As Unilever’s Keith Weed retires after 35 years at Unilever and eight in the top marketing role, many in the industry are taking stock of the influence he had on the company and the discipline.
Conversations with those who have worked with him and for him, and those who haven’t, highlight his role inspiring everyone in the industry and explaining to the wider world the importance and impact of marketing.
Colin Lewis, Marketing Week columnist and CMO at OpenJaw, says: “Keith ably represented the twin challenges of being a marketer: the challenge of communicating the benefits of marketing to the wider industry – Keith acted as the ‘voice of marketing’ to the wider world – but also the challenge of being a better marketer. Keith inspired us all to become more professional.”
Building marketing capability
That aim to make marketing “more professional” can be seen in Weed’s work to improve marketing capability. Leadership consultant Andy Bird worked with Weed at Unilever during the 1990s and describes him as “one of the key players” in driving that agenda at the FMCG company and a “senior champion” for Unilever’s marketing academy.
“More than anybody, Keith drove that [agenda] and he has been passionate in his commitment to that over the years,” explains Bird.
“To be at the level he has been at you have to have a forward-looking and ambitious view about the role marketing can play. That then shapes the way you approach building the capability. It’s all very well having ambitions about the role marketing can play but actually being able to do it means you have to have the capability. He was very clear about that and really drove it. He didn’t just talk about it, he put his money where his mouth is.”
Cheryl Calverley, the AA’s former marketing director and who worked at Unilever in the late 2000s, clearly remembers Weed’s focus on marketing effectiveness. “He confidently and consistently built his idea of what marketing effectiveness could and should be,” she explains. “It was always clear it would become an engine of growth for the business.”
Weed’s understanding of marketing effectiveness was built on his commitment to brand purpose and the key insight that earned media would be core to efficiency of spend.
“Keith’s commitment to brand purpose was never for some soft-hearted desire to ‘do good’ or an egotistic need to give the business a greater sense of purpose beyond commercial success,” recalls Calverley.
“It was through a good, old fashioned insight that in a changing communications world where the multiplier effect of earned media is so core to efficiency of spend, purpose-led activity simply gets greater engagement from customers.”
Shifting the conversation about brand purpose
Weed did not just change the conversation at Unilever, he has been vocal on issues that affect the whole marketing industry, from influencer marketing to brand safety, and successfully navigated changes, putting Unilever on a better foot than many of its rivals when it comes to digital marketing.
Steve Challouma, who worked at Unilever between 1996 and 2006, describes Weed as an “inspiring” thought leader. “It’s incredible to observe how he has navigated change and embraced the emerging trends in marketing such as influencer marketing and brand safety, and addressed important themes such as trust and sustainability.”
It is perhaps that focus on sustainability that is Weed’s biggest legacy. Together with Unilever CEO Paul Polman (who is also retiring next year), he managed to shift the conversation so marketers at Unilever could see their role as more than simply stuff and really having an impact on society and the environment.
“His leadership of the Sustainable Living Plan transformed something that was very corporate into a cultural phenomenon that has been embedded into the very fabric of Unilever,” says Challouma. “It has also provided encouragement and a push for many others in the industry to raise their game in this area.”
Keith’s commitment to brand purpose came from the insight that in a changing communications world where the multiplier effect of earned media is so core to efficiency of spend, purpose-led activity simply gets greater engagement from customers.
That’s a trait Calverley also sees. “It’s characters like Keith, at the top of their game and lifting their voice loud enough to be heard, that’s given many of the rest of us mere marketing mortals the resolve to continue forging the lonely path in the fact of short-term targets.”
Raising marketing’s game was an area where Weed had a major impact beyond Unilever. He worked with Hugh Burkitt, who was then at the Marketing Society, to set up its Marketing Leaders programme. Bird highlights the little known fact that Weed talked on the programme every year except one (when a family death kept him away).
That work shows Weed recognised the difficulties marketers could face in going from running a brand to running a function, representing marketing to the rest of the company and taking responsibility for a team.
“That’s a big leadership watershed moment and Keith felt that if marketing as a profession was going to flourish, then helping people with that moment of career development was a really important thing to support,” explains Bird.
“Many people have shared their experiences openly and honestly. No one has done more sessions on that than Keith himself.”
Navigating ‘choppy waters of change’
With such a forward-thinking and inspiring leader at the top, Unilever will face a tough challenge finding a successor, if new CEO Alan Jope even decides he wants one.
Previous CMOs have typically worked in a business unit, rather than centrally, before taking on the top marketing job at Unilever. Jope, who was previously president of the personal care unit, may well look to someone he knows and trusts from that division to take on the job of running the Unilever brand both internally and externally.
There is also the option to get rid of the CMO role altogether. Unilever’s recent management shake-up saw it hand responsibility for marketing to the category divisions, although there are still central functions that need managing such as procurement, data and digital, as well as its in-house content agency U-Studio.
Challouma believes that if Unilever wants to remain at the forefront of marketing thinking, it will need a new CMO and one with “authority and impact who can continue to provide insight and lead for the industry on the hot issues, help marketers navigate the choppy waters of change in marketing and communications, and to continue to leverage its scale to hold advertising agencies and media owners to account where needed”.
Those “choppy waters of change” may well be the most challenging. As with all FMCG brands, Unilever faces competition for consumers from smaller, faster, niche brands, for staff from Amazon and Google, while also having to shift its capability focus.
As Lewis asks: “Given the proliferation of new brands, fragmenting consumer tastes, and the radical changes in retail, how can Unilever change its incredible capability in executing known business models to newer, more agile models of marketing and distribution?”
The biggest challenge facing the new CMO of Unilever will be to avoid being too big and ponderous and global and bureaucratic.
Weed began that work when he publicly acknowledged that the marketing academy he built was less relevant in a world that needed direct-to-consumer marketing skills. “He acted quickly and firmly to seek to build and buy those skills for the business so as to arm his marketers effectively for the coming onslaught of direct-to-consumer brands,” says Calverley.
“Time will tell whether he acted quickly or firmly enough although I have a feeling he’s protected Unilever’s future growth with his openness and willingness to change.”
It is this that will be key to Unilever’s future and gives an example of where Unilever’s new CMO must go next. When Weed took over, the focus was on leveraging its scale to build global brands; now it needs to swing the pendulum back the other way to ensure it is reacting to fast-changing behaviour and spotting trends.
“When Keith emerged as a leader, the real priority had been to build bigger global brands, to leverage scale in a way that Unilever hadn’t done before versus some of its competitors,” concludes Bird.
“But the pendulum swings; the entrepreneurial flair, creativity and experimentalism of startups, small businesses and challenger brands is probably Unilever’s greatest threat. The biggest challenge facing the new CMO of Unilever will be to avoid being too big and ponderous and global and bureaucratic. It’s about finding that flair that the startups taking share in local markets will be benefiting from.”