The “51331 memo” and the origins of product management

Today is no ordinary Wednesday. It’s May 13th.

Neil McElroy, manager of Procter and Gamble's promotion department It was on this day in 1931 that the field of product management was born – its birth marked by an internal memorandum written by Neil H. McElroy, manager of Proctor and Gamble’s Promotion department.

In his memo, Mr. McElroy proposed how P&G brands could be managed more effectively by creating a new management role for people who would be accountable for particular products, rather than business functions.

McElroy’s idea was that a “brand man” should take command of specific products as discrete businesses — creating a major shift in how brands and products would be managed moving forward. His new product-centric approach called for dedicated teams, focused around a particular brand, each led by a brand man. This approach not only gave the brand man — eventually the brand manager — ownership of a given brand, but it also allowed P&G to better differentiate the various brands in its portfolio.

In many ways, the role of a brand manager has informed the modern-day product manager role. The evidence can be seen in how McElroy describes the brand man’s responsibilities and their similarity to those of today’s product managers.

For example, McElroy’s memo called out the need for a brand man to promote processes that work and outline specific solutions to problems — one of the defining responsibilities of a product manager today. The memo explains that the brand man would “study the territory personally at first hand — both dealers and consumers — in order to find out the trouble.” Armed with this insight, he would create and implement a plan that would rectify consumer pain points, aiming for the greatest return on investment. This specifically aligns with how product managers use consumer research to inform product decisions today.

Another point of similarity is related to the brand man’s role with sales enablement. The memo describes the brand man as someone who would “work with salesmen while they are getting started and follow through to the very finish to be sure there is no-letdown in sales operation of the plan.” Today, product managers are routinely involved in ensuring that sales teams have a good understanding of their product’s features, differentiators and users.

Above all, the memo called for the brand man to take full responsibility for the product, just as product managers are expected to do today.

Neil McElroy’s recommendations did not fall on deaf ears. He went on to become Proctor & Gamble’s advertising and promotion manager in 1940, then vice president of advertising and promotion in 1943 and finally rose to become president of the company in 1948.

Beyond his personal career success, McElroy’s ideas have also had a profound influence on the development of products and technologies that were unimaginable on 5/13/31 when his memo was pulled from the manual typewriter it was written on.

Today, product management has evolved into one of the most critical roles in software organizations. McKinsey & Company reports that “due to the growing importance of data in decision making, an increased customer and design focus, and the evolution of software-development methodologies, the role of the product manager has evolved to influence every aspect of making a product successful.”

These are the realities that inspired Carnegie Mellon University’s top-ranked Tepper School of Business and School of Computer Science to partner in creating a first-of-its-kind Master of Science in Product Management degree. The 12-month program provides a thorough, challenging and balanced curriculum that helps students acquire the technical skills, business acumen and leadership abilities that effective product managers need now.

For all of us who work in product management today and who will work in our field tomorrow, it’s worth remembering Neil McElroy and his radical idea of putting a manager in charge of product. He is the person who gave rise to our livelihoods.

As the first master’s degree program in America dedicated exclusively to building better product managers, 5/13/31 will always be a day we celebrate.

Cheers Neil.