How to Win a Grand Prix (or Three)

Clift's Notes: Unilever CMO Explains the Marketer's Creative Turnaround

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The Force Behind Digital at Unilever
BATAVIA, Ohio ( -- Unilever and its agencies were once "a bit like a married couple who had great sex," says Chief Marketing Officer Simon Clift, "just not with each other."

Today, conjugal relations are just lovely with Unilever's many partners, thanks in part to the man who forged Unilever's original relationship with Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Mr. Clift now has three Cannes Grand Prix in hand, served up by such old-line agency networks as Ogilvy & Mather and Lowe. who had great sex," says Chief Marketing Officer Simon Clift, "just not with each other."
Unilever's Simon Clift and Caroline Slootweg still have a way to go in raising the company's digital profile.
Unilever's Simon Clift and Caroline Slootweg still have a way to go in raising the company's digital profile. Credit: Jason Alden

Mr. Clift, who's also group VP-personal care for Unilever, leading advertising, strategy and new-product development for that business, was appointed CMO for the entire far-flung $54 billion business in 2005 in an effort to help transfer the creative and commercial successes of such personal-care brands as Dove and Axe to the foods and home-care sides of the business.

In an interview, Mr. Clift explains how the company evolved from mediocrity more than a decade ago -- and how it manages to keep the creative fires burning.

Advertising Age: What do your recent Grand Prix victories at Cannes really mean?

Simon Clift: One theory is that all agencies are broadly the same in quality, and the differentiating characteristic is whether you get the best people to work on your business. ... The classic one is Ogilvy, where Dove was an important but rather dull account. We got their kind of trusty-but-dusty creatives. And now it's gotten to where it's their most important account because, to quote [Ogilvy CEO Shelly Lazarus], other people say, "I want advertising like you do for Dove."

But I wouldn't be at all surprised if you found a lot of Unilever managers [outside brand development] who didn't know anything at all about Cannes, who were skeptical about Cannes. It's not such a big deal for Unilever internally. ... And that's justified. ... Lots of the prize-winning stuff is from eccentric little companies who don't have the same rigor about effectiveness as we do.

Ad Age: In film, you won Lions for four brands from four agencies. What does that say?

Mr. Clift: [One] thing it reflects is that two years ago, when we reorganized [brand directors now report to] to 14 different people at the level below me, as opposed to 150 previously. That meant that we put [advertising] in the hands of specialist, brand-literate leaders.

Ad Age: Why does that make a difference creatively?

Mr. Clift: Creating communications with [dozens of] global managers looking over your shoulders is a little like doing brain surgery at Wembley Stadium. Creativity and great ideas are very delicate infants, and it's very easy to kill that early on with too much scrutiny and exposure.

What used to win prizes was always in a protected, small environment. It was a local brand like Pot Noodle or Marmite, closely controlled by senior people. ... The real test of the organization is that some of these brands that are managed globally that haven't won prizes before have begun to come through.

It is interesting how we know what it takes to create great advertising, but it is astonishing how it's still a challenge to overcome the internal borders to do that. Trying to change an agency in the old organization was impossible, because you had to get the agreement of dozens of different stakeholders. ... Not everybody who works in all of the agencies is Cannes-winning material, but we're in a position now where we really can work with the best of those agencies. And so we're not going to change our current stable of agencies. The issue is internal. For the brands that haven't won prizes, it's about us, not about them.

Ad Age: You seem to have the support of senior management. Cannes awards get mentioned on investor conference calls -- remarkable, considering how little financial analysts care.

Mr. Clift: It's not the barriers at the top. It's about courage, and the courage starts at the bottom. I spend my time exalting people to have the courage of their own judgment, because there are very few ideas that are stopped because they're too wacky or wild by some senior person.

Ad Age: Can you really have creative ads and still have the process and discipline in place?

Mr. Clift: A Mozart symphony would never come out of market research. Having been written, you can then measure whether people like it or not.

Even then, consumers are not able to predict how they will feel in the future. If you ask a housewife if you'd like to pay more for your car, have a very big car that's hard to park, uses an enormous amount of gas and that you can't fit in your garage, they would say no to all of those questions, and you'd predict there's no market for SUVs. ... And so testing should only be a support for judgment, and something from which you can learn, but it can't be a substitute for judgment. ... The reality is that sometimes you'll get it wrong. And we do. But the risk of playing safe is much higher.

Ad Age: How do you foster that approach?

Mr. Clift: When I was marketing director in the U.K. developing the Axe campaign, we fired the old Lintas and gave the business, just for the U.K., to [Bartle Bogle Hegarty]. My chairman said two things to me. "One, we're now outside the system. If we fail, we'll be garroted." But equally, when he saw that first ad, which won a Bronze or Silver at Cannes, he said, "I hate it, but you're the marketing director." ...

It's quite explicit in our process that he who briefs decides. ... If you do something that's going to damage the company's reputation because it's racist, that's one thing. But [killing an ad] because the chairman doesn't like it, that's not allowed.

Then, of course, you have to have a process where when there's a mistake, it's forgiven. If there's a series of mistakes, you begin to distrust people's judgment.

Ad Age: What's your biggest challenge now?

Mr. Clift: Gaining the right balance between the much-quoted mindlessly global and hopelessly local. ...

We didn't launch Axe in the States for years because our well-informed American marketers said, "There's no deodorant market, it's an antiperspirant market. There's no aerosol market. And we find this overt sexual reference in advertising might not go down too well in the Bible Belt." Three very good reasons why we've foregone the couple of hundred million dollars of revenue per year that we could have had. ...

The main reason we've globalized isn't because of reducing cost, it's because of quality. The number of people who have the ability to develop brilliant communication is relatively limited, even in a company of tens of thousands of managers. I think the rarer commodity is marketing talent, not understanding your local market.
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