Keith Weed: CFOs count where money’s going, marketers where it’s going to come from

Unilever’s outgoing marketing boss says that despite a challenging business environment, marketers must take a “we approach” to business and position as future-forward to succeed.

There’s no denying the business environment is tough at the moment. Consumer confidence is stuck in the doldrums, there is uncertainty over the outcome of Brexit and global economic growth has slowed.

That has led many firms to look at how to cut costs, rather than invest in growth; a move that has led to increased tensions between marketing and finance.

However, Unilever’s outgoing marketing boss, Keith Weed, says marketers must resist the temptation to sit in a corner demanding investment and instead take a “we approach” to business. He also believes they should position themselves as the insightful, future-forward face of the business to drive growth.

“You have to recognise the reality you are in,” he said, speaking last week at Marketing Week Live. “The world is tougher and more challenging. [But you can’t] be a marketer sitting in one corner saying, ‘I need this, I, I, I’. It’s very much a we approach to business.

“I tease our CFO and tell him, ‘your job is to count where the money’s going but my job is to find out where it’s going to come from’. If marketers can position themselves as being the outside-in and the future-forward, that can really help companies right now. People are really challenged by the changes around us and marketers can be the insightful person in the company who gets to understand what’s happening in the world and with consumers, bring that into the business, and add a lot of value.”

If I know where the world is going I can get to the future first. If a marketer can do that, they are incredibly valuable.

Keith Weed, Unilever

Weed said this is the reason he goes to events such as the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas every year. Such events, he added, help him understand changes in consumer behaviour and how tech can make marketing more effective.

“[People might ask], why is a guy from a soup and soap company going to see all this high tech? The answer is because I want to see where the world is going. If I know where the world is going I can get to the future first. If a marketer can do that, they are incredibly valuable.”

Despite Weed’s interest in the latest tech, he dismisses the idea marketers should split digital and traditional marketing or that it should be an ambition to put more money in digital or less in traditional. However, he admits it can be difficult to get that message across to the rest of the business, which might think spending more on digital is more effective or a sign a business is evolving with the times.

“We are marketing in a digital world. What isn’t digital? All TV is digital,” he said.

“[People say] ‘we should put more money on digital and less on traditional’. No. It’s not an either/or. The best is a mix. You take TV, slip a bit of Twitter in and you build an engagement plan that uses all the levers in front of you. Whether it’s digital or not is neither here not there. These are the tools of the trade around you.”

He also admitted marketers have become a “bit distracted” by technology, especially when it comes to data. While he believes data is important, and he has helped build 38 people data centres around the world at Unilever, he suggested that has come at the expense of creating great advertising.

“It was important for us all to lean into data,” he said. However, he added: “We got a bit distracted by the data technology journey. It was important for us all to lean into data.

“But you can only spend your minute once, so if you are spending your minutes [doing data] then maybe you aren’t spending it doing the other bit. As an industry, quite rightly we’ve built the muscle around data and technology but part of the expense has been we’ve taken our eye off the ball in [creating] engaging and creative advertising.”

The key, said Weed, is to find the balance between magic and logic. That is what he has loved about the industry in which he has worked for the last 30 years and will miss when he retires at the end of next month.

“What I love about marketing is the mixture of magic and logic, and it’s got even more so over the years. Creativity and effectiveness, art and science, whichever mix you like,” he said.

“And the other thing is I like people, I’m quite a curious person, and marketing is about trying to understand why someone did something that morning and what shampoo they used. Actually, I’m nosy. And nosy going into marketing is good.”