Byravee Iyer
Mar 10, 2015

Q&A: Keith Weed on Unilever’s new media-centric planning process

Unilever's global CMO talks with Campaign Asia-Pacific about the changing marketing industry, the FMCG giant's media-agency review, and the company's new, future-facing planning structure.

Don’t start with a piece of creative or television ad and adapt it to other media: Keith Weed
Don’t start with a piece of creative or television ad and adapt it to other media: Keith Weed

At Media360, Unilever's global head of communications, Geoff Seeley, introduced himself by saying, "Yes, I'm from Unilever, but I'm not just a wallet full of advertising spend." While said in good humour, you have to ask, if that's how Seeley feels, what does it mean to be Keith Weed?

While sustainability and digital continue to drive the FMCG giant's annual advertising budget of almost $9 billion, Unilever is heavily focused on revising global agency equations and is in the process of reviewing its media business

Weed wants to dabble and experiment with different marketing companies. “Five years ago, we principally engaged with a creative agency, media agency and maybe one other specialist of some sort,” Weed said. “Now we’re working with multiple agencies to create a single-minded, customer-centric model.”

This may be bad news for some of the company’s creative agencies. Unilever is in the process of putting together a new planning structure, which puts media choice at centre. Weed has introduced the “big change” to the company's 6,500 marketers around the world and is in the process of rolling it out to agencies and embedding it within teams. 

You’re in the process of reviewing your media planning and buying agencies. What are you looking for from potential agencies?

The whole relationship with agencies has changed dramatically. Five or 10 years ago, we principally engaged with a creative agency, media agency and maybe one other specialist of some sort. For Project Sunlight, we had 12 companies at the command centre including social-media agencies and platform companies. We had a whole breadth of companies working on the campaign.

That level of complexity brings expertise, but also leads to potential fragmentation. These experts want to get a 110 per cent solution for social or mobile when I really want 110 per cent for the brand. So the challenge is orchestrating multiple agencies to create a single minded, customer-centric model. I think being flexible and experimenting with different solutions is the most important thing.

Five years ago, I was in Silicon Valley meeting with Facebook and Google. Twitter didn’t justify a meeting. It all happened in the last five years. There’s another big shake up about to happen around mobile. I think it will have a bigger impact than the internet. Following that, it’ll be the era of wearables and ultimately we’ll have tech inside us.

At Media360Summit, Mike Cooper talked about how Unilever has put a new planning structure in place that places media agencies at the centre of the process. What does this mean for creative agencies?

The way we used to think about it before was to first create content and then distribution. They were two separate things: creative and media. Now content and distribution come together as one. So where you see something and the context of where you see it makes a huge difference. Our old model was called ABC where A stood for attention and getting awareness; B was about branding; and C stood for communication. Today, we’ve come up with something that’s much more appropriate. It’s called ART and is about authenticity, which is essentially branding with meaning; relevance; and talkability or simply creating awarenesss on steroids, which social media allows.

The first thing one needs to do is think about media choice. Don’t start with a piece of creative or television ad and adapt it to other media. Start with media choice, which indeed puts PHD, our planning agency, in a different situation. This is highly appropriate for the new world. There is so much media choice that brands need to be upfront in a selective way. This is the great dilemma because there has never been a more exciting time to be in marketing and advertising. It’s a big change and we’ve just launched it to 6,500 marketers around the world, hosted sessions with agencies and we’re now embedding it within the teams.

Unilever's digital spending has increased significantly and now accounts for around 20 per cent of the company's global media spending. What is this spend targeted towards and what benefits are you seeing?

I obviously spend a lot of time building those capabilities and our investment in digital. To be clear, I’m fishing where the fish are and have no particular mission as such. In America, the percentage of investment in digital is 40 per cent whereas in India it is in the high single digits. It reflects how consumers behave. One of the things we do is understand how people engage with brands and how they spend their media time. If people are spending more time on digital, which they are, I want to make sure we are highly competitive in the area. 

We look at media as paid, owned and earned. As such, we club paid search in with TV. Search is increasingly significant in the way consumers are engaging in the whole path to purchase. If you’re not right in search, it is like not having your products on the supermarket shelves. As for social media, we are finding ROI at very competitive levels. We’ve done a lot of work appraising the efficiencies of digital. 

The Foundry was an interesting initiative to launch, and we’ve covered it quite extensively. How is it working out?
The Foundry is a positive step for us. It struck me that there are millions of possibilities to innovate and engage people. We want to get in early on. We don’t want people to come in with a piece of paper and present ideas that cannot be scaled. It is also important to make sure the brand is engaging genuinely. For that, we have to get the brand team and startups working together.

My advice to startups is to look for something that helps improve lives. We have humble products. Think of solutions that offer genuine utility. Too often the technology is exciting, but in itself tech is tech. You need a benefit explored. Don’t worry too much about which brand to work with. We’ll work that out and pair the right brands and startups. Come with an open mind.

Five years after its launch, how is Unilever's sustainable living plan progressing?

We are a mass-market company, serving 2 billion people every day in 190 countries. Our vision is to double growth while reducing environmental footprint. We’re pleased to say that we now source 50 per cent of our agricultural raw materials sustainably. Eventually, we want to make sustainable living commonplace. I’ve noticed that people are becoming more conscious of the broader environment; perhaps, this is driven by the recent climate disasters and the proliferation of the internet and social media. Something is making people more concerned about the world. We want Unilever to be the trust mark of sustainability because once we achieve that, it will both future-proof the company and create growth. That day is going to happen. In the next 40 years, we have to produce as much food as we did in the last 8,000, so there are huge challenges for the planet and getting ourselves in the right position is important. Besides, there’s huge cost savings too. We’ve saved over 250 million in eco-efficiencies in our factories.

Why is it important to Unilever to run a consumer-facing campaign (Project Sunlight) that promotes sustainability?

When we first set out in this direction five years ago, we wanted to make sure we showed evidence of progress. The last thing I wanted to do is get into the green washing territory that some companies are involved in. The first wave of people we set out to partner with included key opinion drivers, academics and civil society. Next, we engaged our employees and did a big campaign internally, motivating them around #brightfuture. These are logical steps and now we are ready to start engaging with consumers to create demand for these products. A lot of what’s going on in the area of sustainability is very much on the supply side. These are good, but if we had greater demand for more sustainable solutions, we will have more solutions coming from other companies and governments.


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