There are websites for this kind of math. So here you go: it’s been 10,074 days since I have joined Philip Morris, on April the 1st, 1993. 46.6% of my life to-date. Comes the time, now, to end this count of days.
It all started with a workshop at the Disneyland Paris resort, which had opened one year before. This workshop was a sort of group therapy for the Philip Morris France Marketing & Sales teams, who just got the « Evin Law » (Claude Evin was France’s MoH) – advertising ban & tax hikes – in their face. Shock & Awe. The idea behind this workshop was to kind of collectively figure out the « now what ». At a dinner, the Marketing Director told me: « You know, there are two kinds of people who get fired from this company: those who are too stupid, and those who are too intelligent ». This statement puzzled me, obviously, and I spent some time asking myself what he meant telling ME this: was he suspecting I’d be a good candidate for one of these two destinies? And if yes, which one? Some years later, the guy got fired, and I never got to know which of these two excesses built the case for him being kicked-out. Unless his statement was incomplete: it may have missed something like « too greedy ». Anyway: my first point is, from the very first days, I got embedded in this corporation, Philip Morris, where from time to time some Managers make an attempt to summarize the company’s culture in a couple of bullet-points – and miserably fail.
During this workshop, at some point, I was asked as a new comer to express how I was perceiving Philip Morris France. The words that spontaneously came to my mind were: « a besieged fortress » – everyone around the table nodded their head. I meant, a bunch of well-armed men and women surrounded by armies of hostile people, from policy makers to media, from the man-in-the-street to reputed intellectuals. I had just joined the worldwide leader of the Tobacco industry, in other words: the dark Side of the Force. At Disneyland, a quarter of century or so before Disney would acquire the Star Wars franchise. Anyway: my second point is, from the very first days, I got embedded in this corporation, Philip Morris, where you feel you’re being hated by everyone outside but shareholders/investors. And some smokers.
That’s where I have spent more than ten thousand days: a place you struggle to describe from the inside, but which everyone outside has a clear vision about.
« Come to Where the Flavor is », they said. I have come, and indeed these twenty-seven years have been really tasteful. Although, some may argue, I have been working all this time in the same Function – Market Research, having been recruited, in the first place, from GfK… a Market Research agency. But Researchers would understand that as long as you keep on jumping from a business case, brand, methodology or country to another, you never get bored. Well, « never » may be too strong a word, let’s say « not too much». But no matter what you do for a living, at Philip Morris: what counts, but cannot be counted, is whom you interact with, and how. And I must say that in this regard I have been lucky most of the time. Of course I had my fair share, like anyone else, of complete idiots or arrogant and mean individuals – be it colleagues or suppliers. And obviously I have to assume that I’ve been an asshole to many, myself. Of course PMI, like any large human organization, generates a good amount of absurdity and/or meaningless-ness – « Dilbert-like » situations – and, quoting a senior PMI Researcher anonymously, when it comes to business, « the mother of stupid ideas is always pregnant ». But, whilst this is inevitable, this organization, precisely, has always been intrinsically, sui generis, favoring quality moments for its employees, as employees. « Christmas parties », « conventions », « workshops », « get-together », « regional roll-out sessions », you name it: all these things are the reason ALL farewell speeches I’ve been hearing all these years contained the word « fun ». More so, I guess, than because of never-ending PowerPoint sessions or « alignment meetings ». Time has been flying for me during these twenty-seven years because of the many nice colleagues I had the chance to meet and spend time with, period.
But the « people » thing hasn’t only been about « fun ». It’s also been, more importantly, about me discovering, learning from these human interactions. I have a passion for history and politics and I’ve never missed an opportunity to engage colleagues on these kind of topics whenever possible… and appropriate. Guess what: PM employees never are representative of their respective countries’ population – younger, more educated, English-speaking – be it in Paris, Moscow, Amman, Cape Town, Kuala Lumpur or Bogota. Actually they often have more in common with people from other PM affiliates than with their fellow citizens. Yet, all things being equal… things are not equal: interacting with a colleague from a different geography and history is worth tons of reading in newspapers or books. Special thanks for that to the many great people I’ve dealt with over my assignment in North-Africa & Levant – in Casablanca, Algiers, Tunis, Cairo, Beirut and Amman – and in the MEA Cluster overall.
