There are two major realisations that have shaped me throughout my career. The first is that you can and should overcome self-limiting beliefs. The second is that it is all made up: what most people believe is truth is often just their opinion.
I first learned these lessons when I was only four years into my career. It was the late 1980s. I very much wanted to go and work in the US. In the same way that now I would recommend someone goes to work in Shanghai to learn about digital, at that time, the learning place of marketing was the US.
When I arrived in 1988, I noticed everyone in the marketing team had MBAs from fantastic universities across America. I didn’t. At first, I thought: "Oh my God, they know all the answers." But I soon realised that they all knew the same answers, and so did the competition. My colleagues and competitors were doing everything the American-business-school way. I was unfettered by that thinking. I was able to see things for what they were and didn’t go about things in a rigid way. My marketing was based on curiosity.
I also brought a British approach to creativity. Believing that I had something different but equally valuable to offer worked – I was promoted every year for the five years I was there. I started as a junior brand manager and left at a vice-president level, running Chesebrough-Ponds’ biggest division.
I prefer to have curious marketers. When I go to someone’s house, after a while I ask to use the bathroom, close the door, lock it and then open their cupboards and have a good snoop around to see what they’ve bought. I’d recommend everyone to do it. Obviously, you can’t confess that to your friends and family. I’d also advise people not to emerge from the bathroom holding a product and exclaiming, "But why have you bought this?", as I’ve done a couple of times. People often say they need to do market research – so start by asking your friends and family. Be curious about life, brands and products.
The second thing I learned from my time in the US was that it’s all made up. Senior, well-meaning people explain to you the way things are, but what they are doing without realising it is putting in barriers and constraints. Once you understand that you can create things in different ways, the sky is the limit.
When I go to someone's house, I secretly have a good snoop in their bathroom cupboards to see what they've bought
After the US, in 1992, I managed to persuade Unilever to send me to Paris. The only disadvantage was that everyone spoke French. I had failed my French O level and didn’t speak a word. I arrived as marketing director and clearly remember the president director-general telling me he wanted a French speaker, and my first year’s bonus was based on that.
I was terrified. In that British way, I had been taught at school there were people who did sciences and those who did languages. I did physics, maths and chemistry and was more on the analytical side so, by that definition, I couldn’t do languages. But these are self-limiting beliefs, put into your head by well-meaning teachers who have been fed this idea that there are things you can and cannot do. I had French lessons every night after work. I ended up speaking French fluently and getting my bonus.
If you really commit yourself to something, you can achieve it. And it reminded me again to not listen to all the rules or well-meaning advice as being fact – they are just people’s opinions. I might think: "Oh, that person shouldn’t be wearing that colour shirt, it doesn’t suit them." To me, it’s a fact; but it’s just my opinion. When you speak "the truth", you are only speaking your truth. Once you realise these things, you can start unpacking and decoding.
These were lessons of which I had to remind myself when I got my big break – being given the global laundry and homecare business at Unilever in 2005. It was a £10bn business, which was declining. Unilever had lost confidence in its future direction and I was given the brief to turn it around. I had just come from running a UK business that had gone well – I’d never been confronted with something not going so well on that scale before.
Six months in, it was still doing badly. I started questioning myself – have I bitten off something that’s too big to chew? Is it failing because it is actually a failing business? I had to stop these thoughts because I was falling into those mental traps. Instead, I focused on why it hadn’t been going well and addressing those problems. We did blind-testing around the world to work out whether the products were good enough. We worked on the brands to turn them around. I had to restore internal confidence in the business, so I brought in people with different views and talents to reset the internal beliefs – such as Aline Santos, now global executive vice-president for marketing.
There were lots of up and downs, but I succeeded and grew the business. It has been growing market share ever since. I can pinpoint that as a clear career breakthrough because I moved from being a senior leader to, in 2010, being invited to join the executive committee of the world’s second largest advertiser of brands such as Magnum, Marmite, Dove and Persil. But it was also a huge personal challenge. When I started really questioning things, I had to remind myself this is all made up.
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Keith Weed is chief marketing and communications officer at Unilever