Simon Clift is an intuitive, unconventional, gay 43-year-old with
five languages, three houses and a Brazilian street kid for a foster
son. So what's he doing in a stodgy, process-driven company such as
"Many people comment to me that they are struck by the quality of the
individuals in Unilever, barely disguising the fact that - knowing our
output - they are surprised," Clift says. "Somehow, somewhere, this
ability has a tendency to be sapped by the 'system'. Reducing the gap
between the quality of the people and the quality of the work is very
high on the agenda of the senior team here."
On a personal level, Clift has never had the opportunity to get
In a 19-year career at Unilever he has worked in the UK, Portugal,
Austria, Mexico and Brazil.
"Every time I get towards being on top of a job they send me off
somewhere else, with wider responsibilities," he says. Each country has
offered different challenges in consumer marketing: "From rich, sated
sceptical consumers in Europe, to poor, eager, optimistic ones in
Brazil. Hard to match, really."
As is Clift himself, for cynical agency people leap at the opportunity
to rave about this living client saint. "He's an extraordinarily fair
and inspiring client to work with"; "He never played the card of 'just
do it because I'm the client"'; "His unorthodox ways delivered in
buckets"; "He's an understated guy but he has an energy and iconoclasm
I've never encountered before or since." Etc, etc.
So what's his secret? Clift believes that brilliant creative flows from
brilliant planning. He focuses on the quality of the advertising output
rather than managing the process. Unusual creative briefing sessions and
meetings, some at his own home, have also impressed his agencies. "When
we were briefing for a Close-Up global campaign we flew the agencies to
a remote location near Rio at the weekend," he recalls. "I'm not given
to self-conscious gestures but I try to make the day-to-day work feel
Clift was born in Chalfont St Giles in 1958. He studied modern and
mediaeval languages at Cambridge, then in 1982 joined Unilever's
Personal Care Company in the UK as a management trainee in marketing. He
held various positions in the UK, Portugal and Austria, before becoming
the marketing director in Mexico in 1991. In 1994 he returned to London
as the brand development director of Elida Faberge UK and the head of
the European Deodorant Innovation Centre.
In 1997 he was appointed the managing director of Unilever's Personal
Care Company in Brazil and, in 2000, the chairman of the Latin America
Personal Care Category Group, also based in Sao Paulo. Sending him to
Brazil was a clear statement that he was destined for the fast track:
no-one succeeds in the new Unilever without a stint in one of its top
overseas businesses. Duly anointed, Clift returned to London and in
January this year he was appointed to his current position of the
president, marketing, Unilever Home and Personal Care.
Clift's rise came in parallel with Unilever's transformation. The
company is whittling its brands down to 400 from 1,600, and splitting
its operations into two global units, separating food and non-food
products. Clift is the driving force behind marketing in the non-food
division. There are 11 global brand directors who report to senior
vice-presidents of product categories and they, in turn, report to
Clift. His boss is Keki Dadiseth, the Unilever director responsible for
worldwide Home and Personal Care operations.
The goal is to continue nurturing the local jewel brands that offer high
margins but do not travel outside their home market, and, above all, to
sharpen the focus on brands with a presence around the world, which
represent three-quarters of the total business. Of these 22 global core
brands, Dove, Omo, Lux and Sunsilk are the biggest. Smaller ones such as
Vaseline, Organics, Impulse and Axe (marketed as Lynx in the UK) have
also been identified as key to Unilever's future.
The mention of Lynx brings us to the heart of Clift's fame. Six years
ago, dissatisfied by the work Ammirati Puris Lintas was producing on
Lynx, he switched the UK account to Bartle Bogle Hegarty. Today the
brand is globally shared between BBH and Lowe Lintas. Why dump
"Someone recommended BBH for their creativity, but we found their
strategic thinking to be unparalleled," he says. "And at the time Lintas
was not very good, there was a complacency there, they thought it was
their God-given right to have the business. It was like Russian
industry, one side pretending to work and the other pretending to pay
them. We pretended to ask for creative work, they pretended to give it
A former Lintas manager says: "I remember discussions with creatives
about why they couldn't liberate themselves to do good ads for Elida
Faberge. Truth was nobody believed Simon could deliver. We
A five-year stream of admired Lynx work backs up Clift's judgment. He
knew the macho commercials Lintas used to produce weren't fooling
With the help of BBH, he engineered a 180-degree turn to put the brand's
tongue firmly in its cheek with storylines where total babes throw
themselves all over unlikely male heroes.
Clift was also responsible for moving the Western European account for
Impulse out of Lintas in 1997. He moved it first to Ogilvy & Mather
then, earlier this year, he fired O&M for BBH. "For a period we
genuinely got the best people at Ogilvy working on it," he says. "But
they lost it because they weren't good at breaking out of their UK-bound
mentality on that brand. It's ironic, because O&M runs one of our most
successful global brands (Dove) and they have good account people and
good planning people who work globally on Dove."
Whatever shockwaves the moves of Lynx and Impulse sent through the
London advertising community, these were marginal troubled brands in
Lever Faberge's global portfolio. The point is that Clift was given a
few toys to play with as he proved his worth. He emerged the playground
star with explicit responsibility for all agency alignment issues.
