The man with the £5bn budget

As he takes over as Unilever's marketing chief, Keith Weed tells John Tylee why he's a fan of digital, crowdsourcing and not exploiting his advertising agencies.

Shortly after taking command of the world's second-largest ad budget, Keith Weed, Unilever's marketing chief, packed a group of around 20 of his product category heads aboard a bus and headed for Seattle and Silicon Valley.

This was no sightseeing tour but a fact-finding mission with an intense schedule of meetings and dinners involving the leaders of just about every internet-related company - from Google and Microsoft to Apple and Twitter, as well as many of the lesserknown names - in and around the most hi-tech region on earth.

With Unilever's annual adspend edging towards £5 billion, you can bet everybody - even the Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang - was at home when Weed's people came knocking.

Yet Weed was equally eager to meet them. So much so that, at some of the get-togethers, he introduced "speed dating" to generate as much interaction as possible between his people and the digerati.

There were several reasons why he wanted his senior managers to visit the world's hi-tech hub at the earliest opportunity. One was to do with his newly created job title - chief marketing and communications officer.

The fact that communication wasn't within the remit of his predecessor, Simon Clift, and that Weed sits alongside Unilever's worldwide chief executive, Paul Polman, on the executive board, is seen as indicating a growing recognition by the group that the lines between traditional advertising and interaction in all its forms are growing ever more blurred.

Weed says his title not only means that marketing now sits at Unilever's top table but acknowledges the increasing need for the marketing and communication functions to be joined. Having the Unilever brand sitting within the communication function while the company logo - "the most used symbol on any packaging anywhere in the world" - was marketing's responsibility wasn't the most integrated way of doing things, he admits.

Weed's other main reason for the road trip was to do with seizing the moment and taking advantage of the transformational period in the immediate aftermath of him taking over from Clift in March. "When a new leader arrives, there's a period of flux," he explains. "If you grab the moment, you can set new aims and expectations. If you don't do that, the flux just resets itself to what it was before."

High on the agenda for Weed, as he stepped up from his role as Unilever's executive vice-president global home care, oral care and water to head the company's 5,000-strong marketing force, is the need to extend its digital presence. The company, whose stable of well-known brands - 400 of them spanning 14 categories - ranges from Persil, Dove and Pond's to Flora, Hellmann's and Ben & Jerry's, doubled its digital investment in 2009 over the previous year and plans to double it again in 2010.

"The digital revolution means you can no longer compartmentalise," Weed says. "No matter where you speak, you're speaking to everybody so your voice has to be a consistent one."

Meanwhile, he adds, the need for Unilever to balance business growth with the need to reduce its carbon footprint and enhance its commitment to sustainability is forcing the company to think quite differently in the way it does business.

"Consumer demand-led growth is doing the job of marketing," Weed points out. "That means we've got to pull harder on a lot of levers - and, maybe, the digital lever hardest of all."

Why? "Because there's a real revolution going on. We've never seen such change before. It's being driven by globalisation and digitisation, and the two are feeding off each other. It's my job to ensure that we remain at the leading edge. That's why I'm making steps to address this - and that's why we went to Silicon Valley."

In short, Weed wants to know what's possible in order that his own marketers can be skilled up to meet the challenges: "For example, there are four billion mobile phones in the world. Are they the future for companies like us? I don't know for sure. What I do know is that they have nothing to do with the kind of advertising we've all known and loved, that they offer a whole new kind of interactive experience and that they hold out the possibility of being able to engage with consumers in profound new ways."

He reckons the trip wasn't just timely for Unilever: "The companies we saw are getting to a stage in their business when they need to engage with advertisers if they want to expand internationally - and we're the secondlargest in the world. In Brazil, our Omo detergent brand is more famous than Microsoft."

Cynics might argue that Weed and his people had to talk directly to the hi-tech experts on the West Coast because they couldn't be sure their agencies were sufficiently up to speed. Before his departure, Clift had virtually said as much, claiming that traditional agencies were struggling to adapt to the digital world.

Weed, who recently challenged his agencies to show him the kind of digital work they were doing around the world for other clients and which might work also for Unilever, talks about "a huge spectrum of capability" among agencies. "I'm confident our agencies will be able to deliver," he answers. "But I'm not yet confident all of them can do it everywhere all of the time."

Nevertheless, he is buoyed by his arrival in the top marketing job almost coinciding with Unilever being named Advertiser of the Year at this month's Cannes Festival. He isn't a client who frowns on creative awards. He believes they provide Unilever with a platform from which to climb to a higher creative level because they motivate an agency roster that includes Ogilvy & Mather, JWT and Bartle Bogle Hegarty to do even better work.

And he dismisses suggestions that Unilever's creativity has gone off the boil because of the company's tendency to research every new campaign to within an inch of its life. "I don't think our creative standards have ever been better although I've heard some comments about too much research as I've been around our agencies," Weed confesses. "However, I've never seen a good piece of creative that didn't sail through research."

