Lean­ing in to the ‘swamp’

Keith Weed, Unilever’s mar­ket­ing chief, has thrown down the gaunt­let to the tech gi­ants and ad agen­cies as he seeks greater trans­parency and trust with on­line plat­forms

Campaign UK - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view by Gideon Spanier

Keith Weed, Unilever’s mar­ket­ing chief, has thrown down the gaunt­let to ad agen­cies and tech gi­ants as he seeks greater trans­parency and trust

When Keith Weed warned Unilever would halt in­vest­ment in on­line plat­forms that “breed divi­sion”, he says he wanted to “put out a chal­lenge” and “set the agenda” for the ad in­dus­try and be­yond. Weed, who has in­vited Cam­paign to Unilever’s Lon­don head­quar­ters to ex­plain the think­ing be­hind his ad­dress to the US IAB last month, suc­ceeded in his aim. His speech, en­ti­tled “In brands we trust”, was the most talked-about pre­sen­ta­tion by a mar­keter since Marc Pritchard, his coun­ter­part at ri­val Proc­ter & Gam­ble, spoke at the same IAB event a year ear­lier. Pritchard warned that the dig­i­tal me­dia sup­ply chain was “murky at best, fraud­u­lent at worst” and de­manded P&G’S agen­cies change their be­hav­iour within 12 months. Weed, who says “I’ve been talk­ing about the dig­i­tal sup­ply chain for longer than any­one else”, felt it was im­por­tant to con­front a big­ger is­sue: the power of the on­line plat­forms and their im­pact on so­ci­ety. “I do think we’re at a gen­uine cross­roads now,” Weed de­clares, sit­ting in a meet­ing room with more than two dozen Unilever beauty and food prod­ucts, from Dove to Mar­mite, on dis­play. “The cross­roads is around a big­ger sub­ject than just talk­ing about the dig­i­tal sup­ply chain and the var­i­ous nuts and bolts of that. Be­cause now it re­ally is im­pact­ing peo­ple, con­sumers and the level of trust.” The Unilever chief mar­ket­ing and com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cer has been par­tic­u­larly struck by the slump in trust in so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies in Edel­man’s re­cently pub­lished Trust Barom­e­ter. He says at var­i­ous points dur­ing the in­ter­view that “a brand with­out trust is a prod­uct” and “trust ar­rives on foot but leaves by horse”. 2018 will be the year of the “tech­lash” or the year when trust is re­built, ac­cord­ing to Weed. His speech of­fered a three-pronged so­lu­tion: re­spon­si­ble plat­forms, re­spon­si­ble con­tent and re­spon­si­ble dig­i­tal in­fras­truc­ture – the lat­ter to en­sure that mea­sure­ment is ac­count­able and ver­i­fied. Most im­por­tantly, Weed said that Unilever, the world’s sec­ond-big­gest ad­ver­tiser af­ter P&G with a €7.5bn (£6.6bn) bud­get for brand and mar­ket­ing in­vest­ment, “will not in­vest in plat­forms or en­vi­ron­ments that do not pro­tect our chil­dren or which cre­ate divi­sion in so­ci­ety, and pro­mote anger or hate”. Those com­ments were widely in­ter­preted as a threat to Google and Face­book if they did not clean up what Weed calls the on­line “swamp”. And, thanks in part to the ef­forts of Unilever’s PR team, which trailed his speech in ad­vance, news out­lets from the Daily Mail to Chan­nel 4 News to USA To­day picked up on it. The Daily Mail’s City edi­tor, Alex Brum­mer, called it “a wa­ter­shed mo­ment in the bat­tle to clean up the web” – and it is clear that Weed’s “vi­sion for what needs to im­prove”, as David Whel­don, pres­i­dent of the World Fed­er­a­tion of Ad­ver­tis­ers puts it, res­onated be­yond the world of me­dia and ad­ver­tis­ing. But will words trans­late into ac­tion? Is Unilever’s warn­ing that it could with­draw its me­dia spend from the likes of Google and Face­book a gen­uine threat? “No, it’s gen­uine en­cour­age­ment,” Weed an­swers, smil­ing but pick­ing his words care­fully. He in­sists that boy­cotting Google and Face­book is not go­ing to solve prob­lems such as of­fen­sive con­tent, fake news, brand safety, mea­sure­ment and fraud. “The thing I am try­ing to stress to other ad­ver­tis­ers is I think the best way when you get in those sit­u­a­tions of chal­lenge is to en­gage and lean in,” he says. Weed cites the Youtube brand safety scan­dal last year when ad­ver­tis­ers found them­selves next to ji­hadist and ex­trem­ist con­tent. Unilever had strong checks in place, so “we did not have the same is­sues as oth­ers”, and it did not pull its ads. “If we’d just walked away from Youtube at the time, we wouldn’t have had a voice in en­gage­ment and we couldn’t have had a pos­i­tive voice in shap­ing the agenda,” he points out. Crit­ics claim the tech gi­ants don’t en­gage prop­erly but Weed thinks it’s un­fair to im­pugn their mo­tives. He likens the lead­ers of to­day’s tech pi­o­neers to Unilever founder Lord Lev­er­hulme, who “started this com­pany to make the world a bet­ter place” and “take soap to the masses” in the 1880s. “To this day, we are the largest soap com­pany in the world,” he says. “I fun­da­men­tally be­lieve Mark Zucker­berg and Face­book about ‘want­ing to make the world a bet­ter place’ and about ‘con­nect­ing peo­ple’, or you go across to [Larry Page and Sergey Brin] ‘ex­plor­ing the world’ and ‘ac­cess­ing the world’ at Google. The founders had a fun­da­men­tal pur­pose of mak­ing the world a bet­ter place.”

