can move into after you've started with one of the fmcg companies."

That has long been the case. What is different now is that marketing fmcg brands is starting to be a lot more fun. First came the D&AD recognition, then the appearance of Julian Clary's name in the frame for Daz. Then, last month, Fairy produced its first ad for years that didn't star Nanette Newman. It's a start, and a pretty persuasive one. The fmcg companies already offer the best marketing training and the best experience. Now they're starting to produce some of the more exciting ads, as welln