Profile: Unilever CMO Simon Clift

In a modest office within Unilevers giant neoclassical headquarters at Blackfriars Bridge, the companys first full-time chief marketing officer, Simon Clift (pictured), is in an ebullient mood.By Louise Jack

Simon Clift

In a modest office within Unilever’s giant neoclassical headquarters at Blackfriars Bridge, the company’s first full-time chief marketing officer, Simon Clift (pictured), is in an ebullient mood.

“I had CMO on my card before,” says Clift, who took up the role in 2005. “But because I was also running personal care, it got relegated to a Friday afternoon.” “And,” he quips, “I’m never in on a Friday.”

Luckily, Clift relinquished his role as vice-president of personal care last year and now controls full-time the marketing of a business worth €40bn (£35.6bn) and active in 150 countries.

His corner office location allows him direct access to ranks of staff sitting in an open plan workspace that overlooks a vast atrium with steel and glass footbridges. The ultramodern interior of Unilever House contrasts starkly with its historic exterior; it’s a fitting physical manifestation for a traditional company that has been undergoing its own parallel transformation over recent years.

Unilever has spent several years implementing a radical root and branch restructure, called “One Unilever”, effectively uniting dozens of individual companies under one standardised operation.

Kicked off in earnest in 2005 by recently departed chief executive Patrick Cescau, the company ditched underperforming brands, sold off the frozen foods business and streamlined operations with the loss of 49,000 jobs. “The cancer in Unilever was the complexity and complexity means cost,” says Clift.

Clift, whose diverse portfolio of products includes Dove, Lynx, Sunsilk, Flora, Knorr, PG Tips and Persil, is playing a central role in the company’s transformation. He reports to recently joined chief executive Paul Polman, the former Nestlé and Procter & Gamble executive.

After overseeing some of the most high-profile marketing of the past few years for the Dove and Lynx personal care brands, Clift is now aiming to work his magic across the foods portfolio.

Looking back to the future

“Our business was built by pioneering young men going out on ships from Liverpool or Rotterdam and building a business and sending back a cheque once a year,” he reveals, conscious of the move from the past to the future.

“Unilever was effectively a holding company – a conglomerate. That led to a very complex brand portfolio, with thousands of formulations, positionings, and ways of developing advertising.”

Clift must now find a way of converging marketing across the entire Unilever business. Over the past three years the company has been building a suite of marketing tools drawn from the best practice from its disparate business units. This, Clift notes with an ironic smile, is “something of a challenge”.

Essentially, the marketing apparatus for each brand is split into two divisions – brand development and brand building. The first element involves the brand development team devising a global strategy for each brand, including innovation. A package of recommendations, called a “think big pack”, is then created, usually in conjunction with two key countries.

This is then sent to the brand building teams within each country and they “make it happen” within local markets. Despite this centralised process, Clift denies it creates a bland message.

He proffers Persil’s successful global “Dirt is Good” advertising, which appeals to mothers in each country where it appears, as an example. “Our experience is that you get better insights in this way because really motivating insights tend to be based on universal truths.” 

Clift concedes that global concepts need to be interpreted and adapted for different regions but says that there has to be a “trade-off between leveraging the scale of Unilever and ensuring the strategy is attuned to local consumers. Because what will certainly happen if it’s left to every country is we will have 150 different versions.”

He goes further, suggesting that centralising marketing culture for Unilever means that the best ideas can thrive, regardless of where they are developed. “He who briefs, decides,” he states.

While Clift might use this mantra, there is no question who is boss. He may devolve power to his global vice-presidents for certain brands, such as Persil’s Aline Santos, but those in the broader management structure are expected to fall in line.

He explains that while Vindi Banga, president of foods, home and personal care, is “line responsible” for the content of advertising, it is those immersed in the brand at a global level, like Santos, who really call the marketing shots.

He notes that Banga’s comments can only really be “helpful asides” but adds that Banga himself “believes absolutely” in this policy.

“Our job is putting people like Santos in charge of our global brands, and that’s what makes the difference. In the end, its not actually the process, it’s the calibre of people,” he explains.

Which begs the question, does all this global standardisation not make for a dull life for the local marketers – the brand builders on the ground?

“Far from it,” Clift retorts. “In fact, the opposite is true. For those brands where we’ve got the central positioning sorted out, where we’ve done the painful process of harmonisation and are moving on to the stage of implementation in local markets, there is a wonderful flourishing of creativity.”

To demonstrate this point, Clift chuckles while showing off a set of amusing mobile phone applications, created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty with the UK marketers – or brand builders – for male grooming brand Lynx (marketed as Axe in other regions). 

Clift, clearly delighted by the work, says: “I would never have been able to come up with something like that working on my own in a local market; I’d have been too busy worrying about fragrances, packaging and theme advertising. Far from preventing local creativity, it creates the space for them to do that.”

Future work

While no one would deny that Clift’s flagship brands such as Lynx and Dove have produced some compelling and creative local marketing, the process is certainly less well-developed over other brands. Clift’s ultimate goal as CMO is to extend the process across all Unilever products.

