There was a time when advertisers made ads. In the case of
Unilever, those ads were generally pretty predictable: barely creative,
unimaginatively targeted (housewives) and cheap.
They worked, of course. They sold soap powder, shampoo, toilet
So what if it was hardly the stuff of a cracking creative portfolio, the
agency was paid oodles and Unilever was a loyal client with a nice fat
product list of household brand names. The media buyers got great
commission, soaked up all the airtime which the media owners couldn’t
sell to sexier brands, and bought it all at a whacking discount.
By working with the likes of Mother and Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and moving
away from a reliance on global roster agencies in search of fresh
creative talent, Unilever has already begun to draw a clear line under
its old advertising strategy.
And now the days of Unilever simply making ads are truly over. Last
month the company announced the launch of its own website, Wowgo,
targeting teenage girls. Later this month it launches the UK’s first
nationwide interactive TV ad for Chicken Tonight. And this week it has
bought a Hollywood movie library and swapped it for advertising airtime
on Channel 5. The news should leave no-one in doubt about the way of the
new advertising world order.
The Columbia deal works at several levels. Channel 5, being famously
restricted by a modest programming budget, potentially finds itself in
something of a ’Catch 22’ situation. It needs great programmes to
attract big audiences and hefty ad revenues. But without hefty ad
revenues, it’s not easy to make great programmes.
Unilever has stepped in, paid the money up front for a raft of
more-than-half-decent movies, including some real audience winners. It
helps Channel 5 shed its old ’home of crap TV’ image and secures
long-term airtime on this improving channel at decent ad rates. Very
smart. And while Unilever may be one of the biggest and first, there’s
no doubt that we’ll see more examples of advertisers and media owners
working together to fund content which the advertisers can
Of course, with websites, interactive TV sites, advertiser-funded
programmes and movie broadcast rights, advertisers such as Unilever are
already well on the way to becoming media owners themselves. For
agencies, this proves at best something of a challenge, at worst a
As the dialogue between a media owner and an advertiser moves beyond
stand-off airtime negotiations and the supply of creative treatments
towards a long-term, mutually beneficial commercial relationship, the
agency’s role begins to look increasingly dwarfed. Unless, of course,
it’s the agency that’s making the movies, as Saatchi & Saatchi is for
Campaign’s editor, Caroline Marshall, is on maternity leave.