Unilever's Keith Weed is not retiring; he's 'going plural'

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Keith Weed
Keith Weed Credit: Courtesy of Unilever

After nearly nine years as chief marketing officer of Unilever, Keith Weed has announced that he's heading off into the sunset next year. Literally. He'll be driving east-west in an endurance race from Beijing to Paris during Cannes. But he's not done yet with marketing. He's just "going plural," as he describes it in this edited interview.

What's next? Surely you can't really be retiring.

I'm looking forward to doing a portfolio of independent director, non-executive director type roles. In the U.K., it's called "going plural." I've only got a few lined up, because clearly there were a lot I couldn't do because of conflict, because virtually all the companies in the industry are either customers of Unilever or suppliers of Unilever. But I've got some nice ones to start with …and I'm going to build a portfolio of a few industry-relevant directorships.

What happens to the rainbow of linen jackets? I saw that Rob Norman [former GroupM global chief digital officer] bid $500 for the lime one on Twitter.

I'm enjoying following the Twitter stream. We'll see what comes of it. Obviously, particularly the green one, is very close to my heart.

Will you still go to Cannes?

I'm still hoping one of the directorships I get will be enough in the industry that I'll still be going to Cannes. But this year I won't, which will feel really weird.

I have until the end of April [Unilever]. Then May 28 I fly to Beijing, and I'm driving the Beijing to Paris Endurance Rally in a 1940 Pontiac Silver Streak. It's a very old race. There are 100 cars doing it. You drive through Mongolia, into Uzbekistan, into Russia, up to Moscow, across into Finland and then drop down through the rest of Europe into Paris six weeks later. I bought the Pontiac two years ago. And I've got two massive petrol tanks built in the back, because when you're going through the Gobi Desert, there aren't many gas stations.

What do you see as your legacy?

I think the whole shift of focus toward brands with purpose, supported by real delivery around social and environmental sustainability. [He cites toilet-cleaner brand Domestos taking on sanitation issues in developing markets and Dove becoming the leading provider of self-esteem training for girls globally.] I think we've been able to make the business case for sustainability.

You've been vocal about digital platforms becoming more accountable. Are you satisfied with the results?

On the industry standards, what we would classify as the three Vs, viewability, verification and value … I think huge progress has been made. Around the more recent initiatives – the speech at the IAB and in Cannes around influencers – I think the big issue for me is that it moved from an industry issue to a societal issue. [At IAB this year, Weed called on social platforms to stop carrying content that sows strife or hurts children. At Cannes, he said Unilever has stopped spending on influencers who buy fake followers.] I think we've made good progress, but I think we could make faster progress, and there's more to do. Where I think we've made not enough progress is around divisiveness, hate speech and fake news.

Some of these players are getting legislative scrutiny on both sides of the Atlantic. Isn't that discouraging?

I speak on an industry basis, but with the individual [platforms] I speak very much one to one. I do believe at some stage there's going to be some sort of regulation around different parts of the industry. GDPR in Europe around data is the best example. I do believe self-regulation is the best approach. The difficulty with regulation in a fast-moving market is that it's always hard to catch up. I do believe self-regulation is better, and all the platforms have taken this seriously.

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