For someone who has been at Unilever 27 years and is in the process of carrying out such corporate manoeuvring, Clift is surprised to hear he is described by some of his peers as a “maverick”. He protests that he is a classic establishment marketer, despite a willingness to make decisions that go against the corporate grain.

One such decision was Clift’s now famous move to appoint the then unproven BBH in 1995 to handle the Lynx/Axe business, deviating from the Unilever agency roster. Another example is provided by Santos, who claims that Clift made it possible for her to resegment the hair care product range in Brazil, bypassing normal procedures. She says the success of this became a defining moment in her career.

“I think it’s fair to say that great leadership is about making space for people who are better than yourself,” Clift reflects. 

“I’ve met housewives in Brazil, holding their families together on £120 a week, who spend a third of their household budget on hair products by Unilever. In a focus group, I asked one woman why she spent so much on them and she replied simply: ’Because my hair is the most beautiful thing I own.’ It’s very humbling as a marketer.”

“The high points of my career have been where I’ve made space for talented people to push the boat out a bit. If that constitutes a maverick, then we need lots more mavericks.”

This commitment to his colleagues means that for Santos and others, Clift has been inspirational. Off the record, one observer expresses surprise that he’s spent so long with just one company. They muse: “I’ve always expected him to go off and do something like run the BBC.”

But Clift seems committed to Unilever, and if he misses the day-to-day buzz of hands-on brand management, it doesn’t show. He appears to relish the task in front of him and clearly sees Unilever as providing the kind of opportunities in which he is interested.

One Unilever opportunity that is especially close to Clift’s heart is the time he spent in South America. This has had both a personal and professional effect on him. He adopted a street child in Brazil – who is now a young adult – and Clift still has a home in Paraty, a colonial town on Brazil’s Costa Verde between Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo.

Living and working in developing markets “profoundly affects the sort of company we are, and it is certainly true for me personally,” says Clift. He says it has instilled in him the “enormous burden of responsibility” to “produce great products and not rip people off” in less developed parts of the world.

He explains: “I’ve met housewives in Brazil, holding their families together on £120 a week, who spend a third of their household budget on hair products by Unilever. In a focus group, I asked one woman why she spent so much on them and she replied simply: ‘Because my hair is the most beautiful thing I own.’ It’s very humbling as a marketer.”

It is this ability to have a positive impact in people’s lives, while building a business that Clift claims keeps him interested in his work.

He grins, revealing: “I used to be slightly embarrassed about going to smart dinner parties and meeting people that were into derivatives and futures, only to say I was in washing powder and lavatory cleaner.”

But with the world now gripped by recession, Clift now appreciates the everyday essentials his company produces: “I didn’t really know what a derivative was or why anyone would want one. It transpires nobody actually did want one and people do need soap and washing powder.”

So while he might be keen to overhaul Unilever’s corporate strategy, the value of working in the traditional consumer goods sector has not lost its appeal. “We can acknowledge it has the ability to improve people’s lives,” he says, dropping the jokes for palpable sincerity. “That’s a fantastic privilege – most people do dull jobs.”

My last 24 hours

“I used to think it would be the best of both worlds to live in London and have a house in Brazil, but it’s becoming rather inconvenient.

“However, technology helps to break that distance. My 11-year-old grandson, who lives in Brazil, sent me a video of himself scoring a goal via Facebook. I then sent it on to my dad, who is 90 and lives in Cheltenham.

“I thought: what a perfect demonstration of how we live in this new media space. It just wouldn’t have been possible in the past, this proximity. You wouldn’t have been able to have a relationship with somebody who lived 5,000 miles away – and share it with your dad. It’s extraordinary… the death of distance.”

Michael Steckler, managing director of Platform-A UK asks: If you had one wish for ad effectiveness research, what would it be?

SC: I still don’t think we have cracked the perennial question of the relationship between intrusion, enjoyment and sales effectiveness.

Nickie Smith, marketing director at Microsoft Advertising, asks: Digitally speaking, what is the biggest strategic challenge – and conversely the opportunity – that the internet offers your company over the next one to two years?

SC: The netis changing everything much more radically than most brand owners and advertisers realise. In the old world of topdown, one-way communication, a company told you what it wanted you to hear, and you had the choice to take it or leave it. In the new digital world of transparency and ready access to amazing quantities of detailed information on just about everything, companies will be held much more to account for what they say, what they do and for their points of view on issues of concern to consumers. Why it’s exciting to be in marketing at this time is because brands are the means by which consumers do this. Some brands won’t survive this accelerated natural selection that a more perfect market for information offers. But others will prosper and flourish. Brands are the meeting point between consumer desires and concerns on the one hand, and companies’ commitments on the other.

Dominic Tillson, sales and marketing manager of Bebo, asks: In your opinion, what are the benefits of using social networks to communicate with your customers, and do traditional marketing practices still apply?

