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Unilever marketing chief on the need for trusted agency partners in these testing times

As part of this week’s Agencies4Growth Festival, we’re asking some of the brightest minds in marketing why agencies matter today. Here, Conny Braams, Unilever's chief digital and marketing officer, explains how one of the world's largest advertisers has drawn on its agency roster during the pandemic.

It goes without saying that the fluctuations in demand and the speed of change we have witnessed this year has been extraordinary. When news of the pandemic first hit, Unilever offered €500m of cash flow relief to support livelihoods across our extended value chain. We redeployed many of our own people to areas of our business that needed it the most, working with our agency partners to mirror these shifts, redeploying talent across our diverse portfolio to manage changes in agency spend. 

We did this because we know long term agency partnerships help us collaborate with people who really know our business, our marketers, our consumers and our customers.

As a result, we have been able to draw on these global agency partnerships which has been critical to move at speed and with agility, enabling us to be resilient in difficult times. From our partners working with us to roll out our Lifebuoy brand to over 50 markets in 100 days, to helping us develop media models for our brands to pivot and change deployment approaches at speed. Our partners bring us innovative thinking to help solve global and local business challenges.

Over the last two years, we have been scaling a new agency ecosystem with a consolidated group of preferred agency partners. Its main goal is to drive the consistency of our brands, globally, regionally, and locally, to create the best conditions for creativity, and improve the consistency of our communications across all consumer touch points. Fast forward to today, we have seen the most incredible response from this set of agencies who we are proud to call our partners.

With the virus putting significant pressure and restrictions on the way we operate, we have worked together to adapt our brand communications, making sure we don’t fall into the Covid woke washing bandwagon and keeping an authentic brand purpose at the heart of our communications and our actions. We evolved our production protocol into a Covid safe, best in class operation to keep our joint teams safe, and accelerated our e-commerce offering – delivering €2.2bn of sales in the first half of this year.

But more than that, we are collaborating to identify new opportunities to support our consumers as we enter a predicted economic crisis. Often in a recession, people choose brands that they know and trust for their value and for their values. Whilst we must be able to provide cash-strapped consumers excellent products at an affordable price, we also cannot ignore the seismic shifts in people’s identity and values or the heightened awareness of issues and stereotypes.

Divisive politics, rising inequality and discrimination, climate change – 85% of Edelman’s Trust Barometer respondents want brands to ‘solve my problems’ and 80% want brands to ‘solve society’s problems’. We have long believed that by standing for something bigger than the products we sell, tapping into our audience’s beliefs and taking decisive action to help solve society’s ills, we can connect with people on a deeper level. And our agencies possess the key to unlock this. By applying creativity to purpose in the Brand Say and the Brand Do, appealing to people on the issues that genuinely matter to them. Engaging with our brand teams to encourage bold ideas and tough conversations.

It is these tough conversations that led us to launch Unstereotype in 2016. After looking at advertising across the industry, it was easy to see that gender stereotypes were still prevalent. As one of the world’s largest advertisers, we have a responsibility to not just reflect culture but help shape it and we wanted to use our influence to break outdated stereotypes and harmful social norms that are hindering progress to gender equality. We also found that by using progressive portrayals of people, we improved the effectiveness of our ads.

So in 2017, we went a step further co-founding the Unstereotype Alliance with UN Women as a platform to drive positive change across the industry. The alliance is focused on empowering women in all their diversity (race, class, age, ability, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, language, education etc.) and addressing harmful masculinities to help create a gender equal world. There are currently 38 members including our agency partners.

The world is now calling for us to take another step forward. We are on a mission to be the most diverse and inclusive company in the world. And we know we will only change attitudes that preserve the inequalities of underrepresented groups in society if we live those values ourselves. And as our partners, we need our agencies to live these values too, both in front and behind the camera.

Collectively, there is a lot of work to be done, but having seen the strength, passion, and determination of the Unilever ecosystem this year, I am confident that our agency partners will continue to support us and our brands to take action and create the long overdue change the world is now demanding.      

