Tom Holmes talks to Keith Weed, the man in charge of the world’s second largest adspend and the first marketer to be appointed to the board of Unilever.

TH: Keith, as Chief Marketing and Communication Officer at Unilever, what are your key responsibilities?

KW: My key responsibilities cover Marketing, Communications and, what we call, Sustainable Living, which I’ll talk more about in a moment.

These disciplines are not commonly brought together in a business growth strategy, so let me explain the three key reasons why they have been at Unilever.

First, in an increasingly digitally joined up world, Marketing and Communications (Internal to employees and External to the Media, Partners, NGO’s, Government) needs to be managed holistically to enable for aligned communications and messaging. More businesses are starting to bring these two functions together.

Second, another big impact on the world, in addition to Digital, is the need for more sustainable consumption and this requires more sustainable approaches to business and products. Marketing needs to engage with this agenda to innovate more sustainable solutions and to help change consumer behaviour. Joining up Marketing and Sustainability stops Sustainability being an ‘on the side do-good function’ and makes it part of how we do business. With a predicted 9 billion people on the planet by 2050, it’s easy to see why we have put Sustainable Living at the heart of everything we do. Our approach to Sustainable Living, we believe, will lead to sustainable growth.

The third reason is directly related to the first two. There’s no doubt that there is a higher level of awareness of the issues related to living sustainably among consumers, particularly in certain markets. We set out very clearly our approach to these in last year’s launch of our Sustainable Living Plan. These increasing levels of awareness offer us a significant opportunity to connect with our consumers – particularly by developing online conversations – on issues of real importance both to them and to Unilever. This moves beyond consumer insight into what we call consumer foresight – long term we’re convinced that seeking innovative solutions to some of the real human, social and economic challenges we are going to face will be of increasing value in strengthening the partnership between consumers and companies like Unilever.

Lastly, my responsibilities also include heading up our Water business globally – another critical resource that must be managed with great care in order to protect the health and well-being of consumers who live in less privileged conditions than we do in the developed world.

Unilever House, 100 Victoria Embankment, London

TH: And what are your key priorities?

KW: In Marketing, it is to ensure that our brands win preference and deliver consumer demand-led growth. This specifically means having strong and vibrant brands that are nurtured by Unilever’s 6,000 marketers and delivered to our consumers via excellent marketing. That means, as the second largest advertiser in the world, we need to have both excellent creative and effective Communication – the Magic and the Logic to cut through the clutter and engage consumers. Marketing also needs world leading consumer and customer insights and breakthrough innovations. In essence, great brand craft skills.

Another key point here is relevance. Unilever is a truly global company and we have developed successfully a number of billion Euro brands. On the one hand we are building brands that are relevant at a global level but on the other we’ve also developed a deep insight into – and understanding of – consumers at individual market levels. Everyday a third of the world’s population uses a Unilever product and it’s this breadth of knowledge that differentiates us as a world marketing company.

In Communications, my priority is to create a new global function for Unilever – it was previously managed locally – that is a strategic asset that drives engagement internally and reputation externally. In this way, we can make sure that our communication programme is focused, supports our growth ambitions and protects and enhances our reputation globally. Alignment is a big thing for me; in such a joined-up and connected world, we have to be joined-up, too, as a business. Communications has an important part to play in all that, particularly in a digital age.

In Sustainability, it is about driving our Sustainable Living Plan so we can, for example, halve our environmental footprint, source all our agricultural raw materials sustainably and help more than a billion people take action to improve their health and well-being. As I’ve explained, the whole area of sustainability has moved way beyond being a nice thing to do. It’s the right thing to do and, importantly, it’s absolutely true to Unilever’s values. To Lord Leverhulme, Sunlight was more than a bar of soap. It improved public health. The same Unilever values are alive today. We develop, make and market products that are of real benefit to the nutrition, health and well-being of billions of people. Being a part of that makes me proud. It’s why I get out of bed in the morning.

TH: What are the main challenges for your sector/category over the next 12 months?

KW: I would say there are three main challenges. Firstly, the impact the tough economic environment is having on consumers. They are under pressure and this is affecting their behaviours.

Secondly, the global economic shift to the East and South means we need marketers with different skills in different locations to ensure we can compete and win in the fastest growing “BRIC plus 11” markets.

Thirdly, while the digital revolution is a great opportunity to engage and connect with consumers, it also requires integrated marketing across many more channels to ensure the brand is not fragmented by multiple messages. Digital also requires marketers to develop new skills and capabilities.

On a more general level, we hear a lot about change and the pace of change. But I wonder sometimes if we don’t use change as an excuse. The reality is that Unilever is and always has been a marketing company: it has always sought to pioneer new products, innovate and engage consumers. It’s what we do and it’s what we excel at. It’s just that now, the tools we use are different. Instead of what I call, ‘tell to sell’ in communicating the benefits of a product on a TV ad or a poster we now have to work harder and we have more communication tools to help us craft our brand experiences. We now have the opportunity to use these channels, particularly in the new world of digital, in a different way. Instead of ‘tell to sell’ we have to ‘engage to persuade’. But, fundamentally we’re still after the same thing: we want our consumers to buy our products, remain loyal to our brands and become advocates for them on the basis of the benefits they offer.

