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By Rebecca Stewart, Trends Editor

December 11, 2018 | 10 min read

As Keith Weed prepares to step down as Unilever chief marketing officer after 35 years with the business, he tells The Drum why it was time, reflects on his legacy and reveals what’s next.

It was 1983 when Keith Weed joined Unilever subsidiary Elida Gibbs as a marketing exec. Culture Club’s Karma Chameleon was number one in the UK charts, the Austin Metro was the most popular car on the road and WPP was just a wire manufacturer.

Since then, Weed has risen to the position of chief marketing and communication officer controlling the purse strings of the world’s second largest ad budget. However, he’s now ready to hang up his spurs, with Unilever revealing last week that the boss was to step down from the business.

So why now? “It’s rather nice round number,” he jokes. “I want to go on and do other things within the industry, so you’re not saying goodbye to me yet.”

Within advertising, and even city, circles, Weed is synonymous with Unilever.

Since being appointed to the top marketing role in 2009 he has galvanised industry-wide action on “opaque” digital media practices; worked on an efficiency drive that has resulted in the group cutting its agency roster in half; brought some production in-house; led sustainability and diversity initiatives for the Dove and Persil owner along with his second in command Aline Santos; and built out the business’s internal digital know-how.

‘I’m not going to be a stranger’

His exit marks a turning point for the business and dovetails with the appointment of a new chief executive for Unilever in the form of Alan Jope.

Jope will replace outgoing boss Paul Polman and is someone Weed has worked alongside for “many years” at home and in the US. While suggestions were levelled that Weed was angling for the top job, the marketer insists Jope is the right person “to take the mantle forward”.

“I'm not going to be a stranger to Unilever, Alan's asked me to keep close and I certainly will,” he adds.

"Keeping close" includes advising on his as-yet unnamed successor. “Will I suggest to Alan what might be the future? Of course,” he says. “The great thing about advice [is] you should always listen to it, and the other great thing about it is you can always ignore it.”

On the timing, Weed says it’s simply a case of wanting to leave in a positive way to watch the next chapter unfold for the businesses. “I've been on the executive committee for Unilever for nine years. I've worked incredibly well and powerfully with Paul who has been amazing at empowering me to follow a vision which we share."

He's yet to reveal what’s next but does say he will be focused on his non-executive commitments (he’s chairman of Business in the Community International, president of the Advertising Association, an Effie Board director and Trustee of Grange Park Opera among other things).

He also picked up the World Federation of Advertisers' global marketer of the year award in January for 2017. Alongside marketers from Diageo, Ikea and P&G he's nominated for the accolade again this year.

What he does note is that he’ll be taking a palate cleanser between jobs in the form of the Peking to Paris Motor Challenge – a continent-spanning endurance motor rally.

“I’ll take a little sorbet in a 1940 Pontiac which I’ve been building for the past 18 months.

“I leave work at the end of April and on the 28th of May I get on a plane to Beijing. The car gets shipped in March then I drive through China, Mongolia, Russia, Finland and Paris – six weeks, it's going to be fabulous fun.”

A legacy of responsibility

Responsibility has been a big theme of Weed’s tenure and it’s clear he sees Unilever’s work around sustainability and diversity as a his legacy. “We have combined ‘brand say’ with ‘brand do’."

When he took the chief marketing officer job, one of his first moves was the shut down Unilever’s CSR department to embed it into the marketing function.

keith weed unilever resign interview

This led to the launch of Project Sunlight in 2013, a sustainability programme by which the business sought to “inspire people to look at the possibilities of a world where everyone lives well and within the natural limits of the planet”.

Since then, Unilever’s sustainable brands have become the fastest-growing part of its business, and it has committed to reduce the weight of all packaging by one third and half the waste associated with the disposal of its products by 2020 among other goals.

“It’s these fundamental issues that will help society,” Weed says. “I believe you can’t have a healthy business in an unhealthy society.

“Something went wrong in the 80s and 90s when [the industry] got into selling more stuff, but I think we can make marketing noble again by getting back into the essence of serving people.”

