The Global CMO Interview: Keith Weed, Unilever

'The More Global You Are, the More Digital You Become'

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BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- Simon Clift is a hard act to follow as Unilever's chief marketing officer. But Keith Weed, who set out to do that in April, is doing it with some added power.

Keith Weed
Keith Weed
Like Mr. Clift, he reports to CEO Paul Polman. But Mr. Weed's position comes with an appointment to Unilever's executive board alongside top regional and category bosses and formally expanded duties over the whole range of the company's communications and sustainability efforts.

Mr. Weed wants Unilever, second only to Procter & Gamble Co. in global ad spending and largest outside the U.S. with total spending of $7.4 billion last year, to be seen as a marketer with as much skill as clout. Being named the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival's Marketer of the Year this month helps. But to that end he also took the company's business-unit leaders on a trip to Silicon Valley in May; will look outside the company to bring in talent in such areas as mobile; and is pushing Unilever agencies to broaden their capabilities.

Ad Age: How would you characterize your global go-to-market strategy?

Mr. Weed: We have two very distinct focuses in our business. One we call brand development and the other we call brand building. Brand development is in charge of the brand positioning, the brand advertising and indeed the innovation packaging [around the world]. There are more similarities between the Axe consumer in Wisconsin, Mumbai, Rio and Shanghai than there is between the Axe consumer in Wisconsin and [his] mom, the sister and uncle. On the other side we have brand building. The brand builders are very much in a country so they are engaging with consumers and, importantly, retailers and ensuring we are very active in any local media. When both come together, that's marketing.

Brand builders [create] the local buzz and the excellence in execution. The brand developers enable us to leverage our scale and innovation in R&D and brand innovation in terms of equity in advertising.

You can imagine that [this model initially created] some tensions, and of course it did. Those tensions have worked through the system, and, in fact, my appointment as executive across marketing is actually a declaration that this approach is here to stay and providing competitive advantage.

Ad Age: What's your biggest challenge?

Mr. Weed: Digitalization and globalization feed on each other. The more global you are, the more digital you become, or the more digital you are, the more global you become. [Consumers see] between 2,000 to 10,000 commercial messages a day. We're brilliant at filtering it out. My role is to break through.

Ad Age: Are you also trying to broaden the global scope of where you get talent?

Mr. Weed: We're pretty good at that already. We're an Anglo-Dutch company, and until I arrived on the executive board, there weren't any English guys. Have you seen many American companies that have no Americans?

Ad Age: Where are you finding your largest marketing opportunities globally and how are you leveraging those?

Mr. Weed: To me, opportunities imply white spaces. Wouldn't you think that after being around quite a few years that we would have launched a few of our big products everywhere? [But] we just launched Lipton in Spain and Domestos in Italy. We still have spaces even in the developed world for launching our existing range. Beyond filling in the white spaces our biggest opportunity is filling out the price segmentation.

Ad Age: What's the rationale behind your global agency partnerships and infrastructures?

Mr. Weed: Having people who infinitely understand our brands and can work with us to build assets that we can then leverage is a right way of working. There is another dynamic, and that is we want to work with the best wherever they may be. We now have a roster of digital agencies.

I would love to be able to go to Ogilvy or Lowe and have them give me all my communication needs. In fact, when, recently, one of our roster agencies lost a digital pitch and they came to me complaining, I said, "Why are you complaining? I'm mad with you. It's much harder for me to have to work with a digital agency and you. Why didn't you win the pitch?"

[Unilever agencies] are investing hugely in digital, and I'm absolutely convinced they will get there because, as I've said to all of them, we're going to fish where the fish are.

Ad Age: Should agencies feel threatened by what Unilever has done in consumer co-creation or crowdsourcing creative?

Mr. Weed: I don't think they should see it as a threat, because to me this is about engaging with people, [so] you need to be a little bit playful and give people opportunities. The only way people might get a little bit confused is we have some of our smaller brands like Peperami in the U.K. actually moved much more in this area. I always reserve the right to have pilots here and there around the world. If I'm experimenting or piloting, it doesn't necessarily mean that I am going to apply it everywhere. But it does mean that I'm going to learn, and I prefer to learn on a small brand or in a small country.

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