Unilever's VP of marketing: ‘working with startups isn’t an optional extra, it’s a strategic imperative’

88% of startups and 85% corporate firms agree that improving efficiency is one of the most important reasons for collaboration

Despite being in the midst of one of its biggest marketing efficiency drives, the global executive vice-president of marketing at Unilever has said that experimenting with startups remains a business imperative.

The FMCG giant’s startup division, the Unilever Foundry, revealed a report into the state of innovation in the industry at the Dmexco trade show in Cologne. Among the key findings were that startups and corporates will work side by side in the same office by 2025.

Fuelling this is the belief from 88% of startups and 85% corporate firms that improving efficiency is one of the most important reasons for collaboration.

Speaking to The Drum, Aline Santos said that the Unilever Foundry is helping its marketing department “unleash magic” as it continues to grapple with a wider marketing cull.

The brand is running 30% less ads and has clamped down on the number of agencies it works with in a €6bn efficiency drive.

“Since we launched Foundry [increasing marketing efficiency] has been our focus – how we can be more agile in the work that we do and how we can reduce costs and use clever technology to run better marketing in a faster and cheaper way,” she said.

Santos added that working with startups "can no longer be viewed as an optional extra."

"It’s a strategic imperative," she said. "Startups are now widely recognised as invaluable sources of innovation, fueling growth and providing pioneering business solutions."

Foundry questioned over 200 brand managers and heads of innovation, as well as more than 100 startup founders and directors across the US, the UK, India and SIngpore. It found after an initial rise in “tech tourism” – which it dubbed shorter term activity such as trips to tech HQs to less formal partnerships – a longer-term model will win out.

Although 83% of startups value the publicity from these short-term models, Unilever Foundry predicted that large businesses will become more willing to invest in structured programmes over PR-driven quick fixes.

Unilever has been testing out this kind of setup with Level Three, a co-working hub in Singapore, and more recently spreading its roots via Dogpatch Labs’ co-working space in Dublin.

"We're still taking baby steps," said Santos, noting that Level Three had already established itself as the place where startups sitting alongside the firm's marketeers.

"That has been unleashing magic, as well as lots new ideas, ways of working and a new culture," she added.

Long-term collaborations undertaken by Foundry so far include tie ups with UGC platform Vidsy and Discuss.io, which provides ‘on-demand’ qualitative customer depth interviews and focus groups using webcams and crowdsourcing.

Santos said that as businesses look to achieve a more integrated approach to corporate-startup innovation, it will enhance partnership opportunities on a number of levels, including better access to decision makers and transforming big businesses' approach to innovation.

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Rebecca Stewart

Rebecca Stewart is a reporter at The Drum. She primarily writes news, analysis and features around brand marketing and digital innovation. She has interviewed key figures from the likes of Airbnb, Amnesty International, Unilever, Facebook and Spotify, as well as covering international events like Ad Week Europe, Dmexco and Ciclope.

All by Rebecca