Weed has also been responsible for spearheading brand messaging with a purpose: from Persil’s global ‘Dirt is Good’ campaign to Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ ads and Unilever’s UN-supported ‘Unstereotype’ initiative, which looks to purge stereotypes from advertising.

For Weed though, responsibility isn’t just about how the FMCG giant works “hand-in-hand with society”. It’s also been about holding agencies and platforms to account – be that through his call to Facebook and YouTube to become more brand safe, demanding greater transparency from the digital media supply chain, or more recently issuing an “urgent call” to the industry to help stop influencer fraud.

“Quite rightly we spend a lot of time and energy focusing on the things that need to be fixed,” he continues, “and there still are things that need to be fixed, but we should equally acknowledge the progress being made.”

Tech players have, in his view, responded to the warnings of the wider industry. “I've talked about this topic for many years and I talked about the three Vs – viewability, verification and value. What's remarkable is, when I started talking about that we didn't have any of them, now we do and it’s because the platforms have ultimately listened and moved.”

Issues that need ironed out still, he says, are the fact that brands still buy into the 50% viewability standard (Unilever only buys 100% in-view ads) and that third-party verification is rarely built into new products.

The FMCG-giant has also been spearheading efforts to improve the integrity of influencer marketing via a series of moves it hopes will banish bad practice in the space, like fake followers, bots, fraud and "dishonest" business models.

With Twitter and YouTube purging fake accounts and Instagram recently announcing measures to stop people buying followers, Weed says he’s happy with the progress in the market.

“If we can keep this momentum, I think this time next year the influencer marketing industry will have been transformed,” he admits.

Challenges facing modern marketers

With FMCG brands facing off the challenge of direct-to-consumer rivals, Amazon and the political uncertainties of Brexit, whoever takes the baton from Weed will have a maze of fresh issues to navigate.

One of the big projects he’s been involved in is building out Unilever’s 28 people data centres' which aim to help it edge closer to its goal of one-to-one marketing at scale. The hubs comprise programmatic capabilities, real-time insights and Unilever’s in-house content production division U-Studios.

Building out these propositions in 2018 has marked a “turning point” in allowing Unilever’s 5000 marketers to better reach individual customers across 190 countries, says Weed, but there’s more to be done.

“In some ways my heart goes out to a marketer nowadays. When I started we were using data that was three months old and second-hand from a retailer to predict the future, now you can do real-time engagement with consumers at scale."

Somewhere on this journey, Weed believes the quality content has been lost because marketers are now doing so many other things that, by definition, they get to spend less time on the creative.

“Just spend some time on YouTube and look back at the advertising of that era - there was still some rubbish ads, but in the UK back then people enjoyed ad breaks more than they did the programmes,” he laughs.

unilever keith weed

With consumers faced with increasing clutter – latest figures suggest people see as many as 10,000 brand messages per day – Weed laments that while TV shows have got better, ads have got worse.

"You can track that over a period of time, and shame on us because advertising more than ever needs to be creative to get people's attention."

Another obstacle he sees facing modern marketers is the complex holding agency structures. Having made agency cuts that have contributed to the delivery of $2bn worth of efficiencies for the business, Weed has issued some parting Wisdom to network bosses: integrate or brands will take their business elsewhere.

He’s also been firm on the fact that agencies need to stop optimising by media, and start optimising by brand.

“Now a media plan is a complete tomb of all sorts of complex things. It’s brilliant because you can do lots of different things, but it’s really challenging for a marketer.”

Moving on

Apart from a cross-continent expedition, Weed has given nothing away as to his next move.

What is clear is that the marketing industry won’t quite be the same without him (or his notoriously colourful Cannes blazers) at the helm of Unilever.

“I really believe that the world needs to be a better place because of business and we need to get Unilever into the place where the world would be worse if it didn't exist,” he says. “I think we're well on that journey.”

Keith Weed has been nominated for the World Federation of Advertisers' global marketer of the year award. You can vote for him, and the other finalists, on the WFA website.

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