Unilever recently announced that it wants 'more magic and less logic' in its advertising. What are its chances of achieving more effective campaigns through this programme?

Nigel Beard, former global account director on Unilever accounts

At the beginning of November, Unilever's marketing chiefs made a high-profile announcement of a new ten-year plan to improve the creativity of their advertising. They wanted, they said, 'more magic and less logic', and to give marketers 'the right to failure'. Most commentators seemed to take this positively. I worked on a global Unilever brand between 2000 and 2005, and I've talked with many people from Unilever agencies since then, so I know that there will be widespread sympathy for Unilever's intentions in this. As I know only what little has been quoted in the trade press, it would be presumptuous of me to predict how far this initiative will succeed. But I do have some thoughts about the choice of language that is being used, and based on that I wonder how far Unilever will achieve the deep cultural change here that I suspect it needs to fulfil its real potential.

The key words currently are 'magic', 'logic', and 'failure'.A few years ago, I remember a major Unilever initiative with a similar intention called 'Learning to love risk'.What I think happens is this: management identify their problem as caution, risk aversion, over-intellectualisation.The remedy that suggests itself is, of course, to prescribe the opposite of all these things: magic not logic, risk, failure. But I think there may be problems with this. One is that simply demanding more 'risk taking' or 'magic' gives no useful brief for action: it's not clear what it means in practice. At worst, it comes close to what Paul Watzlawick in his book Change called the 'be spontaneous' paradox: 'the demand for behaviour, which by its very nature can only be spontaneous, but cannot be spontaneous as a result of having been requested', which in psychiatry creates the classic, paralysing 'double bind'. Secondly, such words may sound brave or challenging out of context, but put back into the context of the workplace, their connotations remain overwhelmingly negative.Who really wants to fail? Will people really be rewarded for taking risks or talking about magic? Despite the rhetoric, management behaviour will continue to be constrained by the same deep unspoken assumptions about what it means to be responsible, about the need for approval (personal and otherwise), and about how advertising works.

So I fear that words like magic, risk, failure will only confuse. As an alternative, I would start from one simple word, and not one I think I have yet read in Unilever's press releases - effectiveness. It is, of course, important how we define this, and I do not in the least mean either creative awards or pre-test scores: I simply mean the best possible measures of business success, the long-term growth in sales, shares, and profits. As the world's largest advertiser, Unilever has a huge opportunity to study what works and what doesn't, and also to study what processes and conditions lead to the most successful work. If most of the energy and resource that currently goes into intellectual debate and pre-testing could be shifted into trying things out more quickly and learning from them, and if there was a ruthlessly honest review of the conditions that created the most successful campaigns, I don't doubt that Unilever already has all the talent and creativity it needs to improve its performance.This sounds simple, and in a sense it is - but the fact that it isn't the case now points to some entrenched organisational assumptions and habits that are blocking the ability to experiment, learn and change.These might include:a culture where certain things are widely known, but cannot be spoken about; a need to justify and defend established ways of doing things; an unrealistic demand for certainty or rational proof before taking action; a management emphasis on doing things the approved way, rather than on results;a culture that rewards intellectual argument rather than experimentation. If Unilever's new initiative can shift such deep patterns of organisational behaviour, it need not take ten years to see some big changes. But if, with the best of intentions, it does more to reinforce existing cultural norms than to challenge them, it may turn out to be just another part of the problem. I hope that's not the case: I would like to see the wonderful people in Unilever performing to their real potential.

This article originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of Admap. Click here for subscription information.