TH: What work have you done recently that makes you the most proud?

KW: There is a lot of great work going on in Unilever, but I would say the building of the Pureit water purifier business is worth highlighting. Currently, one of the biggest issues in the world is water borne disease. The vast majority of people do not have access to safe drinking water. We have developed and launched a purifier, which retails as low as €15 in India, which gives consumers pure, safe drinking water – removing bacteria, virus and parasites. It is much cheaper and convenient than boiling water and better for the environment, a real win-win solution. Since establishing the business in India, we are now launching in Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Another great project I’m proud of is our Sustainable Living Plan. This has 50 time-based commitments across the following three pillars: reducing the environmental impact, improving health and well-being, and enhancing livelihoods. This is an industry-leading initiative to step up delivery of the sustainability agenda. It’s highly measurable and we’ll be reporting on our progress on a regular basis. It’s changing the way we think and act and, over time, we believe it will enable consumers to feel that they too can do a number of small everyday things that cumulatively can make a big difference to the world given our scale and reach.

TH: How do you see the media landscape unfolding in the next 5 years?

KW: In a word, content. The cloud will ultimately enable consumers to have unlimited access to all content. Web-based offerings (the cloud) will offer increased and almost unlimited central storage space. That, along with broadband penetration increases, will allow consumers to hold vast libraries of content on any device. TV shows will be available whenever and wherever people want to view them. All music will be digital. All books will have been scanned and will be widely available digitally.

This content will be highly customized. The news, information and entertainment people see will all be tailored to their interests and will be just as much about their personal connections as public information (news about their friends, content created by friends, etc.), and advertising will emerge as the primary revenue source for most forms of content.

In addition, most devices will be web connected (‘the internet of things’) and screens will converge. Web access will hit critical mass globally, and content will be played interchangeably on TV, Mobile and the PC. People will regularly transfer media from one device to another. And most devices will be able to “talk to the internet”. As a result, D&E markets will reach critical mass of mobile phones (China & India will have 75% penetration and Africa will reach 30%).

We will also see an explosion of consumer-generated content on social media. Human beings have a need to express themselves creatively and be famous. Historically this has been controlled by Hollywood but no longer. This is not a phase. It will transform both the creation and distribution of content. The fastest growing media will be that which consumers create, shape and share themselves. It will be created by all but pace-set by highly participatory segments. Consumer-generated content in the form of blogs, amateur content (music, movies, shows, etc…) social networking utilities, games and digital mash-ups will rival professionally-produced content as it relates to time spent, viewership and cultural influence.

Finally, the social graph will gain traction. Laser targeting will be much more feasible as marketers will have more and deeper data, and access to media habits paired with location, behavioural and demographic information. ‘Creative’ will be much more customized and tailored to the consumer’s behaviour/interests/content, tailored to time of day, life stage (getting married, new baby), etc… As all hardware/devices will be addressable and all media searchable, laser targeting will be possible in all media, across all screens – including TV. Reaching mass audiences will no longer be the primary metric. They will only be available in rare instances such as live sports, award shows, reality shows and the like. Prices for things like the Olympics, super bowl, etc., will go through the roof.

TH: Do you prefer to use an ‘integrated’ agency approach or specialist agencies by individual discipline?

KW: Ideally, I would prefer to have one interface that can integrate all disciplines, but I will not sacrifice quality to achieve this, so currently I am very pragmatic and will work with either an integrated agency, an integrated holding company or individual agencies dependent on the situation. Unilever’s drive for great work and excellence will always be prioritised over neat models.

As the industry matures through the digital revolution, I am sure new scalable models that provide excellence and integration will emerge.

TH: Do you prefer to use local agencies by market or international/global agencies?

KW: Unilever operates in over 170 countries globally and we’ve been present in many of these markets for 100 years – we arrived in India for example in the late 1880’s. So we have been local and global for a long time. In fact, Unilever previously owned the Advertising agency, Lintas, which is now Lowe, to help develop advertising in a joined up way in a complex fragmented world (Lintas stood for Lever International Advertising Services).

As I’ve explained, we are at our most successful when we combine our localness and global scale. International agencies need to do the same.

Our business is built by serving the needs of an individual. If you do that well, more and more people will use your brands. Although, everyday, over 2 billion people use our products, you need to think of it as 2 billion single decisions. This requires great advertising with insights and ideas shared across multiple markets. On balance this means we use more international than local agencies, but not exclusively.

Keith Weed and Tom Holmes

Keith Weed and Tom Holmes

TH: When choosing agencies in the past were you ever influenced by awards?

KW: I would not say that I have chosen an agency based on awards but I have certainly noticed an agency through its awards, which, in turn, gets them on to a consideration list.

TH: What challenges do you face, managing day-to-day agency relationships?

