When Alan Rutherford left Ogilvy & Mather five years ago to become Unilever's global media director, he promised a shake-up of Unilever's existing media processes and the creation of a common media policy and strategy.
This seemed timely - the fragmentation of audiences meant sticking to TV spot advertising, previously Unilever's advertising battleground, looked distinctly archaic. And among his first tasks was the introduction of a broader communications strategy away from traditional media.
"We introduced communication channel planning some four years ago, way ahead of the markets and we put it in globally at the outset. We've developed our own suite of tools and software proprietary to Unilever, our own consumer insight, modelling and econometrics teams," Rutherford says.
This has had a knock-on effect on the Unilever agency roster and Rutherford has kicked off reviews that led to consolidation between either Initiative Media or MindShare in virtually all of Unilever's worldwide markets.
MindShare has been a notable beneficiary of the review process - the agency won the US account and, according to Rutherford, has made some big inroads with Germany, Italy, China, all of central Asia, Arabia and north Africa.
"We consolidate with one agency in each country to ensure the benefits of scale, portfolio management and best talent," he says. "We do step outside the roster sometimes, but this strategy allows benefits of alignment but also competition. In effect, we have only two networks to manage and we aim to foster good relationships between them."
It works both ways: Initative Media's recent hiring of Young & Rubicam Europe's Isabel Son as the European communications planning director was partly to help bolster the network's planning strategy for Unilever.
Yet Rutherford isn't afraid of using non-roster agencies. In the UK, Michaelides & Bednash, and in South Africa, the planning hotshop Note Bene, have both benefited if he cannot find exactly what he wants at his global roster agencies. M&B was recently appointed to spearhead brand communication for Unilever's £1.4 billion Family Brands range across Europe.
"M&B offered a particular case - importantly, they will be working with our networks but taking a lead in this 'activation' area. They are particularly talented and I welcome them," he explains.
Rutherford has also pursued this policy in Japan, appointing Initiative and Hakuhodo for a joint planning venture.
"The strategy of taking the best planning talent is a no-brainer. Sometimes that exists at our network agencies and other times we and the networks actively have to find it," Rutherford says.
With Unilever's media strategy moving away from traditional media buying, Rutherford has brought in a new remuneration system for his agencies.
Largely fee-based, with a heavy incentive for outstanding performance, they give agencies the opportunity to pursue broader communication solutions, which the traditional media commission would not.
Away from the agency arena, Rutherford has instigated a wholesale change in Unilever's relationship with media owners by creating long-term alliances. Although he cannot claim to have pioneered cross-platform deals, he has certainly embraced them with enthusiasm.
"Media owners are our business partners. They represent not only a significant cost, but also a core part of business development. We represent a significant income to them," he says.
Last year, Unilever struck a pan-European 100 million euro-plus, five-year strategic partnership with JCDecaux and a cross-platform advertising marketing partnership with AOL Time Warner. And in the UK, he authorised a deal with the ITV companies.
The AOL Time Warner alliance saw the company develop programmes for Unilever's Snuggle and Dove brands, as well as creating a multibrand initiative for Hunger Free America using the Unilever Bestfoods' brands Ragu, Lipton and Hellmans.
Sales of Persil reportedly leapt 27 per cent following the appearance of the AOL Time Warner cartoon property The Powerpuff Girls on the labels on packets of Unilever's Persil washing powder, with the slogan "making grime a crime".
"An immense effort is made each year in the buying and selling arena. To me, it makes sense to have a longer-term understanding of trading and focus the energy on how business can be really developed. Media isn't a commodity - it isn't infinite in supply - and we have to work through the best way of obtaining and using an essential, expensive and somewhat scarce resource," Rutherford says.
Culturally, Rutherford has also changed the way that Unilever treats media - the company now devotes more than 150 of its staff purely to driving media performance and connecting brand communication.
FINDING THE FMCG LINK
Michaelides & Bednash was appointed to create a new way of connecting with consumers for Unilever's Family Brands range of yellow fats. Although Family Brands, known as Blue Brand in The Netherlands and Planta Fin in France, does not exist in the UK, Unilever is planning to launch more products from the range in Europe.
Initiative Media ran a pan-European campaign to recruit new consumers for Unilever's Lipton leaf tea and ice tea products. The agency connected Lipton with research showing that the target audience likes to 'chill out'. The media solution was a sponsorship of the Isle of MTV pan-Euro dance tour and the MTV Winterjam sports and music festival.