Unilever is testing a creative agency model that brings agencies within holding groups together into a single team.
If comes after the unprecedented move made by fellow ad giant Procter & Gamble earlier this year, which is going a step further by bringing rivals from competing networks together.
During a press event at Cannes Lions on Friday (22 June), Unilever's top marketer Keith Weed told The Drum that it was exploring ways of pooling together talent from the multitude of agencies it works with to make its marketing more coherent and effective, though unlike P&G was focused on keeping it within individual holding company structures.
The project has seen the Dove and Ben & Jerry's owner essentially create a dedicated agency made up of talent from across agencies which now sit “under one roof”.
He said the model was being tested with two holding companies to produce creative for four brands, though he declined to go into more detail.
The play from Unilever is a solution to help salve the issue of brand fragmentation or mixed messaging, with Weed attributing the problem to nothing more than a “reflection of agency design”.
“What I’d like to see is much greater integration of the creative agencies, and this is what we’re testing right now. So the agency becomes the integrator, then we don’t fragment our brands and we have a more holistic approach,” he added.
Unilever has already slashed the number of agencies it works with as part of a cost-cutting exercise which has helped to deliver savings to the tune of $2bn.
Rival P&G is also culling the number of agencies it works with and launched its 'People First' agency two months ago.
Chief marketing officer Marc Pritchard said his proposition will improve not just the company's bottom line but also its creative output.
It's operating from P&G’s New York office and being led by Andrea Diquez, chief executive of Publicis Groupe's Saatchi & Saatchi. It will combine Publicis talent with that of WPP and Omnicom to work on P&G's North American fabric care brands including Ariel, Tide and Gain.
'A different set of egos' under one roof
Among the lingering questions of P&G's model include exactly how the agencies are paid and who, in the end, owns the intellectual property rights.
Weed said it was a challenge negotiating these hurdles when pooling talent from within the same parent company.
"When you get them together in a room, different agencies you have people with different P&Ls. They hold it together in the room but as they’re walking down the corridor outside you see it all falling apart," he said.
Weed didn’t elaborate on how Unilever's division is structured to mitigate this, or where it is based, but he did reveal that is was being led by the top marketers at each of the four brands involved and that the principle was one that makes the agencies involved work in a more “end-to-end” way.
"We’ve been innovating around agency models as the market changes, but what I’m saying is everyone in that team needs to be [working to] the same P&L and targets," he continued.
"I don’t think you can have a situation where you have competing interests then tell people to play well together it doesn’t work."
Ex-WPP boss Martin Sorrell touched on this emerging model during a fireside chat with The Drum at Cannes Lions yesterday.
He said holding groups were often "attached to agencies" but P&G's move had shown that what clients actually want are the best people working on their business.
“This is probably the most extreme example, some people look at [P&G’s plan] and say ‘that won’t work’… but if I’m the client and I’m paying million to those three holding companies in the category in which I’m operating what do I want? I want the very best people from those agencies working in my business in total harmony, probably co-located with my resources as a client.
"I want them fully integrated, working together, finishing each other’s sentences and thinking about the brand."
Unilever has made a number of announcements at Cannes Lions this year, with Weed issuing a call to arms for the industry to tackle influencer fraud and chief brand officer Aline Santos announcing a new 'Unstereotype' initiative.
Update: This article was edited on 22 June to clarify that Keith Weed has discussed its trials in bringing talent from the same holding company into one team, not talent from rival holding groups as originally reported.