NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Sweeping changes at Unilever -- from the departure of its colorful chief marketing officer, Simon Clift, to intense reviews of its agency partners -- are irrefutable evidence that its CEO of one year is having an immense impact in the marketing suite.
Paul Polman has been anything but secretive in his quest to make the $30 billion behemoth more cost-competitive. Not only has he appointed Unilever's first chief procurement officer, Marc Engel, he's cleared out 1,000 managers from the home office in London and put a cap on discretionary expenses such as travel.
But it's not simply austerity the ex-Procter & Gamble executive brings, but more of the Cincinnati giant's mentality. Historically, Unilever has been less process-driven than P&G, less efficient when it comes to cost control and organizational streamlining and less technology-focused. It's also been better in recent years at some of the softer skills, such as winning creative awards.
All of which has agencies watching a bit warily a marketer that spends $5.7 billion on global marketing, according to Ad Age's Datacenter, second only to P&G. "Polman is a results guy, and creativity is not really his agenda," said one agency executive close to the matter. "The agencies that have personal relationships with [Simon] are probably questioning where they stand."
Having also worked at Nestlé, Mr. Polman undoubtedly has a good grasp of what the company's rivals are paying for things, a logical reason why procurement officers have uncharacteristically taken a place at the table in recent Unilever media and agency reviews. One person close to the company's recent $800 million North American media review (the business remained at U.S. incumbent MindShare) said "procurement lit the fuse" on the process, and the net effect of the review was that MindShare cut costs for Unilever by millions.
Observers said the changes are probably long overdue and Unilever, which recently posted a 27% drop in net income, needs to get aggressive to cope with an increasingly tough market. "Polman came in to do a job -- to slim it down, make it more aggressive and commercial and get the share price up," said one industry executive. "That's his brief, and that's what he's doing. I'm surprised that more senior people haven't gone."
That could be coming. The day before news of the departure of Mr. Clift, a 27-year company vet, became public, a cryptic statement was issued by Unilever that Ben & Jerry's CEO and VP Global Brand Development Walt Freese will depart after eight years at the end of next month to pursue other "value-led business."
Whether Mr. Clift's post and other vacant roles will be replaced remains to be seen. In an e-mail to Ad Age, Mr. Polman said some of the positions of people globally and in the U.S. who left will be replaced, but others won't. He didn't specify which positions would be replaced, including Mr. Clift's CMO post. He added that the number of departures at Unilever in the past 12 months isn't unusual for a company of its size in the industry.
When reports surfaced of Mr. Clift's departure, the industry was buzzing with rumors of head-butting between Messrs. Clift and Polman. But Mr. Clift dismissed that, telling Ad Age the move, which he expects to make in April, was largely to spend more time with family in Brazil.
Still, it's hard to deny differences in personality and style between Mr. Polman, a believer in copy-testing, and Mr. Clift, more of a creative risk-taker known to have close personal friendships with some of the agency community.
Yet the prospect of Mr. Clift leaving doesn't worry MindShare. "We have broadened several levels of connection. We don't have a relationship that hinges around Simon," said Phil Cowdell, CEO of MindShare North America.
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Contributing: Emma Hall, Jack Neff and Laurel Wentz