It’s just the pace of tech­no­log­i­cal change that means “we are in a slightly dif­fer­ent place than any­one in­tended, in­clud­ing the founders”, Weed says. “The un­in­tended con­se­quences need to be ad­dressed.” He be­lieves the tech founders have shown “much stronger com­mit­ment to be­ing proac­tive” in the past 12 months. “I don’t think for a split sec­ond any of them want any­thing other than their prod­ucts and ser­vices to help the world get bet­ter,” Weed says. Some be­lieve that greater reg­u­la­tion is the an­swer but Weed is not con­vinced that govern­ments can “keep up”. He has seen “quite pos­i­tive progress” on lots of “dif­fer­ent is­sues” such as viewa­bilty and third-party ver­i­fi­ca­tion, al­though “whether they are be­ing dealt with fast enough is a fair chal­lenge”. He con­tin­ues: “I think the pow­er­ful ap­proach we can take right now is to get agreed prin­ci­ples [for self-reg­u­la­tion] across the in­dus­try that we then col­lec­tively ad­here to for the good of the fi­nal user. At the end of the day, this all suc­ceeds on whether or not view­ers view, ad­ver­tis­ers ad­ver­tise, pub­lish­ers pub­lish.” Whel­don says Weed’s speech is just “a taste of what’s to come” and the WFA is now work­ing with other brands to build “a frame­work for crossin­dus­try ac­tion”. Agen­cies have more to worry about than Unilever’s treat­ment of tech com­pa­nies. Like other con­sumer goods gi­ants, no­tably P&G, the group has rad­i­cally changed its agency re­la­tion­ships in the past 12 months. Unilever slashed – “halved”, Weed in­ter­jects – the num­ber of agen­cies it uses from 3,000 to 1,500 and re­duced the num­ber of ads it makes by 30% in what was widely seen as a cost-cut­ting move af­ter Unilever re­jected a bid by Kraft Heinz. Weed says it makes sense to pro­duce fewer ads be­cause they were not “wear­ing out” and “we were cre­at­ing too much con­tent” but he in­sists the group’s com­mit­ment to ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing is undi­min­ished. “Unilever will win or lose on its abil­ity to build vi­brant, dif­fer­en­ti­ated brands,” he says, not­ing that the group’s an­nual brand and mar­ket­ing in­vest­ment is €1bn higher than when he took on his role in 2010. Unilever’s BMI was vir­tu­ally flat last year as sav­ings in ad pro­duc­tion were rein­vested in an ex­tra €250m of me­dia and in-store spend. “Our ob­jec­tive is very, very sim­ple – to strengthen our brands full stop,” he main­tains. “Now, if I can do it more ef­fec­tively – ab­so­lutely.” Still, agen­cies are sore. Havas and WPP are among the groups that have blamed Unilever’s cuts for slow­ing rev­enues. The FMCG giant’s be­hav­iour could also be brusque. It moved its global com­mu­ni­ca­tions plan­ning ac­count from PHD to Mind­share with­out a re­view. An­other agency that ex­panded its role says it had to ac­cept a sig­nif­i­cant fee re­duc­tion. The fear is Unilever will slash more agen­cies. All FMCGS are un­der pres­sure be­cause of ecom­merce brands and ac­tivist in­vestors, and zero-based bud­get­ing is all the rage. P&G halved its agency ros­ter last year and will halve it again. Weed hints more dras­tic cuts at Unilever are not on the cards: “Yes, I think the halv­ing was the step-change and we will con­tinue to fo­cus our re­sources on the best agen­cies. To me, best agen­cies are a com­bi­na­tion of fab­u­lous cre­ative and strat­egy and also value for money.” Unilever has re­struc­tured by merg­ing global and lo­cal mar­ket­ing teams and Weed feels that the agency groups could bet­ter or­gan­ise them­selves to serve their clients be­cause they are op­er­at­ing too many spe­cial­ist agen­cies. That has meant the ad­ver­tiser has to do a lot of the work in­te­grat­ing the