Unilever’s Keith Weed on how cutting agencies will improve its advertising

The FMCG giant says media fragmentation had led to ‘fragmentation of time and budgets’, but it now wants to focus on more consistent marketing.

Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed says Unilever’s decision to halve the number of agencies it works with was done in response to the fragmentation of media, but claims there is still room to work with specialist independent agencies in local markets.

Speaking at a press briefing at the Cannes Lions Festival today (21 June), he tried to explain the reasons behind the company’s decision to consolidate the number of agencies on its roster, which he says is just in the process of being completed.

Weed said the fragmentation of media has led brands to work with “10 to 14 agencies”, including a mobile agency, social agency or media agency, which in turn led to the fragmentation of “time and budgets”.

“It [also] meant different bits of content were coming out. What I’m keen to do is to have clarity on the strategy, equity and imagery, and [to have] more consistency. One way of doing that is having fewer agencies,” he said.

This doesn’t mean, however, that Unilever won’t work with smaller independent agencies in local markets, such as “a specialist mobile agency in Jakarta that knows Indonesia well”.

“Of course we will work with them. We are also working with WPP and Omnicom and Publicis. But there’s a group of agencies in the middle that have no extra added distinction than those two [groups]. [The cuts] keep us at a competitive advantage and it helps us negotiate with fewer agencies and focus our work accordingly.”

READ MORE: The reasons behind Unilever’s marketing cuts

Unilever also found it was creating too many assets. It launched a tool to measure “brand wear out and wear in”, which found 60% of its ads weren’t ever shown to the masses. The new structure means it is producing 30% less ads, but Weed insists the quality of them will not diminish.

“It’s not about reducing quality standards, it’s the opposite. If we’re producing fewer assets, we have more time to spend lovelingly making them better. This is a quality move,” he said.

As part of a separate initiative, Weed said the company is pulling together a “whole new” marketing organisation. Previously, it had a brand development team for its global categories such as hair care, ice cream and tea, which was producing creative assets at scale and looking after the brand positioning and innovations. It also had “brand builders”, who were local marketers and looked after local trends and brands and teamed up with retailers. It is now moving to one marketing team.

The issues of brand safety and programmatic

During the press briefing, Weed also talked about one of the major discussion points at Cannes – brand safety online. He said that while every marketer is taking issues such as these “more seriously”, the industry is still not where it needs to be.

“[We won’t be where we need to be] until we get things like one universal measurement system. There are companies that do measurement right now, you can probably think of a few of them, and I’m in discussions with them and various media owners. It’s a journey to get everyone in the same direction. It will take a little time. But the destination to me is crystal clear.”

Unilever was one of the brands not to pull advertising from YouTube following the brand safety scandal, and Weed thinks it is better to have conversations around “challenging” issues in private.

“When brand safety came up with Google, we stayed on YouTube. We looked at our brand safety guard rails and we believed we were in the right area. And it was better working with Google to say: ‘Actually, these are things you can do’. I hadn’t gone to my bedroom and slammed the door. If you’re going to have business partner relationships, you have to have tough conversations,” he explained.

One of the main issues that caused the brand safety problems was programmatic, with the technology meaning many marketers were unsure where their ads were appearing online. However, Weed said its strategy “had worked really well”.

“Some companies have moved media buying into procurement, they’re buying it like you’d buy soil or any raw material. I think that can be challenging. It’s nothing against the brilliance of our procurement department, we have a fabulous department within Unilever, but the difference is that it’s fast moving, so complex, if you do just buy on eyeballs and price, you shouldn’t be too surprised if you end up on a site that you don’t want to be on.

“We have our own programmatic trading desk called Ultra, but it’s totally embedded into WPP. We set it up with complete transparency. That was the rules of the game, and we know what’s going on.”