Unilever holding-company plans 'almost outsourcing role of marketing director'

Focus could be put on efficiency rather than effectiveness, agencies argue.

Persil: MullenLowe could be among agencies affected by Unilever’s planned changes
Persil: MullenLowe could be among agencies affected by Unilever’s planned changes

Unilever’s move to ditch relationships with individual agencies in favour of holding-company-wide arrangements could ease its access to diverse international talent but is no silver bullet for marketing problems, agency leaders have said.

The shift, discussed by Unilever chief executive Alan Jope in Cannes, may have been motivated by "quick access, less admin [and] a wider talent pool", Julian Douglas, vice-chairman of VCCP, suggested. WPP this month revealed it was selling its 24.85% stake in VCCP’s parent company Chime to private-equity firm Providence Equity for £54.4m.

It is an approach that depends heavily on the holding company’s leadership, he added, since it means "almost outsourcing the role of the marketing director" to them.

The focus on the big holding companies also risked cutting off ways of thinking that "by definition… sit outside of that", Douglas said. "If you’re looking for something truly disruptive, to really challenge your business model, something like this isn’t the answer," he added.

Though a "one arse to kick" model made sense both for big advertisers and holding companies, such set-ups are usually talked about in a way that puts the focus on "efficiency, rather than effectiveness", according to Neil Christie, chief executive of Wieden & Kennedy London.

One leader at a London agency within one of the big four holding companies pointed to a recent report by Peter Field that found creatively awarded campaigns were less effective than ever – in part because of a decline in long-term strategy. The leader argued there was a risk Unilever’s approach could exacerbate this.

But Interpublic chief executive Michael Roth told Campaign that clients should not have to worry about "accounting problems" such as how the income from agency brands is allocated.

Helen Bell, chief operating officer for Unilever at Interpublic’s MullenLowe Group, suggested that the new approach would help Unilever deliver a "connected creativity".

"If you’re going to have a truly purposeful brand, everything it does needs to come through in all arenas of communications – both disciplines and markets," she said.

WPP chief executive Mark Read, meanwhile, said it was "a great opportunity for WPP to deepen and grow [its] relationship" with Unilever

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