One of the greatest contributions to developing the modern marketing mindset comes from Procter and Gamble (P&G). Specifically, the one-page memo. The reason I bring it up today is that too few new marketers are familiar with it, and even fewer use it. In a digital age, where time and attention is scarce, the one-page memo is more important than ever before.
In a book which is still relevant today – Winning With the P&G 99 – Charles Decker tells us that if you can learn to write a P&G memo, you can learn how to think.
The memo becomes a knowledge codification tool, a way to present ideas, arguments, and recommendations in a language and style everyone understands.
Think about how effective this is. In most companies, the quality of communications depends on the writer. Every department, every individual speaks and writes in their own language. At P&G, the language and style is the same everywhere. What is original is the idea in the memo.
Tom Peters (In Search of Excellence) tell us that the one-page memo tradition goes back to Richard Deupree, past president:
… Deupree strongly disliked any memorandum more than one typewritten page in length. He often would return a long memo with an injunction: “Boil it down to something I can grasp.” If the memo involved a complex situation, he sometimes would add, “I don’t understand complicated problems. I only understand simple ones.” When an interviewer once queried him about this, he explained, “Part of my job is to train people to break down an involved question into a series of simple matters. Then we can all act intelligently.”
More recently, Jim Stengel, the former Global Marketing Officer at P&G, explains:
“It boils down to three things. One is not really the one-page memo, but the structure of the one-page memo. I still find today I think that way. I don’t think of any communication without thinking what I want in the first line, provide some relevant background, and then state your objectives and strategy to achieve them. How you’re going to measure it, and what you want from the reader and anyone else. The second is the level of breadth and depth in training. Some of my most vivid memories of the company are when I was put in difficult situations and tested on that in a positive way. The third is the ability to lead a diverse group of people, sometimes around the world, to a common end. And more specifically in the marketing/advertising world is leading agencies productively and effectively.”
Notice the “boiling” metaphor used by both Deupree and Stengel. The process of memo-writing becomes a process of eliminating the trivial and distilling the key issues. Clarity of thought and action. Here’s the format of the memo:
This format can be used for any kind of communication, from emails to advertisements. WATCH:
Sometimes, one page is not enough. In that case, go longer if you must.
Here is the infamous 3-page memo from Neil McElroy from May 13, 1931. In it, he argues that P&G must create a brand team with the skills to manage every dimension of marketing along with the authority to coordinate sales and manufacturing. Today, an equivalent memo might likely be about omni-channel marketing.
Finally, I’d hasten to add, there are other effective ways to write memos.
Here we see an example from the inimitable David Ogilvy:
And here, from the “Sage of Omaha”:
That said, there are clear benefits to using an approach similar to P&G, the most important being that it is teachable and thus scalable.
Do you know of examples of businesses that prioritize their communications in this way? Please let us know in the comments below.
Madison Bloom is the nom de plume of a branding executive based in San Francisco.