Close-Up: Newsmaker - Why Unilever's media enforcer is going digital

Is Publicis taking a risk entrusting Alan Rutherford with the task of leading Digitas' global expansion?

When people think of Unilever, where Alan Rutherford was the worldwide media director for just over nine years, they still tend to think of big TV budgets - pile-it-high airtime in that most uninspiring of arenas, the daytime schedule.

And there's an enduring perception that the FMCG giants will be the last to find ways to prosper in an online advertising world that seems inimical to brand advertising and the general mindset of packaged goods advertisers.

So, what on Earth does Rutherford, who's just jumped ship to join Digitas Global as its new chief executive, know about digital? Well, probably more than you'd think. When he left Network Europe (Ogilvy & Mather's media division in pre-MindShare days) to join Unilever in April 1998, digital was very much a part of his job spec - because even in that dim and distant past (the earliest days of Web 1.0, really), the more excitable of commentators were forecasting that the digital revolution was going to take weeks rather than months.

And it's even more strange to recall that, back then, FMCG companies were expected to be pace-setters - with Unilever's closest rival, Procter & Gamble, foremost among those espousing an evolve or die mantra.

Let's not forget that Unilever was the first advertiser to dabble in interactive television advertising in the UK. Nor overlook the deal in 2002, seen as groundbreaking at the time, which saw Unilever enter into a global advertising partnership with AOL Time Warner.

So, in short, Rutherford has already been once around the block where digital is concerned. Ally that to the unique perspective gained as a global media client, and you can see why Publicis bosses are so excited about his capture.

Despite the talk of his digital credentials, though, perhaps his largest legacy at Unilever was the controversial review in 2004 of its media agency business in Western Europe. The long and confusing process had many scratching their heads, and at least two local markets initially refusing to take part, as the EUR1 billion account moved from Initiative to MindShare in a bid to deliver EUR40 million in cost savings.

The Digitas agency Publicis bought for $1.3 billion last year has traditionally been focused on the US market - now Rutherford has been handed the task of expanding it into a truly global agency network. Based in London, he'll report to David Kenny, the Digitas chairman.

There have been rumours circulating for at least the past couple of years that Rutherford was looking to move on from Unilever - and it was assumed he was keen to find a berth as the global or regional boss of one of the major media networks, a Group M, say, or an Initiative. So what was it that prompted him to choose Digitas?

"It's true, I've had approaches in the past, but nothing that's really excited me; nothing I thought was going to be ground-breaking," he reveals. "At Unilever, I loved being able to introduce a new way of thinking about media - communications channel planning. Now, everyone is doing it - 360-degree or media neutral planning, call it what you will - but I loved putting that in place. Now the real battleground for brands is digital, and this gives me another opportunity to be involved at the leading edge."

And, of course, he emphasises his track record in digital while at Unilever. But, equally important, he says, is the whole brand communications ethos that has been evolving there over the past decade.

"Unilever's whole philosophy begins and ends with the consumer, and the consumer is moving ever more quickly into the digital world. Just look at the new ways in which television is being consumed and the role of broadband. Publicis and Digitas are uniquely well-placed to take advantage of that," he says.

It is rumoured that Japan and mainland China are high priorities for Rutherford as he begins the building process; and interestingly, he maintains that the Digitas masterplan involves the first real network build project in advertising for 30 or maybe 40 years - indicative of how the operation sees itself as a mainstream full-service player, as opposed to a specialist, niche operation. "If you look at the digital agencies, there isn't one with a global offering, and isn't even one that operates at a regional level," Rutherford maintains.

But is there any evidence that clients, even the most multinational, actually want to use a digital agency global network? Surely the bigger projects can be handled from a few hubs of excellence?

The point, Rutherford responds, is that clients have never really had a global network option - because no-one's ever offered it to them. "There is every evidence that global clients want leading-edge work. A global network will be able to deliver the best talent and the best technologies in the areas they want. This agency is absolutely committed to delivering that," he says.

A big claim. But interestingly, some rival agencies in the digital space are surprisingly complimentary about Digitas. As one puts it: "It claims to be the model for the agency of the future - and to be honest, it might be on to something. I think we can all learn from the way that Digitas has decided to focus on a small number of key clients and build sets of clever data systems and analytics in partnership with them. It gives it more of a consultancy role. It will reckon to build powerfully on that."

And Robert Horler, the managing director of Diffiniti, says that it's a smart move to bring in experienced talent from outside the digital world. He argues that it's increasingly important to get the right blend between young turks and grey hairs. "There are lots of people around who've been in digital for a while. They can benefit from the experience of people who are well-connected and have track records in running proper grown-up businesses," he says.

Graham Bednash says that Rutherford's appointment of his agency, Michaelides & Bednash, in July 2003, shows his commitment to innovation in the communications planning field: "For my money, he's a brilliant operator. He is very good at putting teams of people together, and he has a way of getting the best out of them."

But Rutherford also has his critics, not just because of his role in Unilever's controversial media centralisation. Some of those who have worked with him question the depth of his talent and wonder how he will fare when stripped of the power of working for one of the world's biggest advertisers.

Rutherford doesn't start in his new job until the autumn - and in the meantime, he'll continue as usual at Unilever. That's the measure of a class act - it's not hard to think of other multinationals who'd have turfed him out on the street within minutes of his resignation. There's something old-fashioned about the way Unilever looks after its senior employees and refuses to bear grudges.

But, of course, this is hardly a competitive appointment. For his part, Rutherford acknowledges his debt to the company - and it will be interesting for all concerned to monitor speculation over the coming weeks as to his possible successor. It is, after all, one of the biggest jobs in world media.

Originally from Essex, he admits he likes being based in London, but confesses that, even after all these years spending half of his life on planes, he still doesn't find travelling a chore. Which is just as well, because in setting up a network, from scratch in some territories, he's actually going to be doing more than he's ever done before.

"It's funny - the world still seems to be getting smaller," he says. "The travel isn't a problem if you have a passion for what you're doing."