Cannes 2010: The Cannes Debate: Keith Weed held his own against Sir Martin Sorrell

By Prajjal Saha , afaqs!, Cannes | In Advertising | June 28, 2010
Unilever's global marketing head, Keith Weed, though suffering from a back injury, held his own against WPP chairman, Sir Martin Sorrell's questions on digitisation, globalisation and Unilever's changing focus

At the Cannes debate this year, Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO, WPP Worldwide was up against Keith Weed, chief marketing and communication officer, Unilever. Considering that in previous years, Sorrell has had four clients to handle; one client should have been a simple task for the WPP CEO. However, Weed outdid Sorrell on many occasions.

Sorrell started the debate by addressing the year gone by as a "brutal year", saying that it had made people more commoditised. Weed replied, "We sell billions of consumer products, which is commoditising. But beyond commodity, there are ideas, which is the icing on the cake. Ideas create a differentiator for the brand and that has to be provided by the agencies."

& #BANNER1 & #Sorrell then tried to provoke Weed with the statement that since last year, the brand owners' focus is on procurement and finance, rather than marketing. Weed said, "Our growth is driven by consumers and their needs. So, procurement and finance is important; but marketing is also key."

He added, "We have been tough on the buying part of marketing, but then, efficiency increases with efficient buying and creativity."

When asked about the importance of consumer insights, Weed said they were very important, because they were the starting point of ideas for agencies.

The next issue raised was that clients tend to take on agencies that are smaller, and therefore, less powerful; while their approach towards media owners is different. This has led to the pain that agencies have gone through, specifically post recession.

Weed opined that the world has gone through economic challenges in the last year; and the squeezing is not unique to advertising agencies. It originates from the manufacturer and is passed on to suppliers and retailers. It must be remembered that everyone wants to make money. So, achieving short-terms gains through squeezing the agency doesn't help in the longer run.

The next question for Weed was on how Unilever has changed after Paul Polman took over as the CEO. Polman has come in from a different sector.

According to Weed, Polman has brought in consumer-centric focus to the business; and belief in the simple proposition -- make products and build products.

Sorell then asked about Weed's predecessor, Simon Clift. "Simon did a great job in setting a platform, which I have taken over. We are in the midst of a global revolution and need to multiply the effect of globalisation and digitisation. The more digital you are, the more global you are; and the more global you are, the more digital you become," Weed replied.

The possibilities in interactive and digital are also immense. Weed mentioned a vending machine installed in the Palais Des Festivals, where one could get an ice-cream after the vending machine read the smile.

Weed said such interactivity is possible today. Until a few years ago, one would have sourced such technology from NASA; but today, one can use it in a vending machine, which was "amazing".

Sorell then quipped, "Talking about digitisation and globalisation is sexy; but what does it mean for traditional media and traditional markets?"

Weed replied, "Half of Unilever's sales come from emerging markets. And when people talk about white space in these markets, Unilever is already there." He cited detergent brand, OMO, which is one of the biggest in Brazil. For 50 years, people in Brazil have known it as a local brand. The same is the case in South Africa.

Everyone is fascinated by market share; but it's the size of winning that matters. "You actually get a lion's share by developing the market, and not by just fighting competition," Weed said.

Talking about traditional or developed markets, Weed said, "We would be mad to go away from these markets; though it is increasingly becoming harder to retain or grow share there." Both traditional and emerging markets need different strategies, he added.

Answering the other part of the question about digitisation, he said, "You have to fish where the fishes are." Consumers are engaging more and more with the digital medium; but one needs to be ahead of the consumer.

Weed added that it would be incorrect to completely swing to digital. Currently, a person spends 25 per cent of the time on digital medium; and one needs to allocate the budget accordingly. Besides, it also depends on categories and has to be guided by the insights of the category in question.

He gave the metaphor of school sex, comparing it to the digital medium, which everyone is talking about and some are doing; but those who are doing it aren't doing well.

Sorrell asked Weed a rather tricky question next: "Who does the best work - big or small agencies?"

Weed's rejoinder was, "The size of the dog in the fight is not important; the size of the fight in the dog is what matters." One can find that in both big and small agencies, he added. The idea is to get the best people to work.

Sorrell did not let it go. He said, "Clients like to mix the model. They sign a roster agency, but also have a small agency as a backup or parallel setup. It's because they believe that big agencies do not have a creative bent of mind."

Sorrell also wanted to know that with brands such as Unilever looking forward to crowd-sourcing, whether it would mean no business for both big and small agencies.

Weed replied, "Big or small; the job is to create a belief about something."

"What I am really interested in is leadership in thinking, and that comes from small agencies. But at the end of the day, people are more important, and even the big agencies should have them," he added.

Weed acknowledged that Unilever had been trying out crowd-sourcing; but that couldn't be a mainstream effort. He cited an interesting example: if you go on a holiday and shoot a small film, it doesn't mean that you are shooting that film for Hollywood.

Sorrell then raised another point, saying journalists were feeling insecure with the rise of citizen journalism, where a publisher could get the latest news at low cost. Weed replied that at the end of the day, it's about quality, which would come from the professionals.

Weed asserted that traditional media is here to stay; and it's the best way to build brands. He corroborated the statement by citing the success of Superbowl, where 30 second-spots were sold for US $3 million.

"Television is always a vast part of what Unilever does for the mass audiences. The moving picture is not going to die, though the screen might change," Weed commented.

The opportunity in digital was building a one-to-one relationship, whereas traditional media was about broadcasting. Weed cited the example of Ben & Jerry, the ice-cream brand which had 1 million fans online, comparable only to that of a famous pop star.

Social media, on the other hand, starts a conversation about the product -- similar to the brand chats that were initiated in pubs and bars - engaging people and spreading the message in unique ways.

Sorrell then asked whether brands would pollute the Facebooks of the world. Weed said, "Brands are for good and simplify people's lives. If you are in a foreign country and if you do not know about brands, it would be difficult for you to choose."

Weed concluded by saying that Unilever was country neutral, unlike countries that have vested interests in a common agenda.