Unilever’s media supremo Alan Rutherford is described as “driven” and “ambitious”, so few are surprised by his decision to leave the packaged goods giant for the brave new world of digital advertising as chief executive of Digitas Global.
After eight years as vice-president of worldwide media at Unilever, Rutherford will be charged with driving global growth at the Publicis Groupe-owned network and leading its expansion into new markets. He will take over the role in September and report to Digitas chief executive and chairman David Kenny, who oversees all of the group’s digital businesses.
Rutherford’s decision to leave Unilever was, he says, prompted by the gathering momentum around digital. He explains: “I have been looking at digital advertising for some time. It is a global movement that has such a big place in people’s lives. The work begins and ends with the consumer so brand communications will have to follow that.”
He adds that he was persuaded to leave Unilever for Digitas because Publicis spent more than $1bn (£500m) buying the network last year and “these guys know that this is the future of brand communications and are serious about it”.
Rutherford’s appointment is being seen by the industry as a boost to Publicis’ commitment to Digitas. It reinforces its announcement in early May that Modem Media London would be become Digitas London. Ed Ling, strategy director at digital agency i-Level, says that the network, which is already well established in the US, is an “unknown quantity in the UK”. But he adds: “Rutherford is coming in to turbo-charge that offering in the UK and Europe.”
However, some industry sources believe that Rutherford, who started his career at Dorland and spent several years in the media division at Ogilvy & Mather, may find it tough back in the agency world, where he will be reminded that “everyone’s needs aren’t the same as Unilever’s”.
A media industry source adds: “The digital environment and the role it plays for a packaged good client are very different to the role it plays for others. I suspect he has not been up to his ears in the area – rather just his shins.”
Dominic Proctor, chief executive of MindShare Worldwide, which handles the Unilever media account, says that Rutherford “will have to remember that this [the agency side] is a service business”. He adds: “Being tough and direct are well and good but we are serving our clients rather than ourselves.”
The media industry insider adds that the switch to the agency side will “test parts of his make up that haven’t been challenged in a while”.
However, there is little doubt that as Rutherford moves back to agency life his stamp will be left on Unilever. Mandy Pooler, development director at Kantar and a former colleague of Rutherford’s at Ogilvy, says that he has made sure that Unilever has kept ahead of the pack in terms of media “which is no mean feat with a company of that size and scale.” Proctor believes that his “personal crusade” to get marketers to think about channel planning and types of media right at the start of the process is now embedded in Unilever’s marketing culture.
Media industry observers believe that Rutherford’s time at Unilever has proved that he can bring in change and get corporate backing despite having an approach that “takes no prisoners”. However, the source points out that at Unilever he has been able to get on with this role without too many people interfering.
“As he builds that network and develops the product, there will be plenty of people at the parent company who are going to have a view on it,” adds the source. “It will be a more visible role.”