Yahoo! Big Idea Chair: Clift contemplates

Unilever's marketing chief Simon Clift sits in Yahoo!'s Big Idea Chair to argue that too many ad agency groups are overlooking planning.

On beginnings

Undistinguished arts degree at one of the more distinguished universities. Landed in Unilever without having the slightest clue what marketing was. Actually, I thought I had ticked the "Personnel" box on the application. Phew. That was a close shave. I had always worked in personal products until this job; in London, Lisbon, Vienna, Mexico City and Sao Paulo.

On planning in ad agencies

I think it would be an excellent idea. In my experience, there is such a linear connection between the strength of an agency's planning and the overall quality of its output that I find it astonishing and frustrating that the big agency groups have been so pusillanimous at embedding planning outside the Anglo-Saxon markets.

On Unilever's strengths and shortcomings as a client

In terms of output, we are inconsistent. With our heritage of 150 autonomous local companies across the world, bound together with few central processes, Unilever has been variable as a client. At our worst, we were bureaucratic, with plenty of people who could say no to work and few who could say yes - once described, probably by Uncle Jeremy, as "Unilever's abominable no-men". In the UK, campaigns such as Lynx, Sure, Dove, Pot Noodle and Peperami have ensured we have a decent creative reputation, but this had not always been the case everywhere. However, with our recent reorganisation, advertising-literate marketers are now hard-line accountable at a senior level for our creative output worldwide, so we are seeing an improvement in all countries towards the level of our best. In the US, for example, it was only really with the launch of Axe (aka Lynx) a couple of years ago that we raised this aspect of our game, and Effie and Cannes recognition followed.

On Lynx

I feel a bit like an actor who is remembered only for one early role. I haven't been near a Lynx ad for the best part of a decade. My job is to make space for the team and to give them air cover so the bureaucratic heavy hand of animatic pretesting is restrained. Although I'm proud of my modest role in the Axe work, there is stuff I am more interested in. The Omo campaign for Paraguay, for example, featuring the local hero Roque Santa Cruz, the Bayern Munich striker, and his equally decorative mother. It became the favourite ad of all time there - though I admit they probably don't get out much (but I bet that's the first ever plug for Paraguayan advertising in Campaign ...).

On making tough decisions

If you are referring to firing agencies, then it depends on the circumstances. If it is part of a global alignment, or tidying up, then it's disagreeable. But if it is as a result of persistent poor performance (and that in itself not due to our own inadequacy) and the agency has been taking our custom for granted for a long time, then often there is a gratifying sense of justice finally being done. We don't exactly have a reputation for snap dismissals ...

On how the growth of online will impact on media plans for global brands within my remit

I would rephrase the question as: how will the changing media consumption habits of our consumers influence our plans? We plan around the idea in the round, not specific to any one channel. In any case, the answer is a lot. The new fragrance variant of Axe (Lynx) that took us to market leadership in the US - just three years from the birth of the brand - was launched only with online media. The Dove "campaign for real beauty" got under way with an interactive online debate, stimulated by outdoor, and the response really shaped the campaign and pushed it in a direction we hadn't planned.

On balancing the benefits of a globalised communications message with the need to retain bespoke appeal in local markets

Our push for globalisation is more driven by synergies of quality than by cost. It's hard enough finding one great idea, so you are most unlikely to find one for each of the hundred or so countries in which we operate.

We are prepared to - and do - develop communication that is as local or regional as it needs to be, but we cannot afford to tolerate poor quality simply in order to keep some local marketing or creative director busy. I believe that judging when to tailor successful global campaigns is shaping up to be one of the most interesting marketing and advertising challenges for international companies and our agencies. And it's great to see how our agencies are, maybe after a slow start, really now using their best people to grapple with this. Until recently, "international" meant "out to pasture".

On the distinct unique selling points of online that will enable it to grow advertising revenue from Unilever

With television advertising, if you are obstinate or rich enough, you can bore consumers into submission through sheer weight of advertising budget. With online advertising, consumers have to want to come to you. I think that favours brands - like ours, if I might make so bold - that have attempted to win favour through being liked, rather than through being shrill or pushy.

On the big idea

Pretty difficult to define, but you know one when you have got one. It galvanises all those who work on the brand as well as the agency. A big idea can make a brand in even an apparently trivial category attain real significance in people's lives. I have had managers who are so motivated by working on Dove's campaign for demo- cratising beauty and debunking the myths of the cosmetics industry that they have come to me to say: "Please don't promote me. I want to stay on Dove and work on a brand that can make a difference to people."

On a big idea in marketing

Developing planning properly in non-Anglo-Saxon markets would be a big idea, Martin.

On my dream job

Teaching languages and literature to moti-vated children? Apparently, these no longer exist, so maybe the marketing director of the Brazilian Premier League (great product, awful presentation)? So long as I had despotic powers to control the corruption and incompetence. Ronaldinho's translator, when he inevitably ends up at Chelsea - albeit at 40? Roque Santa Cruz's masseur?

On fostering a child in Brazil

Like the Lynx work, it's rather old news now. He's 24. But I suppose the learning is that you can get more than you bargained for. A couple of months ago, he phoned me from Brazil. "Grandpa, I've got news," he said. "Why are you calling me grandpa?" "That's the news!" He's just found out that he has an eight-year-old son from a teenage indiscretion. Life comes and goes with shocking nonchalance there. Meanwhile, one month and a DNA test later, I have put the child down for Eton.

On a big idea for the future in any field

That's too hard, sorry.

- The Yahoo! Big Idea Chair shines a spotlight on people and companies whose creative work is truly remarkable. See for more details.


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