Unilever Goes Small: a Warning to Big Agencies?

Startup Roth Partners Beats Out Larger Rivals With Promise to Provide 'Channel Expertise' for New Marketing Concept

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Unilever agencies, listen up: An integrated startup has edged you out on an initiative that could shape up into a worldwide assignment for the packaged-goods behemoth.

Michael Polk
Michael Polk

Mike Polk, president-global foods, home and personal care at Unilever, said Roth Partners, an agency headed by former Ogilvy & Mather executive Rick Roth that encompasses general advertising, digital, shopper and promotion marketing, beat out big rivals because it could provide a "channel-agnostic" approach with the right talent faster than other Unilever shops or holding companies were prepared to do.

Naming the small newcomer to Unilever's roster wasn't meant as "a shot across the bow" for the giant's global agencies, Mr. Polk said. But it's also a clear sign that they stand to lose out if they can't deliver the comprehensive approach that he said Unilever wants.

"What Rick and his team were able to offer was a breadth of channel expertise at the senior level against a whole new concept we're trying to build," Mr. Polk said. "Arguably any one of our partners should be able to bring that to us. But the challenge in general in this whole space is getting the most out of these agency models that should at their fingertips be able to this offer to us."

He declined to describe the assignment, other than to say it's based on a concept that originated in Latin America and has been shaped over the past several months by Mr. Roth and Unilever's internal team to launch in North America late next quarter. Ultimately, should it succeed here, it will expand to other countries.

Mr. Polk said he's had conversations with Omnicom CEO John Wren and WPP Chief Executive Martin Sorrell, among others, about his desire for a channel-agnostic integrated approach, and he believes Unilever's agencies and holding companies can provide it. They just couldn't do so quickly enough in this case.

The assignment isn't a sign that existing agency or holding-company models are broken, Mr. Polk said, but that they don't always work as they should.

Unilever's agencies are "certainly well equipped to deliver" what he wants, but he said, "I think there are some constraints that exist within some of our agency partners with respect to how people are held accountable that disable the movement of talent. ... I don't think it's a design flaw per se, but it requires an intervention at times by management to get the most important talent on the most important issues."

Mr. Roth left Unilever shop Ogilvy & Mather in 2009 after a 31-year career in a variety of assignments, most recently as CEO of the OgilvyAction shopper and promotion marketing unit. He founded Roth Partners last year, he said, around a vision of creating an agency that could provide senior talent, either internally or through partners, around all major areas of the marketing mix. In addition to Unilever, the agency recently landed an assignment from Readers Digest following a pitch, he said.

Mr. Polk and Mr. Roth have a relationship that spans decades to when Mr. Polk worked for Kraft Foods and Mr. Roth worked for Ogilvy on Kraft business. But Mr. Polk said the decision on the assignment came from people in his organization, not from him.

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