4A's Conference

Keith Weed: Unilever Wants to Work With Fewer Digital Shops, More Closely

CMO of Packaged Goods Giant Also Talks Talent, Mobile, Procurement and Old Spice

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As Unilever streamlines its roster of digital marketing agencies, Keith Weed, the packaged goods giant's chief marketing officer and chief communications officer, is telling the plethora of digital shops it works with around the world: "Now is the time to show us your best, because down the road, we won't be working with all of you."

Mr. Weed explained the moves in an interview during the annual 4A's confab, which for the second year in a row is being held in Austin, Texas. It's a brief stop on a U.S. tour for the London-based executive, who agreed to speak with Ad Age before jetting out to catch a flight to Los Angeles, where he'll be meeting with Hollywood executives to explore branded entertainment and other marketing opportunities for the second largest advertiser in the world.

Keith Weed to digital shops: 'Now is the time to show us your best, because down the road, we won't be working with all of you.'
Keith Weed to digital shops: 'Now is the time to show us your best, because down the road, we won't be working with all of you.' Credit: Karl Leslie

While the company has been trying to shift to a model where it works with just a handful of large digital shops globally, the process, according to Mr. Weed's estimation, could move faster. "At this stage, we haven't hugely exercised it," he said of the global digital roster it appointed nearly two years ago.

"You can't believe how many digital agencies we're working with now," Mr. Weed said. The idea isn't for Unilever simply to work with fewer agencies, though, but to work with fewer of them while having deeper -- and longer-lasting -- relationships with each. He noted that regional rosters of digital agencies will be created for certain important global markets, too.

Overall, the idea is for Unilever to work with its digital agencies the way it works with its creative agency relationships: a short list of shops which which the company works with on a more stable basis. Its lead creative agencies are WPP's Ogilvy and JWT, Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann and Lowe, Omnicom Group's DDB and Publicis-backed Bartle Bogle Hegarty. "We've had relationships with them for decades," and within that, Mr. Weed said, is a "shared ambition."

Here's some additional thoughts from Ad Age's interview with Mr. Weed, as well as his onstage interview on the first day of the conference with MediaLink's Michael Kassan.

On lasting agency relationships: "At the end of the day I want to be where there's innovation, insight, and to do that you need to connect with a team of people. So I'm a believer in working with agencies for a very long time." To change an agency partner, "to me, is a last resort and everyone has failed if that's happened."

On the success of rival P&G's marketing of Old Spice: "I think competition is a great thing. You get better, and the consumer gets a better deal too." Mr. Weed said competition spurs on improvements in work and improvements in product. Wieden & Kennedy's work for Old Spice came after the brand was hurting from the success of Unilever's Axe brand. "The good news is Axe is big, strong and vibrant. Watch for this space, there is going to be some great work coming."

On why talent should be more passionate about the biz: Mr. Weed insisted it's the most exciting time to be in marketing, if you're willing to really embrace the changes and dive in. He compared it to boxing: "If you want to be a spectator and watch something fine, but you're not going to excel at it. ... The only way you're going to do it is to get in the ring and have a fight. You can change the way things are shaped by choices you make. ... I'm a great believer in getting out there and getting engaged." And, he added, "if you don't have aspirations to be great in advertising, and great in this field ... move on."

On procurement's bad rap: "I feel really sorry for these procurement guys. Is anyone in this room procurement?" [No one raised a hand]. "Amongst us, as the say, how do these guys get this reputation? They are sort of like bad car salesmen, a hated tribe. ... If you're in the advertising world you've got to blame the marketers, not the procurement people. I reckon they are hiding behind the procurement. It's [marketers'] fault, they're doing the nasty stuff." Mr. Weed added that while marketers want creativity and innovation, at the end of the day, it's still about business, which means balancing efficiency and effectiveness. The procurement functions shouldn't work counter to one another, but together -- with the marketing expert, not the procurement officer, as the lead. "To be clear, at Unilever, whether it's on a media project or whatever, it's the media expert leading or defining what we want," he said. "Once we define what we want, we'd like to get it as efficiently as possible."

On challenges Unilever faces: "The biggest issue is purely the complexity and fragmentation that's out there. ... The expression 'digital marketing' isn't very helpful. It's about as helpful as 'traditional.'" He noted that for Unilever, which he pointed out is the second-largest advertiser in the world, with a more than $3 billion marketing budget, it can be difficult to know sometimes what channels or technologies make the most sense to reach consumers. "The most challenging thing I see right now is the amount of choices out there." At the same time, fragmentation is making brands more important, he said. "You physically cannot get through the day without being bombarded with all of these messages, and the way you get through the day is by engaging with the brands you want. We're going to see more brands simplifying people's lives."

On the growth of mobile: Briefly touching upon why mobile is becoming a more viable marketing channel, Mr. Weed said it was largely because of sheer number of users in certain markets. "There are over 500 million mobile phones in India. There are more mobile phones in India than toilets. Half of South Asia is openly defecating. I'm sorry if you've just had your breakfast." That comment prompted another speaker of the day, Time Inc. Editor-at-Large Fareed Zakaria, to assure the audience that while growing up in Mumbai he did indeed have a toilet.

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