Not so long ago, creatives hid under their desks and tried to make themselves invisible when a brief from a Unilever brand was doing the rounds. The perception was that Unilever, like many blue-chip FMCG companies, stood for safe, stodgy thinking.
Indeed, you could have been thinking that the high point of creative inspiration at Unilever was Ian Wright strutting his stuff for Chicken Tonight. And you'd be right, paradoxically enough.
Because the Wright commercial was, of course, the first interactive television commercial to run in the UK - the first to offer viewers watching the ad on Sky Digital the choice of using the interactive icon and clicking through to a microsite on the Open interactive system.
And this wasn't an isolated incident. Unilever had been experimenting with the Open interactive platform since it launched.
So, perhaps, it was no surprise last week when Unilever announced that it was to add yet another pioneering initiative to a string of firsts, becoming the first interactive advertiser on ITV - the digital version of ITV, that is, broadcast via ONdigital. Two brands - Colman's and Olivio spread - will run spots next month. They will offer click-through to Creative Kitchen, the interactive portal for all of the company's food brands.
Those who are still sceptical about all of this would do well to look at what's going on not just at Creative Kitchen but also the Persil destinations in the Open domain. They might be surprised at the rich-media work playing on the Unilever microsites. Indeed, Creative Kitchen is designed to be portable across all digital platforms as they emerge.
So should we be surprised that Unilever has revealed itself as one of the most innovative and adventurous clients in the country?
Absolutely not, Marcus Vinton, the creative director at Ogilvy & Mather, says. He was instrumental in the development of Creative Kitchen - from the start, he reveals, the company and its various marketing divisions decided that this was going to be an important new medium.
Vinton comments: 'The calibre of people they have is exceptional and they're the sort of people who want to work in the interactive space. They want to be associated with innovative and leading-edge work. They've always wanted to position themselves so that they are prepared for whatever might happen but the important thing is that they have approached this from a TV point of view rather than a web-centric point of view. They've always approached it from a content angle.'
Unilever's interactive campaigns have been very effective - on the Chicken Tonight work, for instance, response rates were 70 per cent higher than DRTV response rates. That makes the company more confident in deciding to accelerate investment in this area.
The rich-media content for Persil's Non Bio and Revive initiatives was developed by Modem Media. For Non Bio, it introduced the concept of a live gameshow that involves the viewer. With Revive, it developed a mini-drama involving Cindy who doesn't have anything to wear to the ball and a fairy Godmother who saves the day - although the viewer has to help too. In both cases the pay-off goes beyond samples. In Non Bio there are days at a health spa and with Revive it's a tailor-made outfit.
Modem Media's account director on the Unilever business, Simon Jefferson, says: 'In some ways you'd think interactive TV would make most sense for car manufacturers where you can request the brochure or look at specifications. Or for financial advertisers where you can sign up there and then. With FMCG you have to work harder. Unilever, it has to be said, has always seen this as an important new channel. We wanted to engage the consumer and engage them with the brand. With FMCG brands, the consumer doesn't necessarily want to know about product specifications - they want to be entertained.'
Is Unilever likely to stay at the forefront of this sector? 'Definitely,' says David Cuff, who as the broadcast director of Initiative Media was heavily involved in developing the new-media strategy for Unilever. 'They've always been innovative. Look at their track record in things such as advertiser-supported programming, barter and sponsorship. They are very much aware that the TV market is changing rapidly. They are both bold and thorough which is a good combination.'
Vinton is convinced about that too: 'In the future I think we'll see more programmercials - larger format advertiser-funded programming. I don't think we're seeing the death of the 30-second commercial but rather the birth of the 30-minute commercial. The secret is to make it simple and make sure that the navigation is intriguing and that it takes you into rich content. People want to watch TV, they don't want to read it.'