That’s where I have spent more than ten thousand days: a big corporation like any other, with its fair amount of non-sense, but a big corporation like no other, where you truly realize that people can make a difference to each other – by simply being themselves.
I also had some work done, over the last twenty-seven years. And I can say there are good things about being a Market Researcher at PMI.
Firstly, you generally are respected because marketeers can’t sell their stuff to their management without supporting market & consumer data. Also, fact of life is that there is usually much more turnover at internal clients’ than at the Research function, and you end-up being Brands’ and Marketing’s back-up hard drive: net-net, no-one questions your reason-to-be.
Secondly, in my experience at least, financial means are rarely an issue and you can afford comprehensive and intellectually-stimulating pieces of information. In the same line of thoughts: Research agencies assume PMI is filthy rich so they make you feel important to them, which is good for one’s ego.
Thirdly, sitting on the « dark side » (see above), you have to be extremely careful with what you do, and you cannot simply plug & play off-the-shelf Research solutions – it often takes a lot of creativity to make it work for Tobacco and you’d never be a « mailbox researcher ».
Lastly: with all due respect to internal clients, you often can spend a lot of time helping them figuring out what they want to figure out. As a result, you happen to touch upon core business thinking and strategy, which again is good for your ego.
Now, obviously, there are also not-so-good things. Like, for instance, agencies that do such a bad job that you wish you had a time-travelling machine to stop the crap before it hits the fan. Or when it feels like Market Research is like a thermometer one needs to shake, so that it tells the right temperature. Or when your internal client asks you « So, did they like it? » when you come back from the first of the eight focus groups you have planned. Or when you are asked to « pre-test » stuff for which there is only one option available anyway. Last but not least, when you are the impression that all the work you’ve done is like a street lamp: you’re not sure whether it will be used to get some light or to be urinated on. But let’s be honest: whereas all the good things about being a Researcher at PMI are pretty unique to this company, the not-so-good things would be experienced at any corporation’s.
That’s where I have spent more than ten thousand days: at doing a job I enjoyed as much as it sometimes frustrated me, where you stand for being the voice of the consumers out there, i.e., more than often, voicing common sense against wishful thinking.
I remember once having had this exchange with an immigration cop at the JFK airport: « What are you here for, he asked, business or pleasure? – Business, I replied. – And what’s your business? – Pleasure, I said, I work for Philip Morris ». The guy didn’t enjoy the conversation that much, cops don’t have a sense of humour when on duty, that’s a universal fact – still he would let me move on. But the point is, I was not joking: working at PMI all these years has been about working for a company delivering against the need for pleasurable moments. Addictive, hazardous and deadly, but pleasurable moments.
Indeed if it wasn’t for the sensations tobacco consumption provides, smokers wouldn’t smoke, would they? Addiction is not enough, else the Nicotine-patch business would have overcome the Tobacco industry since ages.
With this in mind, still, there has been many instances, over the past 27 years, when I wished I was working for a « normal » company – especially in social moments. « Oh, I see, so you kill people, don’t you? ». (Well, since 2008 I would say « Yes, I work for Philip Morris, but you know, I could work for a bank » then most of the people would say « Hmm, you have a point »). Anyway, I could get along with it, way before PMI would launch IQOS, claim a positive role in harm reduction and even try and « unsmoke the world ». Because if you enjoy your working environment, have a job you’re passionate about, get well paid for it and work for a product one can legally buy and use, at some point you have to stand your ground. Else, leave the business world for good.
That’s where I have spent more than ten thousand days: at a multinational company which I joined being fully aware, from the get-go, I was not bound for being seen as enhancing mankind’s well-being for a living. But who does, as long as you go for a corporate career?
Comes the time, now, to end this count of days, as PMI « transforms » into an organization where roles like mine are no longer needed. Fair enough, no hard feelings, I’ll be more than well, don’t worry.
« See the cross-eyed pirates sitting perched in the sun
Shooting tin cans with a sawed-off shotgun
And the neighbors they clap and they cheer with each blast
But farewell, Angelina, the sky’s changing color and I must leave fast »
Thank you all for having been there!