Unilever CMO Simon Clift Announces Retirement

With Global Agency Reviews Completed, Marketing Exec Credited With Axe's Success to Step Down

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Unilever's outspoken and colorful Chief Marketing Officer Simon Clift is leaving the company, a corporate spokeswoman confirmed, saying he plans to "retire within a couple of months" to spend more time with his family in Brazil.

Simon Clift
Simon Clift Credit: Jason Alden
Mr. Clift, who turns 52 next month, was the Unilever executive behind the global success of Axe, taking the risk of appointing the then-untested Bartle Bogle Hegarty to the account. That success helped eventually propel him to head the personal-care operations of the world's No. 2 advertising spender before becoming full-time CMO two years ago. But the marketing maverick with a noted distaste for copy testing and conventional package-good benefit-driven pitches seemed to be a stark contrast with Unilever CEO Paul Polman, a Procter & Gamble and Nestle veteran who's long been a believer in copy testing.

While there were some reports of friction -- and it was hard for some people who knew both men to imagine them meshing -- Mr. Polman and Mr. Clift both spoke well of each other publicly. In an interview with Ad Age last April, Mr. Clift said of Mr. Polman: "I think it's the first time a proper marketeer has run Unilever. I think external commentators predicted [Mr. Polman coming] would be an enormous cultural shock, which it hasn't been. I suspect Procter & Gamble and Unilever are made of rather similar stuff."

Mr. Clift didn't immediately return e-mails for comment.*

"Simon has done a great service to Unilever and left his mark in many areas that we will benefit from for years to come," Mr. Polman said in an e-mail. Under Mr. Clift, he said, "we have with Axe or Dove some of the biggest innovations of the past decade, or led the move to alternative media in many areas. Simon has decided to retire now and spend more time with his family in Brazil. I enjoyed the past year with Simon and can clearly see why Unilever increasingly is being recognized as innovator in its industry."

Mr. Clift's planned departure comes after much of his corporate marketing group's work in reshaping Unilever's agency lineup is complete. Global public relations, digital and media reviews have all been completed within the past year; the last of them officially finished yesterday.

Unilever ranks second to P&G in global ad spending, with $5.7 billion in outlays. It pressed ahead with increases last year and plans to increase more this year, even as many competitors such as P&G slowed or cut spending.

Mr. Clift has a strong affinity for Brazil from his time running personal-care brands there, an adopted Brazilian son and a house in the colonial town of Parati two hours outside Rio de Janeiro.

Besides pushing edgy creative, Mr. Clift is perhaps best known for his colorful remarks. In a 2007 interview with Ad Age, he noted Unilever and its agencies were once "a bit like a married couple who had great sex, just not with each other." A year later, he noted a comment he'd made to former P&G Global Marketing Officer that he was "a bigger media whore than Madonna."

Mr. Clift also joked in an interview last year about the rather low regard public relations is held in much of Europe as he discussed the recent appointment of Unilever's global PR roster: "My mother thinks I play the piano at a bordello. She's be so disappointed to hear I work in PR."

Though Mr. Polman has defied some predictions in keeping most of the top executives who were at Unilever when he arrived as an outsider, Mr. Clift's departure comes shortly after that of Chief Financial Officer Jim Lawrence and amid substantial paring and changes in the top executive ranks over the past year.

In a conference call last week, Mr. Polman noted the company had reduced headcount at its home office in London by 1,000 over the past year. In the U.S., several of the top brand development and general managers who led the company's successful run with Dove and Axe over the past decade have left the company or moved to new assignments in the past year.

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Contributing: Laurel Wentz

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UPDATE: Mr. Clift in an e-mail said the move, which he expects to make in April, really is for no more than personal reasons. "I've been in the head office in more or less the same job (president marketing, then CMO) for nine years and want to spend more time in Brazil for family reasons and do something different (in that order!)."

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