dif­fer­ent ser­vices, rather than the agency group do­ing it. Weed has talked pre­vi­ously about the dan­ger of the “frag­men­tat­ing” of brands in a more com­plex me­dia world and he says hav­ing lots of spe­cial­ist agen­cies in mo­bile, so­cial and other dis­ci­plines po­ten­tially ag­gra­vates the prob­lem. They think about “op­ti­mis­ing for the chan­nels”, in­stead of “op­ti­mis­ing for the brand”, Weed says. “What agen­cies need to do more and more is to in­te­grate the of­fer them­selves”, so that they are able say to clients: “If you want to op­ti­mise your [over­all] brand com­mu­ni­ca­tion, this is what it should look like.” He harks back to the days of big full-ser­vice agen­cies such as J Wal­ter Thomp­son in Lon­don’s Berke­ley Square where they could “pull to­gether all the brand com­mu­ni­ca­tion”. The agency hold­ing groups have “all the com­po­nent parts” to do this, he says. “The chal­lenge back to the agen­cies is: if one of the big­gest chal­lenges for ad­ver­tis­ers right now is the frag­men­ta­tion of the brands, not only help them to in­te­grate to cre­ate more con­sis­tent brand think­ing but ac­tu­ally lead the in­te­gra­tion.” Ac­cen­ture and other con­sul­tants claim to of­fer a joined-up, end-to-end cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence for brands but Weed says: “I have not yet seen any of the new kids on the block show the level of cre­ative break­through and strat­egy which I be­lieve we need in this highly com­pet­i­tive and com­plex world. Let’s not for­get that what ad­ver­tis­ing agen­cies de­liver as the dif­fer­en­tia­tor is bril­liant cre­ative that en­gages peo­ple and com­mu­ni­cates and builds brands.” Still, ad­ver­tis­ing is “chang­ing rapidly”, as Weed says, and Unilever now splits its out­put into tra­di­tional “in­ter­rup­tional” ad­ver­tis­ing and “seek­out” con­tent. The lat­ter is a mix­ture of “needs-based” con­tent such as house­hold tips and recipes and “pas­sion-based” con­tent such as en­ter­tain­ment. In Unilever House, there are sev­eral in-house cre­ative stu­dios, called U-stu­dios, on dif­fer­ent floors that would not look out of place in an ad agency, with small teams work­ing in colour­ful, open-plan spa­ces on brands such as Wall’s. Unilever says U-stu­dios’ work is “30% cheaper than ex­ter­nal agen­cies”. Weed, who stud­ied en­gi­neer­ing at the Uni­ver­sity of Liver­pool, knows how to build his per­sonal brand. He is a fre­quent pub­lic speaker (he never uses an au­tocue, he says) and has a pen­chant for colour­ful clothes. He wears un­miss­able green blaz­ers at Cannes Lions and is sport­ing pur­ple socks with loafers on the day of this in­ter­view. “He likes the lime­light – but so does Pritchard,” an agency chief says. Weed, who joined Unilever in 1983, is a gre­gar­i­ous fig­ure with con­nec­tions. He has been a non-ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Prince Charles’ Duchy Orig­i­nals and re­cently be­came a di­rec­tor of Grange Park Opera.. Some Unilever col­leagues are said to re­fer to him af­fec­tion­ately as Austin Pow­ers, the spoof English se­cret agent who jets around the world (Weed flew from Lon­don to Cal­i­for­nia for 24 hours for his IAB speech). Weed turns 57 in April, so he could have an­other big job in him. Unilever is brac­ing for change as Paul Pol­man pre­pares to step down as chief ex­ec­u­tive and it could move head­quar­ters to Rot­ter­dam be­cause of Brexit. For now, Weed is fo­cused on fol­low­ing through on his chal­lenge to all of the tech gi­ants and is talk­ing to each of them in­di­vid­u­ally. “That con­ver­sa­tion has made good head­way for Unilever and that’s what I’m go­ing to con­tinue to do,” he says. •

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