Cannes Lions 2010: Sir Martin Sorrell & Unilever’s Keith Weed get down to business at the Cannes Debate

Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival 2010 may have had its share of weak sessions this year, but the Cannes Debate has been one of the best so far, and clearly one of the best sessions of the festival. The conversations between Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO, WPP, and Keith Weed, CMO, Unilever, discussed many concerns of the industry. The best part was the tough questions, coupled with candid answers.

Cannes Lions 2010: Sir Martin Sorrell & Unilever’s Keith Weed get down to business at the Cannes Debate

Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival may not have had the best of sessions like last year, but the Cannes Debate on the sixth day of the festival surpassed any so far. The conversation between Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO, WPP, and Keith Weed, CMO, Unilever, covered many concerns of the industry, but the best part was the tough questions, coupled with candid answers.

Procurement Vs Marketing

Sorrell got in the ‘debate’ without wasting a minute and the first point discussed was procurement and finance functions having more power and influence over marketing. Keith Weed replied, “The answer may be different for different companies, but I know as far as a consumer good is concerned, marketing is absolutely key. There is an opportunity to formalise or professionalise the buying function. But great creativity is effectiveness, and the other part of effectiveness is professional buying.”

Did clients squeeze agencies more than they did owners, given that media owners had editorial and financial powers, and agencies were considered smaller operations? Weed observed that there was pressure everywhere, and could even be seen in the manner prices to consumers had evolved in the marketplace. He said, “Manufacturers, agencies and retailers – everyone is feeling the squeeze. But at the end of it, everyone in the media value chain needs to do a great job and gain money. If I cut someone short, it is short term gain, but I will suffer in the longer run. You will move your best people to better paying clients, and one needs good work to be able to sell, and as long as you are selling, you are in good shape.”

Weed asserted here that for any business, it were the people that were the most important. And Sorrell pointed out that as long as procurement was paramount, it would not be easy to get the best people. Communication professional would want to work on exciting business, and the more flexibility and more response there was, the better it was, but clients had to also understand that they played a role in this, which they had not played in the last 18 months.

Unilever’s digital focus: to double ad spends this year

Weed identified the changing media landscape, courtesy the digital revolution, as one of the key changes of marketing today. He observed, “Whichever way you cut it, there is a multiple effect of globalisation and digitisation, and they are both feeding off each other. It is an exciting time to be in advertising and communication also because anything is possible.”

He further stated that one of the priorities on the agenda was to get Unilever at the leading edge of digital. The advertiser had to be ahead of the consumer, so “we are there when the consumer arrives”, he added. Weed informed that Unilever was set to double spends in digital this year.

Speaking further on the digital strategy, Weed said that the category guided the strategy and was dependent on consumer insight. “You need to know if you are going to housewives in Shanghai, whether they are spending time online, if you did not know that, you have missed the bus there.” Weed quoted a statement on digital, “Everyone is talking about it, few people are doing it, and those who are doing it, are not doing it well.”

On the count of digital, the other concern that Weed had was talent. He said, “Right now, all kinds of models are going on, all sorts of approaches are going on there. We work on paid, owned and earned media, and in the owned media, whether is a, or, there is a need for content and people who are working on your brands who know where this is headed.”

Social media was also discussed, and Sorrell asked that in the light of some of the unsuccessful attempts of social media platforms to monetise their platforms, was social media a form of pure media that should not be bastardise by making them financially driven? Weed replied, “These are guys are running businesses, so they will and they must monetise. But they still have to be careful and clever on how they monetise. The idea that brands would pollute Facebook is not true. Without brands, shopping is difficult. Brand simplifies. At some point, there is a mutual agenda that companies like ours can develop with companies like Facebook.”

Faster growing or developed– investment required in all markets

Sorrell then enquired on what the focus on the faster growing markets (“not developing – I think it’s insulting to call them developing” remarked Sorrell, while posing the question) meant for other markets. Weed replied, “You can only spend your dollar once. Half of our sales are coming from the faster growing markets, and that by definition means that the rest are coming from the developed markets. We have massive business in India, and massive business in the US that we would be mad to walk away from. So, it is not a case of either-or for us, but ‘and’. Our objective is to create more business in markets where we have a big share.”

Transparency was another point that was discussed, and Weed said, “Whenever you are doing business, better information and clarity is powerful. Fuzziness is hard to leverage, and encourages you to inspect it. There has been a step forward in transparency and understanding that Unilever is such. But there still are some markets that are opaque, which we need to get close to.”

Sorrell also quizzed Weed also on Unilever’s Chief Executive Paul Polman and some of the changes he had brought in the structure. One of the points that Weed mentioned here was that Polman had brought much greater consumer centric focus in the business. He said, “In the board meetings, you would be genuinely surprised how often we speak on what is in it for the consumer, would the consumer be willing to pay. True, it should not take a new CEO to do that, but when we make products and build brands, and competing in the marketplace on quality, there is a complexity that comes with it. When you say it is all about consumer and good value, it makes everything simple and that has made a difference.”

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