Ahead of his appearance on the editor’s stage on the morning of day two of Marketing Week Live, Marketing Week caught up with Unilever CMO Keith Weed who recently announced his retirement from the FMCG giant after 35 years.
When Keith Weed started at Unilever in 1983 he had no idea he would eventually become marketing chief at the world’s second-largest advertiser. “To be honest, I never imagined I would be at any company this long,” he tells Marketing Week.
After 35 years, he is now the longestserving member of the current executive team, but that time is about to come to an end. Weed announced his retirement in December, just days after CEO Paul Polman revealed his own departure plans.
It is hard not to see the two as related, although Weed says: “I was planning to do it around this time but when Paul mentioned his retirement I said it’s good timing for me to move on as well.”
Weed was crucial to the development of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, aiming to reduce the company’s environmental impact, and the Unstereotype initiative, which seeks to remove harmful tropes from advertising. But what the 57-year-old is most proud of is helping Unilever drive profitable growth.
He explains: “I am most proud that we have grown the sales line and profit every single year in the nine years I’ve been doing this role. We’ve done this while also building a more sustainable business and one with sustainability at its core. A lot of people challenge if you can do both and what we’ve shown at Unilever is, yes, you can.” That is not to say Weed’s career has been all plain sailing. The man Sir Martin Sorrell once described as the world’s most influential CMO has a “long list” of regrets, most pressing of which are the challenges of digital media. “Although we have done much to tackle it, I would have preferred to do more in shaping responsibility in the digital world,” he says.
There are other, more personal stories too.
In the early 2000s he was behind the launch of Lynx razors, an attempt to challenge rival Procter & Gamble’s Gillette. “It was based on a beautiful insight that at that stage Gillette was quite old and all the imagery used middleaged men with kids, whereas Lynx was very young and very strong,” he explains. “But, although our product was good it wasn’t better than Gillette’s Mach3.”
Weed baulks at the question of whether he has a favourite Unilever brand, likening it to “asking me to choose my favourite child”. But Ben & Jerry’s and Marmite stand out as “brands I enjoy as a consumer, and the marketing is incredibly innovative as well”.
The one he is proudest of is Dove, which he believes “has shown, in a really significant way, how to build a brand with purpose” and is “the largest educator of self-esteem in the world”, with its long-established ‘Real Beauty’ campaign.
Weed credits Unilever for offering him the opportunity to work and have “fabulous fun” in jobs across the world; for example, the US and France, where his children were also born.
He thinks its decision to promote a marketer to CEO is a “brilliant” move and is a big fan of incoming boss Alan Jope.
Weed doesn’t want to speculate on Unilever’s future “because that’s not up to me”. He describes the choice of his successor as “very much Alan’s call” but says he has already “shared his thoughts” on the future of the role and what a marketing leader needs to succeed. “You need to be curious about people’s lives, curious about what works and what doesn’t work,” he says.
He adds: “If you have to get to the future first you need to have a view of where the future is.”
When Weed started at Unilever over three decades ago he could barely have imagined the changes that would come. “[Marketing is more] complex in a good way,” he says.
“More than ever what marketers have to do is focus on their own capabilities and training, and ensure they’re up to speed.”
He has already started planning what to do next, starting with the Peking to Paris motor race in July.
Professionally, he plans to “go plural” with a number of roles, although he has to wait until he finishes at Unilever in May to make any big decisions.
Until then the FMCG veteran says it is “back to work” as usual.
“There is still lots to do. I will continue to drive the agenda around sustainability and brands with purpose, and continue the transformational change we’re seeing around data-driven marketing.”
A longer version of this article appeared in Marketing Week. Marketing professionals can register for free here for Marketing Week Live, 6-7 March, Olympia London.