Former Procter & Gamble CEO Ed Artzt, famous for 1994 digital wake-up call, dies at 92

Phone records controversy

Artzt previously had become famous, or infamous, in 1991 for convincing authorities to turn over phone records of calls to Wall Street Journal reporter Alecia Swasy in an effort to root out leaks behind her reporting, which was later compiled in the book “Soap Opera.” The book was highly critical of Artzt and P&G, but Artzt later acknowledged it was a mistake to go after the phone records.

“I don’t think it had a lasting effect,” beyond a few weeks of controversy, Pepper said. “I don’t think it ever had any impact whatsoever in the key areas of recruiting or customer relations.”

Artzt was nicknamed “The Prince of Darkness,” which some colleagues said reflected his temper, but he said came from his habit of working late. One of the more famous quotes from Swasy’s reporting: “I certainly don’t want to have a short trigger with people and not give them a chance. But sure I’ve cleared out deadwood. Probably some of it was still breathing when it was cleared out.”

The rivalry that wasn’t

“He was a warrior,” Pepper said, but also a man of kindness that isn’t exactly captured by that quote. “I don’t think we could have had a better CEO from 1990 to 1995,” he said.

Pepper said this despite the belief by many in the 1990s that he himself had been a candidate for the CEO post that went to former P&G CEO John Smale, along with characterizations in Swasy’s book and among some P&G alums that he and Artzt were rivals.

That Pepper spent considerable time over recent years helping Artzt assemble his oral history certainly suggests no rivalry persisted, and Pepper denies it ever existed. “There was never any rivalry,” Pepper said. “Early in my career it was just a deep respect that grew into affection.”

Despite speculation in the 1990s that Pepper might leave for another company after Artzt’s promotion, Pepper said, “That was never something that I considered.”

‘A maniac on brand equity’

Certainly Artzt was an intense competitor, said former P&G Global Brand Officer and now independent consultant Jim Stengel. “He was just a maniac on brand equity, competitive standing and brand positioning,” he said.

Stengel recalled seeing that firsthand when he was associate ad manager on Crisco and Puritan working under Artzt, who objected to newly launched Puritan being positioned as “the healthy oil,” which he felt would undermine the bigger Crisco brand. Stengel said he got a call from Artzt one Sunday telling him he’d be joining him in a meeting at Grey Advertising in New York the next day to talk about how the agency would handle Crisco’s health positioning.

In another case, when Wesson launched shortening that undercut Crisco by 50 cents per unit and P&G executives were resisting cutting list prices to match, Artzt summoned them one Friday to demand they get the list price down on shelf by 50 cents by the next Monday, Stengel said.

But Artzt was also personable and kind, Stengel said. He recounted being told by Artzt in 1985, when Stengel was a newly minted assistant brand manager, to handle a Jif appearance on a telethon in Atlantic City for a juvenile diabetes charity, because the disease had affected Artzt’s family and Jif was helpful for diabetics.

Stengel recalled being interviewed during around 2 a.m. during the live telethon about peanut butter, with his parents in the audience, having driven over from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“And then Artzt came over, and he was absolutely charming with my parents and with me,” Stengel said. “That was a side of him too, for sure.”

Attila the trainer

Artzt did study Attila the Hun and admired him, not for his brutal conquest of much of Eurasia, but for the way he used oral history to teach people under him, Pepper said. That oral history approach became the basis of the P&G’s case-study-intensive internal college training system that Artzt instituted and has operated for decades, Pepper said.

“Some of the best training I had in my entire career [Artzt] did personally” at P&G college sessions, Stengel said.

“He was a ferocious recruiter,” Pepper said, noting that Artzt regularly went to campuses himself to recruit, spending 23 days on campuses one year during his CEO tenure.

That focus on recruitment and training was “hugely important for a company that is largely promote-from-within and knew its success depended on its future leaders,” Pepper said, adding that Artzt had a “major impact on individuals by believing in them or teaching them.”