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As part of this week’s Agencies4Growth Festival, we’re asking some of the brightest minds in marketing why agencies matter today. Here, Conny Braams, Unilever's chief digital and marketing officer, explains how one of the world's largest advertisers has drawn on its agency roster during the pandemic.

It goes without saying that the fluctuations in demand and the speed of change we have witnessed this year has been extraordinary. When news of the pandemic first hit, Unilever offered €500m of cash flow relief to support livelihoods across our extended value chain. We redeployed many of our own people to areas of our business that needed it the most, working with our agency partners to mirror these shifts, redeploying talent across our diverse portfolio to manage changes in agency spend. 

We did this because we know long term agency partnerships help us collaborate with people who really know our business, our marketers, our consumers and our customers.

As a result, we have been able to draw on these global agency partnerships which has been critical to move at speed and with agility, enabling us to be resilient in difficult times. From our partners working with us to roll out our Lifebuoy brand to over 50 markets in 100 days, to helping us develop media models for our brands to pivot and change deployment approaches at speed. Our partners bring us innovative thinking to help solve global and local business challenges.

Over the last two years, we have been scaling a new agency ecosystem with a consolidated group of preferred agency partners. Its main goal is to drive the consistency of our brands, globally, regionally, and locally, to create the best conditions for creativity, and improve the consistency of our communications across all consumer touch points. Fast forward to today, we have seen the most incredible response from this set of agencies who we are proud to call our partners.

With the virus putting significant pressure and restrictions on the way we operate, we have worked together to adapt our brand communications, making sure we don’t fall into the Covid woke washing bandwagon and keeping an authentic brand purpose at the heart of our communications and our actions. We evolved our production protocol into a Covid safe, best in class operation to keep our joint teams safe, and accelerated our e-commerce offering – delivering €2.2bn of sales in the first half of this year.

But more than that, we are collaborating to identify new opportunities to support our consumers as we enter a predicted economic crisis. Often in a recession, people choose brands that they know and trust for their value and for their values. Whilst we must be able to provide cash-strapped consumers excellent products at an affordable price, we also cannot ignore the seismic shifts in people’s identity and values or the heightened awareness of issues and stereotypes.

Divisive politics, rising inequality and discrimination, climate change – 85% of Edelman’s Trust Barometer respondents want brands to ‘solve my problems’ and 80% want brands to ‘solve society’s problems’. We have long believed that by standing for something bigger than the products we sell, tapping into our audience’s beliefs and taking decisive action to help solve society’s ills, we can connect with people on a deeper level. And our agencies possess the key to unlock this. By applying creativity to purpose in the Brand Say and the Brand Do, appealing to people on the issues that genuinely matter to them. Engaging with our brand teams to encourage bold ideas and tough conversations.

It is these tough conversations that led us to launch Unstereotype in 2016. After looking at advertising across the industry, it was easy to see that gender stereotypes were still prevalent. As one of the world’s largest advertisers, we have a responsibility to not just reflect culture but help shape it and we wanted to use our influence to break outdated stereotypes and harmful social norms that are hindering progress to gender equality. We also found that by using progressive portrayals of people, we improved the effectiveness of our ads.

So in 2017, we went a step further co-founding the Unstereotype Alliance with UN Women as a platform to drive positive change across the industry. The alliance is focused on empowering women in all their diversity (race, class, age, ability, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, language, education etc.) and addressing harmful masculinities to help create a gender equal world. There are currently 38 members including our agency partners.

The world is now calling for us to take another step forward. We are on a mission to be the most diverse and inclusive company in the world. And we know we will only change attitudes that preserve the inequalities of underrepresented groups in society if we live those values ourselves. And as our partners, we need our agencies to live these values too, both in front and behind the camera.

Collectively, there is a lot of work to be done, but having seen the strength, passion, and determination of the Unilever ecosystem this year, I am confident that our agency partners will continue to support us and our brands to take action and create the long overdue change the world is now demanding.      

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