Lack of ad flair puts Unilever into a spin

Unprecedentedly, the Daily Mail has begun axing its editorial budget and staff. Elsewhere this week, Rupert Murdoch used the excuse of his 75th birthday to deliver a not very elegiac funeral oration on traditional media. “Power,” he said, ” is moving away from the old élite – the editors, the chief executives and, let’s face it, proprietors” like himself. He added: “Societies or companies that expect a glorious past to shield them from the forces of change driven by advancing technology will fail and fall.”

Alan Rutherford, global media director at Unilever, is not known for such apocalyptic language, but at about the same time he was delivering a similar – if more targeted – “change or die” message to traditional marketing services. As one of the world’s largest advertisers, his opinion can scarcely be ignored.

Unilever evidently believes that the piecemeal response of the marketing services industry to rapid media change is so patently inadequate that it must take action itself.

The background to Rutherford’s critique is not in itself unfamiliar. Unilever, like most premier league brand owners, has been steadily reducing its TV advertising budget, down from 85% at the beginning of the millennium to 65% now. Much of the balance has been spent on what Rutherford calls “holistic” campaigns – meaning, among other things, a greater emphasis on the traditionally less hallowed areas of direct marketing, public relations and sales promotion. The frustration of conceiving and executing these campaigns has long been a grievance among integration-minded clients, who despair of the “senior-service” mentality endemic in networks. But it is the pressing need to master the growing online component of these holistic campaigns that is really driving Rutherford to distraction. So much so that Unilever has taken the mould-breaking step of creating a six-strong internal team tasked with devising integrated campaigns – five of them working exclusively on digital advertising ideas.

At the heart of Rutherford’s critique (and not only his) is what he calls the “disconnect” between the creative and distributive functions of marketing services networks. These have long since been polarised by the separation of media planning/buying operations. One solution, set up and knocked down as an Aunt Sally, is to reintegrate the media and creative arms. It’s simply too late, says Rutherford. Instead, Unilever – not by general consent a radical company – is increasingly drawing its own conclusions about the revolution in marketing services, and acting on them.

Who could forget, for example, the appointment of BBH, with its limited international exposure, to the &£200m Omo/Persil account – previously the unchallenged fiefdom of global creative networks? Mildly shocking at the time: yet the logic behind such a move is increasingly unavoidable. Good creative ideas which can travel no longer require the massive overheads that burden global networks. For sure, agencies like Nitro or Wieden & Kennedy require agents on the ground in national territories. But these could be as readily supplied by global media and research networks as by an affiliation with a so-called full-service agency.

Traditional networks, watch out. Unilever will not be the only client to start redefining what marketing services is about.

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