Keith Weed, Unilever's Chief Marketing and Communications Officer from 2010-2019 was a member of the Unilever Executive and responsible for the Marketing, Communications, and Sustainable Business functions. He currently serves as an independent Director on boards of WPP and Sainsbury's, President of the Advertising Association, and President of Designate Royal Horticultural Society.
As part of the Humanizing Growth Series, Keith sat down with IRG Founder Marc de Swaan Arons for a 'virtual fireside chat' about Purpose, Leadership, and the evolving role of the CMO.
Marc: "Keith, in 2009 Paul Polman said to you; 'Never waste a good crisis'. That was the start of a 10-year journey that we will be talking about. Now, here we sit, not even able to go to our offices after a much bigger crisis. It strikes me that it's the right time to have this conversation."
Keith: "What I'm keen to do is to try and engage with people about this journey in business which is focused on getting businesses to really go back to where they used to be. They started out by serving society and serving people. And if you served a person with a product or service better than someone else, your business would grow. And your competitor's business would decline.
I think somewhere in the '80s and ‘90s businesses lost that compass and started focusing on 'selling more stuff.' When you're just about 'selling more stuff', I think then you stop putting the consumer and society in the center of your business. Instead, you put all sorts of other things there, including shareholders (which are very important, don't get me wrong), but it's not what businesses are about as far as serving consumers and customers.
When Paul Polman arrived at Unilever, he said to me, 'I want you to be the Chief Marketing Officer and run sustainability and I also want you to run communications. What we want to do is reinvent the way we do business. Put sustainability, environmental, and social sustainability at the core of the business."
Marc: "I want to go back to the journey. There's you and the small cadre of people that Paul Polman has now had the opportunity to bring into his leadership team, and there is this vision of going back to the roots of driving growth for all stakeholders - with the understanding that it will be financially the smart thing to do as well. Can you talk about the internal and the external engagement process when you had your strategy defined?"
Keith: "To be clear, it is about making money as well. I want to emphasize that because I've had conversations with people, particularly in the US where they say, 'What is the business case for environmental and social sustainability?' I always answer, 'I'd love to see the business case for the alternative. I'd love to see the business case for destroying the very planet we live in. The business case for destroying the societies we're trying to serve.
I do think this is also about business delivery, and I hasten to add that during those nine years- every year, we grew volume, profits and tripled the share price delivered to shareholders. Yes, it was about hard-nosed business delivery, but it was created through a strategic shift.
Paul gave me Communications as well and initially, I didn't understand why. If you're a CMO now, I would start making a case for you taking over Communications. Because in a joined-up internet world, you can't have two people in the executive managing the narrative. An internal memo one day can be an external memo another day. What I could do is join up the story.
Unilever is in 190 countries, so you can imagine the amount of external engagement. I'm a great believer that one of the best ways to communicate to your internal audience is through external communication."
Marc: "Let's talk about the functional side. If you go to the function of marketing, what do you think are the the core competencies?"
Keith: "The first and most important thing is being curious. Curious about what's going on in the world and how you, your brand and your service can achieve a future that has a more positive impact on the world and on people. One of the first things I do when I visit someone's house is go to the bathroom, lock the door, and open the cupboards just to see what they've got in them.
I think marketers should be curious about what's around you. Of course, you've got to look at big market research reports, but you can also talk to friends and families.
People-focused. Put people first and real people. People aren't a ‘head of hair’ looking for a shampoo or ‘pair of armpits’ looking for deodorant. They are real people with real lives. Understanding this would be another key component I would champion.
Unlock the magic. Realize that marketing is art and science. It is creativity and effectiveness. It is magic and logic. More than ever, we need to get more magic, more creative to break through the clutter and get noticed, but we need to work more with logic and leverage data and insight and that's more possible than ever before. You don't have to be a brilliant marketer to be a brilliant marketing leader, but you have to surround yourself with brilliant marketers. I believe in committing to training and committing to coaching.
You never see a football team that sits around eating chips and drinking beer all week and then gets up at the weekend and 'gives it a go'. They train, they coach, they build skills, but somehow in business, people think- I don't have time for that cause I'm too busy.
I believe in building skills, especially for marketers in this ever-changing world. You're very quickly out of skill. That's why marketers need to tweet and post and why they need to watch TV and cinema, and effectively live the life their consumers are living - that capability is important. If you can do the metrics bit and then the capabilities bit, I think you can unlock the potential of your marketing team."