KW: Unilever develops a lot of advertising across a broad portfolio of brands in Personal and Beauty Care, Home Care and Foods. We are the second largest advertiser in the world operating in over 170 countries. The sheer complexity and the breadth of work is an on-going challenge. But it is not the volume that concerns me but the quality and consistency, especially with digital, which can result in fragmentation rather than integration. However, the beauty of advertising is that great ideas cut through all this clutter and shape brands. Also many great ideas can cross country boundaries. So, the only challenge is how to get the best people in the agency to work on your business with passion and energy.

TH: How often do you look at new agencies or review your roster?

KW: Not frequently. Having said that, I just reviewed our Digital rosters globally and regionally, so as infrequent as possible, but as frequent as necessary!

TH: How do you monitor and stay-in-touch with the agency market to ensure you work with the best?

KW: One of my structured windows on agencies is through awards likes Cannes, where you see a breadth of work from a huge range of agencies; however, the unstructured ‘word of mouth’ recommendation through people you know is equally powerful.

TH: What are your top tips to agencies when presenting credentials to you?

KW: Show lots of your work as it’s ultimately all about that. However, also show how it can be delivered consistently and explain how your agency is different from others (e.g., capabilities, philosophies, culture, points of view on the world and consumers).

Every good agency can produce great advertising every so often, but delivering great advertising consistently requires more. I am always looking for the magic in the sauce that will bring magic to our brands.

TH: What’s your final word?

KW: Brands are our business. They are our past, present and our future.

The one area that I see as having enormous potential in the new age of transparency is the Unilever brand itself. We know from experience from all around the world that consumers are increasingly interested in the ‘brand behind the brands’ if you will. They like to know the provenance of the products they buy, where they came from, how the ingredients were sourced, what standards were maintained along the way and so on

Once again, we come back to the Sustainable Living Plan, which goes a long way to answering those questions. As one of the world’s largest companies with some of the world’s best-loved consumer brands, Unilever can remain true to its values and promote the Sustainable Living debate, safe in the knowledge that, like Sunlight soap, it’s something that Lord Leverhulme himself would have pioneered if he’d been here today.

TH: Thanks Keith

A bit about Keith….

Keith Weed – Chief Marketing and Communication Officer, Unilever

Keith Weed began his career with Michelin and joined Unilever in 1983, working first in the Elida Gibbs UK business before moving on to senior positions in France and the USA and global roles. He holds a first-class degree in engineering from the University of Liverpool.
Keith is responsible for the marketing and communication functions, a role that also includes leading Unilever’s sustainability work, its drinking water business (Pureit) and the Unilever brand.
Prior to this he was Executive Vice President for Global Home Care & Hygiene, covering Fabric Cleaning, Fabric Conditioning, Household Cleaning Products, Oral Care and Potable Water.
Previously Keith was Chairman of Lever Fabergé and Chairman of Unilever Export. He has worked for Unilever in the UK, France and the United States, as well as in a variety of global and regional management and marketing roles.
Outside Unilever he is a Fellow of The Marketing Society and, as an engineering graduate, a Fellow of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. He is also a non-Executive Director of Sun Products Corporation.

  1. Keith weed I salut you on taking the only logical position presented to our global civilisation and taking a lead in new business practice. I’ve spent the last six years pioneering new methods of sustainable living for brands, organisations and governments and it’s refreshing to see the acknowledgement, normalisation and integration of sustainable lifestyles at Unilever.

    The combination of marketing and sustainability is found in the very DNA of businesses. The DNA is made up from the brand, organisational structure, company culture and their approach to CSR. CSR is the home for sustainability but like the brand and the company culture it is not a department or a silo but more of a integral consideration for all elements of the business, it is the reflection of the values and purposes of the business and the people within.

    It would be interesting to know what structural changes were necessary to implement such an ambitious integration, the training for teams and the other beneficial outcomes from this, such as higher employee satisfaction, knowing that they are contributing to solving ‘some of the real human, social and economic challenges we are going to face’.

    Quite rightly the market and the consumers are ready for this globally, in China there is a huge demand for sustainable lifestyles, the same in parts of Europe and South America, but the understanding of what this actually means and how to distinguish sustainable from non-sustainable is an obstacle especially in opaque economies where transparency is a long way off from the norm. In a recent survey polled that we conducted for P1.CN (the invite-only social network for China’s social elite with 1m members) an encouraging 96% of members believed that sustainability was a major consideration in their life and this is from the demographic where the average Lamborghini owner is 23yrs old.

    Another observation is that it seems to me that Unilever has taken a brand essence approach to this position, embodying sustainability into their outputs and thought process and ensuring that the internal is communicated directly to the individual demographics on the external. There is no other alternative in this age of instant global communications, either a brand fulfils the needs of consumers in a transparent and honest way or they will suffer backlash hampering their brand reputation, sales and customer loyalty. It is startling and encouraging that consumers needs and awareness are now for global stability, sustainability and direct social benefits from brands and businesses. Even the current basis of societal status is underpinned by five key characteristics including Giving and Sustainability this means taking on the issues such as climate change and resource use and then contributing to the solution.

    For more information on my views on sustainability check out this interview I did with Tom Holmes earlier this year on sustainable cities:

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