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The Unilever Foundry launched in the UK in 2014, offering to mentor and invest in digital marketing start-ups and give them access to the FMCG giant’s brands in exchange for insight into new technology and trends.

It has just opened applications for its second Foundry 50 event – that will take place at Cannes Lions in June this year – in a bid to find the world’s top 50 marketing technology start-ups.

Marketing Week caught up with Basset, who reflected on what Unilever has learned from the Foundry so far.

What have you discovered since the start of the Unilever Foundry?

We’ve learnt that the box of unknowns is getting bigger and bigger, and we need to give room to that. When Unilever brand leaders write briefs for us to find start-ups, we always encourage them to write a broader brief to give room for inspiration. We find that’s a much more valuable way of finding solutions, rather than a typical agency brief which can be more tired and specific.

Secondly, when it comes to finding partners we want work with, we’ve tightened up the type of partners that work best. We realise that we’re an organisation that works at scale, and we’re here to help start-ups become scale ups. Those are companies that provide proven tech that is ready to be scaled, rather than something that’s still in an ideas phase and needs about 12 more months of development work.

The third thing we’ve realised, is that start-ups are not just pioneering the future of marketing, but the future of everything. As a large organisation with strong social and marketing objectives, we’re looking to collaborate with start-ups across that field. So it’s not just about working out how we can bring interesting marketing technology to the table, but also how we can work with social impact organisations to take them from start-ups to scale ups and partnering through our brands that often share a similar purpose and vision.

How have you been collaborating with start-ups so far?

The ‘how’ is pretty straightforward, we call it pitch-pilot-partner. We invite start-ups to pitch against a brief, select one and move it into pilot, if it works then we scale into a partnership. So far we’ve worked over 95 different start-ups in the world and piloted their technology. We’re starting to scale almost half of them, where we’ve started to use them multiple times and within that there is a growing number of companies that we’ve used quite extensively.

One example is Discuss.IO, which has completely reinvented focus groups. Focus groups haven’t changed much since the Mad Men era, so we’ve created a virtual forum to connect with people quickly and easily. The whole programme is powered by tech, and as it is done by video you can do video analysis, measure emotional responses, so it becomes far more quantitative than qualitative necessarily. It also transcribes the focus groups automatically. That company is now in over 20 countries in 14 languages. A lot of that is due to a partnership and investment from Unilever.

How do you make sure innovation is part of the whole of Unilever and not a separate silo?

When we launched The Foundry we realised that was one of our two big challenges. The first challenge was to enable experimentation, and the second challenge was to transform the company culture. Because unless you do both of those in parallel, you’re never going to achieve anything.

Besides hosting internal events to inspire our employees, we also do mentoring and a knowledge exchange with start-ups, which is another interesting way to get people connected. We realise that this whole David and Goliath image is more of an illusion than a reality, as start-ups are very much similar share the same passion and vision, so there is a natural overlap for us to engage. That doesn’t mean that we always see eye to eye, but we have far more in common than there are dissimilarities.

A big focus for this year is to raise more internal awareness of our start-ups. We’ve launched the Foundry in six countries now and there will be more to come.

Jeremy Basset, head of Unilever Foundry

We’re also creating the Foundry Network, which is an internal network of people who are all championing the Foundry in their brand or function. They’ll be responsible for leading a pilot within their brand and be exposed to new technology spaces that are quickly evolving. With this initiative we can really start to embed The Foundry on a much deeper level within the organisation.

What are the financial benefits of The Foundry to Unilever?

There is a very strong business case for the Foundry, and the more we can articulate that the more we can mobilise resources towards scaling it. Most importantly, what we’re seeing is the financial case for this agenda. Start-ups not only provide new ways of marketing, they’re also inventing more efficient, effective and sustainable ways of engaging with people. We actively measure our pilots against these three measurements – efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability.

If you look at Discuss.IO, the cost of focus groups is less than half, so it’s much more efficient and the effectiveness is arguably higher. It’s also much more sustainable because people don’t have to travel, you get the same experience sitting in London as in Mumbai. So it’s great for the business and the planet. That’s where the business case is very strong, because it ticks each of these boxes.

What makes the Foundry different to what other brands are doing to support start-ups?

Every company has to work out what model works best for them. We see our role very much as getting start ups to scale ups. The Foundry is very much focused on taking existing tech and taking it to the next level. We don’t have a physical space, which means we can take start-ups from anywhere in the world to anywhere in the world and so it’s not too UK or US focused. That’s how the Foundry is different, which is not to say it’s a better mode, it just works well for us.

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