Unilever Roils Agency Giants, Punts Bowl Spot to Boutique

BrandThinkTank Quarterbacked Sunsilk Global Campaign; Design Agency Desgrippes Gobe Gets Call for Big Game

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Unilever's Super Bowl ad for Sunsilk, which breaks during the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter, may signal time's almost up for the traditional agency model, too.

The world's second-biggest advertiser has given top duties for one of its biggest global campaigns of the year to a "strategic planning" boutique and a design shop, neither of them affiliated with one of its big agency holding companies.

In its first major assignment for Unilever, planning boutique BrandThinkTank, Paris, led development of the global campaign for Sunsilk, the world's No. 2 shampoo brand, with more than $1.5 billion in sales.

Brand-image firm
In what may be a Super Bowl first, the ad comes from a design agency, Desgrippes Gobe, Paris. The shop bills itself as one of the world's 10 largest brand-image firms, specializing in brand identity, packaging, retail and web design, but, up to now, not TV ads.

The campaign is being closely watched throughout Unilever, said Ricardo Sapiro, VP-global brand development for Sunsilk, and not only because it's one of the company's highest-priority campaigns of 2008. "We've been the first brand to try and implement this model, but there are other brands looking at it," he said. "Today we are getting more and more confidence that this process is sustainable and the best way to get the best possible creativity."

Sunsilk's global creative shop, WPP Group's JWT, hasn't been cut, but it's getting less playing time. It will execute portions of the global "Life Can't Wait" campaign. Sibling MindShare still handles most communications-planning and media-buying duties globally for Unilever, including Sunsilk.

Serving as head coach behind the effort is Pierre-Emmanuel Maire, former global communications director for Unilever at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe, where he helped develop the global "Dirt Is Good" positioning for laundry brands, including Wisk in the U.S. He founded BrandThinkTank in September 2004.

All the brand's marketing shops jointly worked from a brief developed in conjunction with BrandThinkTank. While Unilever long has used a similar "roundtable" process, this is the first time an independent planning boutique unaffiliated with any of the giant marketer's agencies has led it.

Design executes
Perhaps not coincidentally, it's also the first time the design shop not only came up with the creative idea, but also as got to execute the biggest piece of it: the Super Bowl ad.

Others involved include digital shop AKQA, promotion agency Jam and PR shop Salt globally. WPP's OgilvyAction and Interpublic's Weber Shandwick are handling promotion and PR in the U.S. among a large cast as it rolls out within days of the Super Bowl to 14 additional countries, including Brazil, India, Mexico and Thailand.

The campaign includes a massive digital effort that seeks to drive women to the website lifecantwait.com, which opens Feb. 1, and includes home-page takeovers the day after the game on MySpace, AOL and TMZ. Billboards will go up in key locations in New York (Times Square), Los Angeles and Chicago the same day cinema ads break.

The website will ask women to share their life stories, and some of those women and their stories will be part of summer TV ads.

Massive reach
The unabashedly mass-market effort aims to hit all its targets at once -- even if that means hitting plenty of others. Sunsilk expects to reach 250 million people in the U.S. alone the first three days but also will tap into the increasingly global audiences for the Super Bowl and the web properties.

The same TV ad will air within days around the world, but the campaign will be localized, too, using regional celebrities, said Andrei Gemeneanu, global brand director for Sunsilk.

It's the first global campaign for a brand known for often edgy and offbeat local ones. It appears considerably tamer than "Get Hairapy" from JWT, New York, which launched the 50-year-old brand in the U.S. about 18 months ago.

"Hairapy" included ads featuring three gay friends of the brand's 20-something female target. In their place, "Life Can't Wait" centers on three global entertainment icons -- Marilyn Monroe, Madonna and Shakira -- starting with a highly graphic treatment of their hairstyles (as might be expected from a design agency) in the Super Bowl ad.

Connecting strands
"We're evolving from the role of best friend to best advocate," said Sarah Jensen, marketing director for North American hair care at Unilever. The campaign is based on a six-country study finding "hair, more than any other physical attribute, plays a critical role in transformation and self-expression," she said. "When a girl's hair is on, her life is on."

Ms. Jensen said Unilever was happy with "Hairapy," which she said put Sunsilk among the top 10 U.S. brands and achieved 55% brand awareness within six months.

Outside the U.S., Sunsilk is more of a value brand for the whole family and heavily concentrated in such developing markets as Brazil and India, where it's No. 1. The global campaign aims to move it upscale and focus more on women in their 20s, using a campaign Mr. Gemeneanu termed aspirational, modern and "funky."

The benefits of collaboration

With agency models changing so radically among marketers large and small, how is an agency to compete?

Unilever executive Ricardo Sapiro, VP-global brand development for Sunsilk, suggests that shops reach beyond their areas of expertise. "Our philosophy is that great ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere," he said.

And once you have that idea, work together. The secret to making a collaborative process work, he said, "is to have a tight team where the players trust each other, where they have complementary skills, but where there is a healthy competition."

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