He is honest about Unilever's shortcomings and says that until two years
ago, when the company tidied up its business, "there was a pre-eminence
of pragmatism over the longer-term value of the brand", which may have
impeded agencies' freedom to do what they do best. "In the past we used
agencies like policemen: every country was autonomous so we needed our
agencies to impose order. Now we have innovation centres and global
brand directors so we're not asking agencies to do our dirty work."
Which leads to an obvious question: with the dramatic reduction in the
number of brands, and with Lowe still holding half of the 22 global
brands, does Clift really need five aligned agencies - Lowe, J. Walter
Thompson, McCann-Erickson, O&M and BBH?
"We align agencies depending on the excellence of their strategic and
creative work, not because of their membership of any 'club'. I don't
have a view on the ideal number. We have 20 global core brands in my
division - we would have 20 agencies, competing interests allowing, if
we needed that to get outstanding work. At the moment our five agencies
address the needs of our key brands."
In fact, the criteria for being a Unilever club agency have changed
beyond all recognition. Once it was necessary to have an office where
Unilever planted its flag. Lintas - the name is a corruption of Lever
International Advertising Services - was once part of Unilever. Now the
criteria are "fantastic work and a good strategic partnership".
But with BBH, HHCL & Partners and Mother nipping at the heels of the big
four, you might ask whether the concept of a club agency is a passport
to excellence or mediocrity. With Bertolli the first global brand to be
awarded to BBH, is this a precedent for the future?
"I never use the term 'club' agency, and I will go anywhere to get the
best advertising for our brands," Clift says. "An agency - like a
football team - is only as good as its next game. While having
confidence to make mistakes, it should not feel complacent, or that it
has our business by right, any more than we the client have the right to
a consumer's preference. We don't exactly dangle knives over our aligned
agencies, but they know that to a certain extent they have to rewin our
business with every brief - and I think they find this stimulating and
Challenging would be a kind word for Unilever's recent moves on
remunerating its agencies as it paves the way for a switch from
commission to fees and increases the emphasis on rewarding media
agencies for their input. "It means our ad agencies have to be more
accountable and be better, but rightly so," Alan Rutherford, Unilever's
head of worldwide media, says.
The moves, presented earlier this year in a "take it or leave it"
manner, have led some agency chiefs to question whether Unilever has any
respect for its agencies at all. "Nobody who's ever spoken to me about
our best agency partners would question that I have the deepest respect
for them," Clift counters.
It's true - for just as he was honest about Lintas' shortcomings a few
years ago, he offers unprompted praise for the Lowe of today: "They have
taken seriously our needs to communicate globally and are now doing
stuff which was previously thought impossible - getting work from
anywhere and presenting it to clients knowing that whether we spend the
media money in Japan or Paraguay doesn't matter. We've run ads that
Adrian Holmes (Lowe's chief creative officer) has written in Brazil,
China, Indonesia and South Africa, and that's a fantastic
But he says agencies must change, just as Unilever has changed its
country-chairman-is-king mentality: "Agencies are not good at
expatriating people, they are not even good at recruiting people who can
work in other markets. Outside the UK planning is a primitive discipline
and yet London agencies are unable to export first-rate planning."
There are other irritations: "We still hear mad things like 'we couldn't
do that, it would upset the chairman of the agency'. But we've gone
through traumatic change in the face of open rebellion so our agencies
have to change too."
"It astonishes me that until recently one of our agencies was unable to
use resources of one Latin American country in another because they
didn't have any kind of shared P&L," he says.
Much of the fascination of the agency world lies in its relentless march
toward globalisation. What's Clift's view on all that? "I can't keep
up!" he says. "It means that we can't be as churlish as we once were
about rubbing shoulders with businesses that are similar to ours. The
BBH thing (Leo Burnett owns 49 per cent of BBH, Leo Burnett is a Procter
& Gamble agency) is always waved at me by (he goes off the record to
name a holding company head) but it's irrelevant."
The nub of Simon Clift is that the Lintas executives who wrote him off
as a passing fad at one of Unilever's smaller divisions have been proved
wrong several times over. As an advocate and an enabler of change in the
new Unilever, he's as rational, sharp and determined as they come. If he
wanted, he could have some of the world's biggest advertising networks
in a headlock. However, as clients go, it's hard to think of a more
reasonable, receptive and intelligent specimen. Clift is one of the best
of the good clients and living proof that such people get the
advertising they deserve.
Lives: In a rented house in Lisbon, also has houses which he's
renovating in London and Brazil.
Family: A Brazilian son, Cleberson, 19, who couldn't read when he
fostered him: "I never expected to have any parental responsibilities,
and they came rather suddenly, four years ago." Henry, a dog, currently
dodging quarantine in Lisbon.
Relaxing: "I'm interested in music - particularly of the Baroque period
- and the arts in general. I'm a season ticket holder at Chelsea."
Recent reading: Latest book was Rimbaud by Graham Robb. A biography of
the unwashed French poet who reached the top of his trade in his teens,
then gave it all up to go gun running in Africa. "The career advice is
more useful than the hygiene tips." Before that The Amazing Adventures
of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.
Favourite TV: "Football and David Attenborough-type rubbish."
Dream job: "Mayor of Paraty, a small perfectly preserved 18th century
town on the Brazilian coast in the state of Rio de Janeiro."