PERSPECTIVE: Unilever proves that the sleeping giants are starting to wake

There was a time when advertisers made ads. In the case of Unilever, those ads were generally pretty predictable: barely creative, unimaginatively targeted (housewives) and cheap.

There was a time when advertisers made ads. In the case of

Unilever, those ads were generally pretty predictable: barely creative,

unimaginatively targeted (housewives) and cheap.

They worked, of course. They sold soap powder, shampoo, toilet


So what if it was hardly the stuff of a cracking creative portfolio, the

agency was paid oodles and Unilever was a loyal client with a nice fat

product list of household brand names. The media buyers got great

commission, soaked up all the airtime which the media owners couldn’t

sell to sexier brands, and bought it all at a whacking discount.

By working with the likes of Mother and Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and moving

away from a reliance on global roster agencies in search of fresh

creative talent, Unilever has already begun to draw a clear line under

its old advertising strategy.

And now the days of Unilever simply making ads are truly over. Last

month the company announced the launch of its own website, Wowgo,

targeting teenage girls. Later this month it launches the UK’s first

nationwide interactive TV ad for Chicken Tonight. And this week it has

bought a Hollywood movie library and swapped it for advertising airtime

on Channel 5. The news should leave no-one in doubt about the way of the

new advertising world order.

The Columbia deal works at several levels. Channel 5, being famously

restricted by a modest programming budget, potentially finds itself in

something of a ’Catch 22’ situation. It needs great programmes to

attract big audiences and hefty ad revenues. But without hefty ad

revenues, it’s not easy to make great programmes.

Unilever has stepped in, paid the money up front for a raft of

more-than-half-decent movies, including some real audience winners. It

helps Channel 5 shed its old ’home of crap TV’ image and secures

long-term airtime on this improving channel at decent ad rates. Very

smart. And while Unilever may be one of the biggest and first, there’s

no doubt that we’ll see more examples of advertisers and media owners

working together to fund content which the advertisers can


Of course, with websites, interactive TV sites, advertiser-funded

programmes and movie broadcast rights, advertisers such as Unilever are

already well on the way to becoming media owners themselves. For

agencies, this proves at best something of a challenge, at worst a

definite threat.

As the dialogue between a media owner and an advertiser moves beyond

stand-off airtime negotiations and the supply of creative treatments

towards a long-term, mutually beneficial commercial relationship, the

agency’s role begins to look increasingly dwarfed. Unless, of course,

it’s the agency that’s making the movies, as Saatchi & Saatchi is for

Club 18-30.

Campaign’s editor, Caroline Marshall, is on maternity leave.


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