Keith Weed on his biggest success: We proved the business case for sustainability

Unilever’s marketing boss tells Marketing Week he is most proud of growing sales and profits every year, while also building a company with sustainability at its core.

Unilever marketing boss Keith Weed

When Keith Weed started at Unilever in 1983 he had no idea he would eventually become marketing chief at the world’s second largest advertiser, responsible for iconic brands such as Dove and Ben & Jerry’s, and a budget in the billions of pounds.

“To be honest, I never imagined I would be at any company this long,” he tells Marketing Week.

But he found the company provided him with opportunity after opportunity, and 35 years on he is the longest-serving member of the current executive team.

That time is about to come to an end, however. Weed announced his retirement last week,  just days after CEO Paul Polman revealed his departure plans. It is hard not to see the two as related but Weed says his plans were in place long before he was privy to Polman’s.

“I was planning to do it around this time but when Paul mentioned his retirement I said it’s good timing for me to move on as well. It made sense,” he explains.

READ MORE: Keith Weed’s legacy and what Unilever needs to do next

Weed has spent eight years as Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer (CMCO) in which time he has built a reputation as a leader in areas such as diversity, marketing capability and sustainability.

He was crucial to the development of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan (USLP) and the company’s Unstereotype initiative. But what the 57-year-old is most proud of is helping Unilever drive profitable growth.

He explains: “I am most proud that we have grown the sales line and profit every single year in the nine years I’ve been doing this role. We’ve done this while also building a more sustainable business and one with sustainability at its core. We have been able to build the business case for sustainability. A lot of people challenge if you can do both and what we’ve shown at Unilever is yes, you can.”

Although we have done much to tackle it, I would have preferred to do more in shaping responsibility in the digital world. If we could have made more progress in that area, that would have been great.

Keith Weed, Unilever

That is not to say Weed’s career has been all plain sailing. Does the man Sir Martin Sorrell once described as the world’s most influential CMO have any regrets? There is apparently a “long list”, most pressing of which is tackling the challenges of digital media, where he says while progress has been made, particularly in tackling fake followers on social media, there is still more to do.

“There is never enough time. The world of marketing has changed hugely over the last five to 10 years. It has changed more in the last five years than the previous 30. You can only spend your minute once and your pound once so you have to be make choices in what you do,” he says.

“Although we have done much to tackle it, I would have preferred to do more in shaping responsibility in the digital world. If we could have made more progress in that area that would have been great.”

There are other more personal stories about things that didn’t go according to plan. In the early 2000s he was behind the launch of Lynx razors, an attempt to challenge rival Procter & Gamble’s Gillette.

“It was based on a beautiful insight that at that stage Gillette was quite old and all the imagery used middle-aged men with kids, whereas Lynx was very young and very strong, he explains. The idea was to launch a much younger and cooler razor. But, although our product was good it wasn’t better than Gillette’s Mach 3. There are no longer Lynx razors.

“The lesson I learnt is if you are going to take on a well-entrenched product you better have a superior product to the best one in their range.”

Advice for young marketers

When Weed started at Unilever over three decades ago he could barely have imagined the changes that would come. He believes that makes marketers’ lives “much more complex”, meaning they need to focus more than ever on improving their own capabilities.

He says: “[Marketing is more] complex in a good way. We have more choice than ever to engage with people across a selection of devices from video to mobile. That complexity is great but with that comes a whole complexity around the agencies you work with and expertise you need.

“More than ever what marketers have to do is focus on their own capabilities and training, and ensure they’re up to speed.”

To do that, Weed offers three pieces of advice: live in the space, be close to the consumer and constantly upskill. There is a reason why he is so active on Twitter (where has 28,400 followers), Facebook and LinkedIn, because he believes marketers need to be part of the conversation and to learn from others.

“If I don’t lead from the front and remain an active part of the ever-changing world I am not the sort of leader you need,” he explains.

“Even for marketers that have been out of university for just five years, a lot of [what they learnt] is out of date. You have to be self-taught and follow people on LinkedIn and Twitter. There is a lot of free insight and advice out there.”

Finding inspiration

Having worked with some of the world’s most iconic brands, does Weed have a favourite? He baulks at the question, saying asking him to choose one of Unilever’s 400 brands is like “asking me to choose my favourite child”. However, if pushed he can make Sophie’s choice.

