Cliche No More: CMO Club Gets Colorful New Member

Unilever's Simon Clift on Stengel, Torture Tests and Marketing's Filet Mignon

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Simon Clift has been Unilever's chief marketing officer for more than two years, but he freely admits he only really began doing the job a couple of months ago, thanks to a corporate restructuring that has had him drop his line-management duties as president of personal care.
Simon Clift
Simon Clift Credit: Jason Alden

As full-time CMO, Mr. Clift is getting in touch with his touch points, as some of his peers might say. But he just couldn't resist a mocking drift into CMO speak during an interview in the Carlton Hotel during the International Advertising Festival at Cannes last week as he bandied about terms like "challenges" and "new-media environment." He stopped, smirked and then added: "Oh my God! I've become a cliche."

Well, not exactly. Later in the same conversation he recounted how he recently startled his rival, Procter & Gamble Co. Global Marketing Officer Jim Stengel, by sidling up to him and saying: "You're a bigger media whore than Madonna." He added: "I really do like Jim Stengel."

Clearly Mr. Clift, one of the masterminds behind the global rise of Axe and a champion of Dove's metamorphosis into Unilever's first truly globally managed brand, isn't your father's, or even your older sister's, CMO.

Instill marketing discipline
Yet he's out to do what Mr. Stengel began doing at P&G seven years ago: instilling marketing discipline globally and girding his far-flung marketing troops for -- well, the great challenges presented by the new-media environment.

"I was doing the personal-care job at the expense of the CMO job," Mr. Clift said, adding that the CMO job "deserves to be done properly," particularly because he's Unilever's first.

Irreverent wit or no, Mr. Clift is very much an agent of CEO Patrick Cescau's efforts to rein in Unilever's wild frontiers, instilling global-marketing processes much like some of his more buttoned-down peers.

"We've gone in the last three years basically from a sort of federation of independent states to a global-brands company," Mr. Clift said. "That requires some global tools and processes and ... some full-time attention."

Among those processes is one Mr. Clift believes has allowed Unilever to crack the code for managing integrated-brand communications, he said. While P&G is in the midst of trials for putting a single agency in charge of the process, Unilever has had such a system in place for a few years now. "There's a team of agencies, and we appoint a lead equity owner among the agencies," Mr. Clift said. "But the ideas can come from any of them."

Built into the system, said Simon Rothon, senior VP-global marketing services, is that agencies get paid on a retainer basis and won't be financially penalized if a campaign idea doesn't come from them.

Experimenting with smaller shops
While Unilever says it is happy with the system and its shops, the marketer is continuing to experiment with challenger agencies. One example is WPP Group-backed startup Johannes Leonardo, New York, headed by a creative team formerly on rival P&G's Tide and Folgers brands at Saatchi. Johannes Leonardo is now handling a comprehensive ground-up project for an Italian ice-cream brand for Unilever.

"The relationship of a small agency within a large group has served us extremely well," said Mr. Clift, pointing, for example, to Lowe's VegaOlmosPonce, Buenos Aires, which has done much of the global work on Axe over the years.

But he said Unilever's model by no means requires alignment of marketing services along holding-company lines. "That may be of great interest to [WPP Group Chief Executive] Martin Sorrell, but it makes no difference at all to us," he said. "And our good agencies also look for the best and brightest talent, regardless of the holding company."

Mr. Rothon noted that many of Unilever's strongest digital agencies, including OgilvyOne and Tribal DDB, are affiliated with big global networks, but that it also works with independents such as AKQA, all of which can work across any of Unilever's brands regardless of which agency network handles the lead creative assignment.

Digital media investment
It's a system that, within North America, has Unilever "closing in on 15% of our total [marketing] investment going through digital media," Mr. Rothon said, adding that "the rest of the world will follow."

Of course, it may not follow quickly, given that 44% of Unilever's sales come in developing and emerging markets, where TV looms larger even than in the U.S.

While Unilever feels it's ahead of many competitors in digital media, Mr. Clift believes it is playing catch-up in "go-to-market" areas, such as shopper and direct marketing. So he was happy to see the "Torture Test" campaign by Lowe, Bangkok, for Breeze detergent -- in which postal product samples were wrapped in white T shirts -- win a Gold Lion in direct at Cannes this year.

When Unilever split such duties from other advertising responsibilities three years ago, it caused a "period of mourning" for marketers who no longer controlled advertising and product development, Mr. Clift said. "When we made the split, people said the filet mignon of marketing is in brand development," he said, but the Bangkok Lion, "shows that absolutely is not the case. It requires flair, creativity and imagination to do something like that."

Leaving his brand-development duties means "I'm no longer an agent of brand development," Mr. Clift said, so he can represent both marketing organizations. Still, he retains a role in global brand development, sitting on the advisory board of Vindi Banga, global brand development president, and advising Mr. Cescau on portfolio strategy, such as what markets to enter and what competitors to confront globally.

Managing the Unilever brand
Mr. Clift's newly expanded CMO job also means becoming the official manager of the Unilever corporate brand, a role he admits will be difficult and uncharted. "The Unilever brand exists, but we haven't really managed it," Mr. Clift said. "It's something I'm not sure any other competitor has cracked."

To that end, he's noticed a "family resemblance between most of our brands," including Axe and Dove, both of which he said "tend to be about building people's confidence up." Of course, numerous bloggers and commentators have seen them more as contradictory, and Unilever as a result hypocritical -- one of a few controversies confronting Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty lately.

None of that has damaged the brands or rendered the campaign less effective, said Mr. Clift, who believes the controversies have been "the concern of a very tiny constituency."

Having advertising that gets noticed sufficiently to cause an uproar or draw attention to Unilever corporately is still new enough to be a learning experience. "We've been very shy about saying 'We're Unilever,'" he said. "We've had to endure a new way of working where you deliberately court publicity. And that would always bring with it good and bad."

The Dove photo retouching controversy is one Mr. Clift finds particularly absurd. "The implication is that we managed to take normal consumers and retouch them to make them look like Claudia Schiffer," he said. "If that had been our intention, we would have started with Claudia Schiffer in the first place. ... The very nature of rendering an image on paper is artificial. That's what photography is about. It involves chemical processes. I think it's very arcane, that debate, and I believe people are more sensible than people in [the media] or our industry give them credit."
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