Unilever CMO Is Right To Remind Brands To Take Responsibility Too

After a year or more of brands intensifying the calling out of agencies and media owners on transparency and brand safety, could the worm be turning? Or at least, could brands be looking a little more at themselves?

That's certainly the direction of travel for Unilever's CMO Keith Weed. He's usually the star of any conference he speaks at, and well known for plain speaking that avoids slipping into a diatribe of how brands should just do the latest digital thing and if it doesn't work blame it on an agency. In fact, he will always stand out for me as being particularly honest about his approach to ad agencies. The key, he told last September's Festival of Marketing in London, is not to chop and change and have an agency constantly re-pitching for your account. Instead, it's advisable to get a good agency and insist on working with its best people and then work out any problems together. issues are not immediately resolved by shopping around for a new agency every other year.

So it's interesting to see that his speech in Cannes, previewed in Marketing Week, reminds marketers that they have a responsibility to choose wisely whom they work with and how they can foster transparency together. Once this route to market has been opened up, it's up to brands and their agencies to ensure they only send quality messages. 

Weed is clear here that when Unilever looked at its advertising output, it was producing far too much through too many third parties and content was not being enough time to embed and begin building longer-term connections with customers. The FMCG giant cutting down its roster and producing fewer ads has been a big topic over the last year, and Weed will present the plan as empowering brands to be more nimble while saving budget.

The interesting point here is that Weed is not only saying that brands a great deal of responsibility in how their messages get to market, but also in the quality of those messages. The elephant in the room is ad blocking. it's rising and the Unilever CMO is clear that brands need to improve the quality of their advertising to stop the increase. 

Figures from IAB UK show that ad-blocking rates have levelled over the past year at around 22% of the adult population. However, over the past two years they have shot up to 22% from just 15%. Remember, this is an average figure and one that rises inversely with age and gender, with male Millennials being far more likely to block that the background figure of one in five adults.

So the message across the past couple of years where I've heard Keith Weed speak or seen reports on his presentations has been clear. It's just too simple for brands to keep blaming agencies that can be easily identified as the fall guys and changed at will, but of course, without the key problem being addressed. Brands, he will insist again in Cannes, are at the centre of this -- and they can build transparency with their agencies that improves viewability and fraud rates and then deliver quality messaging that helps prevent people from reaching for the ad blocker.

This chimes with research reported on by Netimperative, showing that 50% of consumers believe brands are to blame for their ads appearing next to inappropriate material and three in four shoppers would think twice about giving their customer to affected brands. 

The idea that everything can be blamed on agencies within an ongoing transparency feud is laid bare here. The simple option of blaming the agency is being challenged, and more of a two-way street is opening up. It's running along the lines of this: once I have a good agency, what can I do as a marketer to make the relationship work openly and what can I do to ensure we focus on quality so fewer people turn our messaging off?

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