But he's conscious of the dangers of research exerting undue influence. "Our marketers are paid to make the decisions," he argues. "The whole idea of research is that it should help them make a good judgment call. There's a huge correlation between marketing success and good quality research."

Even more contentious is the issue of crowdsourcing. Unilever tested the water last year by adopting the idea for Peperami and is now looking to extend it to 13 other brands in collaboration with MOFILM, a community of aspiring film-makers.

The idea throws up serious questions, among them how it might impact on existing agency relationships and whether such arrangements jeopardise long-term marketing strategies.

Weed insists crowdsourcing will not be used to promote major Unilever brands and is unlikely to be used as the basis for a TV campaign "although you can never say never". That said, crowdsourcing appeals because of what he says is people's huge appetite to get into co-creation and the opportunities it provides to engage with Unilever's market as never before.

But Weed is adamant there'll be no headlong rush to embrace it. "We need to pursue it with great care," he warns. "I value our long-term agency relationships which I believe lead to the most innovative advertising.

"Nevertheless, it's right that I should explore it. Remember that the most expensive part of any campaign is the media. The difference between the cost of a crowdsourced film and a very expensive agency-produced film is insignificant by comparison."

At the same time, Unilever is keeping an eye on initiatives by its Procter & Gamble and Reckitt Benckiser rivals to pre-select the production houses their agencies would be expected to use. Unilever has already adopted the idea in some markets although Weed says the company has preferred to work with its agencies to draw up a "best in class" list of production companies.

"I'm following what's been happening because I've no interest in working with anyone who isn't at the top of their game," he adds. "If there are opportunities to get more creativity and cost-efficiencies then I'm very interested. I want the best of both worlds."

Achieving such economies of scale adds extra focus on striking the right balance between centralised and devolved marketing in a leviathan like Unilever. As Weed points out: "Two billion people use our products each day - but each of those purchases is made in a particular country by a particular individual."

Weed cites the need to "leverage our scale as far as developing a local brand positioning is concerned" as the key to getting the balance right. Strategists for each category are spread across the world.

He believes also that an emergent young world works in Unilever's favour. "There are more similarities between the youth in Milan and Bangalore than there ever was between the mums and dads in the same country," he declares.

As a result, he believes there's much more scope for the cross-fertilisation of ideas and campaigns. He names the work for the Axe deodorant range as a textbook example. The brand's "chocolate man" ad is a perfect illustration of the economies of scale that can be achieved when a united mass global audience can be targeted, he says.

Moreover, Weed claims work for such brands is often easily exportable. None more so than the current activity for Axe in India where, as in countries the world over, mobile phones have replaced wristwatches for most young people. The result is the Axe wake-up call when teenage and twentysomething men get ... erm ... roused each morning by a very friendly female voice on the other end of the line.

"It's an idea that could work in any country - and it's one we plan to adapt for other markets," Weed promises. "Axe was launched into the UK as Lynx in 1983," he says. "I challenge you to find another youth brand that's as old and remains relevant."

Issues such as crowdsourcing and the relentless search for economies of scale put future relationships between heavyweights such as Unilever and their agencies under scrutiny. Last month, ISBA turned the spotlight back on the subject with a report claiming record levels of client dissatisfaction over costs and transparency.

Weed suggests this is simply reflective of the state of flux that surrounds agency and client relationships: "Sometimes agencies are perceived as having more than their fair share of the cake. At other times, it's the clients.

"I think this is a natural and healthy tug-of-war that helps make both businesses more efficient. But there's no point in clients exploiting agencies to such an extent that their financial models are unsustainable. If they do that, the quality of the people on their business will decline."

There's no such flexibility from Weed on account conflict, however. He insists Unilever won't back down from its hardline stance despite predictions that the consolidation of global marcoms will force clients to take a more relaxed approach. Within agency holding companies, he'll tolerate solid "Chinese walls" but nothing that would allow expertise and ideas to be shared.

For the time being, though, Weed's priority is cutting through the ad clutter and finding new ways to bypass the filters people put up to deflect the thousands of commercial messages bombarding them each day. "Is disruption dead and is it all about engagement?" he asks. His West Coast visit has reinforced his belief that it's about both.

Age: 49
Lives: Surrey and North Norfolk
Family: Wife, three children and a dog
Cars: Morris Minor and Porsche 911 4S, both convertibles in the hope of
Favourite TV programme: Have I Got News For You
Favourite ad: Sony Bravia launch commercial
Most admired agency: I love all Unilever's agencies equally!
Last book read: EM Forster's A Passage To India - for the second time
Relaxation: Cooking, entertaining, painting and running
Most treasured possession? Wristwatch given to my father on his 21st
Describe yourself in three words: Determined, energetic,
One to watch: iPad - I'm addicted
Greatest extravagance? A boat I sail two or three times a year
Dream job: Chef or artist
Motto: Life's not a rehearsal - live it!