THE CLIENT CATALYSTS: SIMON CLIFT - Belief in planning and a maverick approach have given Clift a reputation as Unilever's dream client

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

to us!"

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

underestimated him."

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.

Car: None.

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."

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