How Keith Weed transformed Unilever into an organisation at the forefront of the industry

Unilever's outgoing chief marketing and communications officer has put sustainability at the agenda like no one before, but he is also an exceptional businessman.

How Keith Weed transformed Unilever

In order to make sense of what has happened in the past, I think we often exaggerate the importance of individuals in the history of both companies and nations. But with the departure of Paul Polman and Keith Weed, I do think we have come to the end of an era for Unilever.

The Unilever Weed joined in 1983 was a very different beast from what we see today. It was a global trading conglomerate of largely independent companies that sold products as diverse as Nairn Flooring, JCB and Guinness.

Behind the grand façade that still gazes over Blackfriars Bridge, there was a warren of small private offices and Unilever made no effort to project itself to consumers. Indeed, the posh boys looking after Persil at Lever Brothers, or Sunsilk at Elida Gibbs, would have been slightly horrified at the idea of consumers associating them also with Marmite and Wall’s sausages.  

It did have a central personnel function that recruited a largely male officer class each year into its graduate management scheme – mostly from Oxbridge and the Russell Group. Around this time, Dave Lewis, now chief executive of Tesco, was recruited and I am told that he was seen by some of his contemporaries as a bit of a daring experiment, because he came from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology and had studied (heaven forfend) business.

Thirty-five years on and Unilever is now a global consumer goods business that has opened itself up to the world. Its Blackfriars offices behind that carefully preserved historic façade now look more like Terminal 5 at Heathrow. All its brands, from Marmite to Domestos, display the Unilever logo and emotionally it has opened itself up to the most testing type of public scrutiny through its public commitment to the tough goals of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan.

This is all very well, but has it worked financially? My City spy tells me that £100 invested in Unilever 10 years ago is now worth nearly £400, and in growth and profit Unilever has consistently outpaced its nearest global rivals.

Many individuals have brought about this change, and Unilever always recruited and nurtured talent, but Weed has played a significant role in changing and energising Unilever in three ways. He has helped carry through the difficult transition from local fiefdoms to globally controlled marketing; he has played a critical role in developing Unilever’s commitment to sustainability; and he has enhanced Unilever’s marketing capability to the point where even City cynics accept that digitally Unilever has an edge over its competitors.

Not surprisingly, when you ask contemporaries at Unilever about him, there is one consistent theme – his amazing work rate. Simon Clift, who preceded him as chief marketing officer, says Weed has not only "unbelievable, unbounded energy and irrepressible self-confidence, but also a vision of what he wants to achieve".

Clift is particularly complimentary about Weed’s time between 2005 and 2010, when he was global boss of Unilever’s laundry and homecare. Not only was it "the ugly sister" of Unilever Personal Care because the business was in decline and fighting really tough competition from Procter & Gamble, but Weed faced much opposition to new global campaigns such as "Dirt is good" because those brands were also a really important part of the local companies' traditional portfolio.

But this is where Weed was at his most formidable. "Keith has always had a deadly weapon in his armoury, which he used to supreme effect – irrepressible enthusiasm," Aidan Lisser, a former colleague now at Investec, says. He prevailed partly by wearing down the opposition and partly by getting so many people involved in his crusade.

Weed has been brilliant at getting his followers to see a higher purpose than merely selling more boxes. For example, in Vietnam, Omo – the equivalent of Persil –  campaigned successfully to change the law so that children were encouraged to go out and play during the day.

After five years in charge of laundry and homecare, it had been refocused on emerging markets and was growing faster than any other part of the business. Weed's marketing role for the past eight years has been a "staff" one as Unilever chief marketing officer, rather than a "line" general management one, and this is perhaps one reason why he was never talked of as a serious contender for taking the top job after Polman.

I regret that Weed will not be taking over at the top, but I am happy to point out to anyone interested in employing him that he has a track record of making money for Unilever, not just being a goody-two-shoes environmental wonk.  

City analysts are still decidedly lukewarm about sustainability. The Unilever Sustainable Living Plan had at its heart the belief that sales growth could be separated from what had always seemed inevitable in the past – more environmental damage.

My Unilever insiders tell me that the Sustainable Living Plan would never have seen the light of day under the previous chief executive, Patrick Cescau but, under Polman, Weed seized his opportunity to make sustainability a key company priority.

The combination of becoming chief marketing officer and being in charge of internal and external communications "gave me the levers of power" to make sustainability really happen, he told me. The old corporate social responsibility function, where sustainability had been shunted out of harm’s way and out of mind, was closed and sustainability moved to the centre of Unilever’s agenda.

On those tricky sustainability targets, they have gone from only 7% of agricultural supplies coming from sustainable sources to more than 60%, and Weed argues that this will be above 90% by 2020.

The City may be cool about all this, but potential graduate recruits really notice and Unilever is top of the list of desirable marketing companies to join and quite near the top among all potential employers. And in the long run, any company is only as good as the talent it recruits and nurtures.

An early feature of Weed's talk to the Marketing Society Leaders Programme was his stress on the importance of understanding and getting personally involved with social media, and he was an early visitor to Silicon Valley in the days when you could still meet Mark Zuckerberg there.

Weed’s original training as an engineer makes him a good man to get under the bonnet of some of the more arcane practices of the digital world. He talks knowledgeably about the way bogus bots attach themselves to genuine influencers in a way that seems more like Lord of the Rings than the simpler communications world of the 1980s, when keen young marketers’ only concern was how to apply the principles of the Unilever Plan for Good Advertising (it was pompous and terrible) to a beautifully shot television commercial.  

The industry will miss Weed’s Unilever convening power, but I understand that he plans to go on being president of the Advertising Association, with the specific remit of rebuilding trust in advertising. One thing we can confidently say about him is that he won’t be "going plural" because he did that years ago. Just reading the list of all his jobs outside Unilever is exhausting.

I was intrigued to discover that when Weed actually leaves in May 2019, he will be taking part in the Peking to Paris endurance rally in a vintage Pontiac partnered by a friend he met on his first day at Unilever: Richard Holmes, former chief marketing officer at Specsavers. It is rather a relief to find that Weed does have at least one faintly irresponsible pursuit – although he assures me that when they actually race, it is strictly off road. And, incidentally, there may not be many of them to follow when they cross the Gobi Desert.                  

Although Weed himself has not yet resorted to this cliché, I think he has at least one more big job in him. Sixty (which he has not yet reached) is the new 40 and I am happy to confirm to any prospective employer running a consumer-facing business currently lacking a sense of purpose that Weed could be just the leader you need to show you the promised land, gather up a band of followers and take you to it.

Hugh Burkitt was chief executive of The Marketing Society from 2003 to 2016.