“I love all my children equally but personally the two brands I absolutely love are Ben & Jerry’s and Marmite because they are brands I enjoy as a consumer and the marketing is incredibly innovative as well.”

When it comes to the brand Weed is most proud of he cites Dove, which makes sense when you consider how much of his career has been dedicated to a kinder capitalism.

“Dove has showed, in a really significant way, how to build a brand with purpose. On one side creative that really cuts through the clutter and advertising around a really profound purpose around self-esteem and real beauty. It has become the largest educator of self-esteem in the world.”

Dove - no digital distortion
Dove recently promised it would not digitally enhance imagery in its advertising

What is clear from talking to Weed is his enthusiasm for Unilever and the brands he has worked on. He would not have stuck around for so long if this wasn’t the case and is a strong believer that people need to enjoy themselves at work if a company is to get the best out of its workforce.

He says: “I do believe miserable people deliver miserable results and you want to have great results.”

Weed credits Unilever for offering him the opportunity to work and “have fun” in jobs across the world.

“I wanted to work in the US so they sent me and I had fabulous fun. Then I wanted to be sent to Paris so I went to Paris,” he says.

The future of Unilever

Weed thinks Unilever’s decision to promote a marketer to CEO is a “brilliant” move and he is a big fan of incoming boss Alan Jope.

“I’ve known Alan for 33 years – both of us cut our teeth in the US in the early 1990s when it was the place to learn how to be a great marketer. From that day, not only has he been a good friend but he’s also shown himself as a great marketer.”

Weed is wary of speaking about the future of Unilever: “I really don’t want to speculate on the future because that’s not up to me.”

However, Weed, who will leave the company at the beginning of May next year, will work with Jope when he starts in January. Weed describes his successor as “very much Alan’s call” but says he has already “shared his thoughts” on the future of the role and what a marketing leader needs to succeed.

I do believe miserable people deliver miserable results and you want to have great results.

Keith Weed, Unilever

“You need to be curious about people’s lives, curious about what works and what doesn’t work. Marketing leaders should value curiosity, understanding of consumers and consumer trends, and also ensure they are bringing the outside in and really driving growth.”

He adds: “If you have to get to the future first you need to have a view of where the future is.”

Whether FMCG can still get to the future first is up for some debate. Many in the industry have questioned whether FMCG is still the breeding ground for marketers it once was amid mounting challenges from digital disruptors and direct-to-consumer brands that are seen as closer to their consumers.

READ MORE: The big debate – Is FMCG still the best learning ground for marketers?

However, unsurprisingly, Weed doesn’t believe FMCG’s influence is waning.

“I am sure there are opportunities in other areas but for building capabilities and skills and understanding people’s needs and serving them better, which is what marketing is all about, FMCG is still a great place.”

However, he does believe marketing “needs to be made noble again” and that building brands with purpose can get the industry there.

He explains: “If we as marketers can develop this agenda of brands with purpose we can make marketing noble again. We can take marketing back to where it was, which was serving people better than other things they might have and making lives easier.”

Weed has already started planning what to do next both personally and professionally. Firstly, though he can’t contain his excitement about the Peking to Paris motor race he will be taking part in this July.

Professionally, Weed plans to “go plural” and is already assessing a number of opportunities, although he has to wait until he finishes at Unilever to make any big decisions.

He is already a a trustee for numerous charities and an opera, advisor to F1 teams and president of Advertising Association – all of which he is planning to continue.

Until then the Unilever veteran says it is “back to work” as usual. “There is still lots to do. I will continue to drive the agenda around sustainability and brands with purpose, and continue the transformational change we’re seeing around data-driven marketing.”

Despite focusing on the now, does he have any idea what his legacy will be? “I hope what I’ve been able to do is lead in a positive way, and a way that is positive both for the business and society.”

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Comments
  • Pete Austin from Fresh Relevance 13 Dec 2018 at 10:15 am

    Citation needed that, taking ALL inputs and outputs into account, Unilever is really more sustainable now than in the past. For example that improvements are not due to selective outsourcing, or selectively abandoning product lines. Do such figures exist?

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