CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/UNILEVER REVIEW - Advertising next target in Unilever efficiency drive. Five networks do battle for Unilever's 'master brands'. Jeremy White investigates

Watch out everyone, Niall Fitzgerald has got his feather duster out and he's not afraid to use it. Unilever's chief has been busy with a bit of corporate cleaning.

Watch out everyone, Niall Fitzgerald has got his feather duster out and he's not afraid to use it. Unilever's chief has been busy with a bit of corporate cleaning.

It's no small thing when the world's largest advertiser decides that, after streamlining its product portfolio, it's time to take a hard look at its advertising and media. Scary stuff.

Last week, Unilever awarded MindShare its entire US media work - worth dollars 700 million. MindShare pitched against two other incumbents, Initiative Media Worldwide and Optimum Media Direction, in a review that followed quickly from the company's simplification of its management structure. Advertising seems to be next on the list, and with a global realignment of its Van den Bergh and Bestfoods roster called for, it looks like the ad agencies may get the same treatment as their media cousins (Campaign, last week).

The pounds 200 million at stake in the advertising realignment isn't quite the dollars 700 million tossed around in the US media pitch, but it is still an enormous review. What makes last week's news even more dramatic is the all-or-nothing stakes. Those involved stand to lose big - or win bigger.

Sources say that this review is taking place because Unilever wants to allocate one agency to its entire sauces task and another to dressings.

Unilever's president of marketing for foods, Anthony Simon, will drive the selection himself, with the vice-president of brand communication, Michael Brockbank, managing the details of the process.

Lowe Lintas, Ogilvy & Mather, J. Walter Thompson, DDB and BBDO have been asked to line up for inspection. The agencies will be asked to offer assessments of previous work and demonstrate their capability to take on additional accounts. But they will also have to demonstrate new ideas for future brand communication strategies.

Lowe, O&M and JWT are already established on the Unilever roster. DDB and BBDO are the challengers, brought into the running by their connection with Bestfoods, the Knorr and Hellmann's parent that was folded into Unilever earlier this year.

Unilever plans to reposition the majority of Bestfoods and its own Van den Bergh under two master brands. This move is very much in line with the strategy installed by Fitzgerald last year when the Unilever chairman declared that the corporation's energy and resources were being dissipated on too many brands, making the business slower and less competitive. As a result, around 75 per cent of those 1,600 brands face being axed or, at the very least, left without marketing support.

It's the newcomers, via the Bestfoods acquisition, that stand to take on the new master brand status. 'Knorr is now Unilever's biggest brand in the category and is already a power brand,' Brockbank says. 'There is also a need for a power brand in dressings - for which Hellmann's is the leading candidate.'

This brand migration will mean several products being rebranded, with Chicken Tonight standing to become Knorr Chicken Tonight, for example.

However, a few so-called 'jewel' brands that do well regionally, such as Marmite, will be left as they are.

Brockbank gives the official line: 'Following Unilever's brand-focus exercise and the addition of Knorr/Hellmann's brands to the portfolio, the savoury and dressings category teams are reviewing the agency alignment on their priority brands to channel the experience and resources of these agencies more effectively. Brands will be reassigned to the main agency partners on the basis of global or regional alignments. Some of our brands will no longer have the support they previously had - some will be migrated into other brands. We're trying to allocate resources to agencies more logically.'

The five are possibly just the first wave of agencies to be scrutinised.

'There are many more agencies on the roster and it may well be that we will also review their position,' Brockbank says.

Conflict of interest seems set to prove an inevitable and major problem for some of the agencies involved. Brockbank says that this is not a major concern for Unilever and that it invariably adds a healthy element of competition to the picture. However, JWT's commitment to Kraft means that it will not be pitching for the global dressings task and could face further conflicts in some markets. BBDO is set to encounter the same hurdle with its client Campbells Soup.

So do these realignments signal major reorganisations elsewhere within Unilever? Word is that the Bestfoods/Van den Bergh shake-up is an exception.

Unilever is only looking at this particular roster because it has taken on new brands with new agencies attached. Suddenly, it's working with people it doesn't know and, understandably, it doesn't like it very much.

'The reason we have to go through a review process is because not all the people involved know all the agencies,' Brockbank says. 'Normally, if we are going through this process we know the agencies because they all work for us. So we don't have to re-review our own work in order to decide who's going to get the business.

In this case, half the team knows half the agencies and the other half knows the others. It's very sensible for all of us to look at the agencies again.

'They key objective in this is to improve the effectiveness of our brand communication.' So not to increase sales then? 'Oh, yes, it is. But I'd rather say it is to stimulate the growth of the brands. It's not about cutting down the number of agencies and saving costs - it's about organising the resources and the learning in the agencies most efficiently.'

But how can BBDO and DDB compete with the agencies that have already established a relationship with the company? 'Because they are currently handling brands that are new to Unilever,' Brockbank says. 'They are a repository of knowledge about the Knorr and Hellmann's brands - which Unilever is still learning about.' So would you say they are in a strong position then? 'Yes.'

Regardless of whether it is about organising resources or cutting the dead wood from the agency roster, the move still gives BBDO and DDB, the new kids, an irresistible chance to get a place on the Unilever roster.

Nice work - if they can get it. But with pounds 200 million of billings at stake, JWT, O&M and Lowe will be doing everything they can to make sure they don't.

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