Unilever isn't relying on ad agencies to build 'direct relationships' with a billion consumers

Keith Weed says Unilever has 26 of its own data centres around the globe

Unilever's chief marketing officer Keith Weed has said it plans to build a billion "one-to-one relationships" with consumers by investing heavily in its own data and "building out the muscles" of its direct-to-consumer strategy instead of relying on "slow" agencies that have yet to impress him with their own data capabilities.

The FMCG-giant is already in the midst of a mammoth efficiency and in-housing drive. Weed, who hasn't put a timescale on this ambition, suggested it was also looking inward as it proceeded on its journey to reach that golden billion number, instead of turning to its agency partners.

Speaking at the IAB engage summit today (7 June) Weed outlined how Unilever's 26 global "people data centres" – which combine social listening, CRM and traditional market research – were helping to power the Dove owner's shift away from mass reach and towards more personalised communications.

"We do have the opportunity to do that one-to-one marketing at scale," he said. "The first thing is building out [our] first-party data, which of course lots of companies have but we didn’t have: we’ve always looked at our second and third-party data for this knowledge."

As well as more precise targeting, Weed said first-party insights were helping to improve Unilever's creative output.

'Cluttered' landscape

Last year, Unilever's agency cuts helped let the brand invest an additional €250m into media buying and in-store advertising, and once again Weed critised agencies for failing to evolve to meet the changing needs of consumers, and brands in a "cluttered" digital world.

"In my experience, the agencies haven't moved fast enough," he said. "Agencies shouldn't be enabling companies like ours to [build their own data centres], they should be ahead of us and they should offer us that service themselves."

Weed went on: "Consumers and technology are moving faster than the industry, as marketers we used to lead consumers, now marketers are chasing to get ahead."

He also bemoaned agency pricing structures, saying the industry should come together to create a "fit for purpose, competitive model" that works for brands who having to create more content than ever.

When pressed on Unilever's direct-to-consumer ambitions, an area it has been experiment in through the acquisition of Dollar Shave Club and with its own Hellman's brand, Weed said that while mass reach was still important for the group at the moment it was intent on "building out the muscles" of its D2C offering.

“If you’re creating more engaging brands, why wouldn’t you want to sell them direct-to-consumer as well? Don’t for a second think that a soup and soap company like ours is going to get the 2.5 billion consumers [that we already serve] to all use direct though, so mass retailing will be the backbone of our business for years to come."

Click here for more details about the proceedings at the IAB Engage conference

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