SC: Since social networks are where the consumers are, we don’t have any choice but to follow. And since there is no implicit understanding (as there is with television) that we have a right to be there, it requires us more than ever to be relevant, interesting and to offer incontrovertible benefits to the target in the medium. Otherwise it will provoke rejection and resentment. Since most advertising communication doesn’t meet those criteria, it is inevitable that brand owners will have to re-examine their traditional practices. And I believe most of us have a long way to go before finding that formula. It is up to us to work out how to integrate our brands into the social networking medium as it is organised for the benefit of its users. But clearer, more transparent information on (the quite staggering levels of) usership would make them harder to ignore in building media plans.

Q&A

Explain your role

“Part of my responsibility is standing for what excellent looks like in marketing… marketing is the core function in Unilever – we are a consumer goods company”.

Your responsibility is split into a number of key areas: consumer insight; media; marketing capability; agency relations; marketing strategy; human resources; and the Unilever brand. Can you explain how you manage different units, starting with media, headed up by Laura Klauberg?

“I’ve spent 27 years trying to avoid media because it was just about buying 30-second TV commercials cheaper. Now it is something very interesting because the model is split and we’re certainly not going to be able to survive just by talking about television.

“It used to be a job done by somebody we couldn’t find another job for. Now it’s a key function. Laura is responsible for different media managers in every country. If you’ve only got one gardener, it’s very hard to tell if he’s a good gardener or a bad one and that was the case with media managers working in different countries. You never had any benchmark for comparison.

“We’ve spent a lot of energy in the past year upgrading the talent because there is a real competitive advantage to be gained in deploying media.”

What’s your role with regard to the agency relations department?

“I oversee which agencies we work with and our contractual terms. We’ve just put together a new roster of digital agencies. I need to ensure we don’t put all our eggs in one basket or none of our eggs in one basket. So I work with the brands to make sure that makes sense.”

Consumer marketing insight is headed by Richard Davies. Why does that report to you?

“Market research reports to me because I overarch global categories and local markets. We don’t want research to be biased towards either; we want one objective: Unilever truth.”

How do you work with human resources to build marketing talent within Unilever?

“Unilever was known for marketing, just as Volvo owns safety. I think we’ve lost that edge – at least in people’s perception.

“[But] we have just developed a marketing career framework. We now have principles of career development; our marketers in both brand development and brand building are trained together, acquire the same skills and operate in the same framework, across the whole of Unilever.”

Looking at the Unilever brand, the logo will be used across all the company’s products going forward, a process managed by Santiago Gowland. Why?

“Unilever is one of the best companies that no one has heard of. Although that’s not true if you’re talking about Brazil or India, but it tends to be true in the northern hemisphere markets.

“We’re putting the brand on the packaging and we’re increasingly having it on TV. Unilever can only win from standing up and telling people who we are and what we are. Broadly, our portfolio of brands share common values: nutrition, hygiene and personal care.

“De facto, as a multi-brand company you’re never going to have as clear an identity as a single brand company, but we’ve done a lot of work on the Unilever brand and what its positioning is. There are some common values and that includes the way in which we go to market.”

Has the company had these values since the beginning?

“Unilever was founded on what was basically a social mission. Conditions for working people in Victorian England were just as bad as they are in the developing world today. [Founder] Lord Leverhulme thought: “I can sell some soap, improve people’s lives and build a business”.

“Lifebuoy [soap] is a perfect example of how Unilever can improve lives while building a business; it’s real sustainability. We recently did a study with the World Health Organisation and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that shows a third of the deaths from diarrhoea can be prevented simply by people washing their hands before eating and after going to the toilet. So that is the basis ofLifebuoy’s communications.

“We have a programme going around villages which shows people the consequences of germs. It has reached 10 million consumers in the pastthree to four years and is directly linked to saving lives. It is not philanthropy, it is a marketing programme with social benefits.

“There’s now greater public scrutiny about who is behind a brand, what their opinions are, what their actions are and it’s the role of the Unilever brand to take on that responsibility.”

Where can the Unilever brand go in future?

“What we want to do is have a much more transparent debate and allow these issues to be discussed, because nobody’s perfect. We’ve got much more to gain than lose by talking about it and having a rational debate.

“Unilever should come to stand for responsible practices in sustainable sourcing, responsible attitudes, above all, in the developing world and absolutely unimpeachable ethics in how we do business.”

So social responsibility will become increasingly important?

“As well as being the right thing to do, it is hugely motivating for employees. The impact of Unilever is enormous. I admire companies like Innocent that have impeccable environmental credentials, but they are the square root of bugger all. As an analogy: no one cares what the environmental policies of Denmark are, what matters are those of China, the US and India.

“Our generation was brought up to believe that big is bad, and we have a fantastic and interesting marketing challenge on our hands to say that big brands can have a positive impact on society. I passionately believe that. “Finally, it is also, in the proper sense of a brand, a mark of quality. Trust will increasingly be the role of the Unilever brand.”

Notes on Simon Clift

  • Became full-time global CMO for Unilever in 2008
  • Holds a season ticket for Chelsea FC
  • Lives between London and Paraty, Brazil
  • Studied modern and medieval languages at Cambridge
  • Joined Unilever in 1982 as a management trainee

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