Agencies Laud Unilever’s Retiring CMO Keith Weed

Keith Weed announced Thursday that he will step down from his role as Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer in April.

Weed has worked for Unilever for more than 35 years, the last eight as Unilever’s top marketer. His departure, which he announced in a tweet, has been planned for more than a year. It also removes one of the industry’s most vocal brand advocates and comes as big CPG companies rethink their approaches to media and marketing.

Unilever CEO Paul Polman will also step down at the end of the month, to be succeeded by Alan Jope, the marketer who currently leads the beauty and personal care division, the company announced last month. While Jope will elevate marketing within the company, agency execs expressed hope for a CMO who can fill Weed’s shoes as a fair partner and advocate for best practices.

“[Weed has been] one of the most consistently influential CMOs over the last decade or so,” said Martin Sorrell, the former leader of WPP and founder and CEO of S4 Capital, a new agency holding company.

“He has serious intent, with a light touch, and is loyal and committed – attributes his agency partners admire,” Sorrell said.

For many of Unilever’s marketing partners, the company stood out during Weed’s tenure as a brand with strong agency bonds.

“I think he’s represented consistency and standards in a world where there’s been a huge amount of turmoil,” said Mike Cooper, CEO of the Omnicom agency PHD media, which works with Unilever in China and other global markets. “I hope that his successor or somebody leads debate on industry issues the way he has because it would be a shame to lose that.”

Agencies don’t have much leverage in dealings with platforms like Google or Facebook if brands won’t back them up by pulling ad spend.

“You need a lion of a client to say, ‘We aren’t going to spend our money unless these circumstances are met,’ and make that change,” said Rob Norman, former global chief digital officer of WPP’s GroupM, which counts Unilever as its long-time largest client.

In the past year, Weed has staked out strong buy-side stances on brand safety, video ad serving, media transparency and social media influencer practices. He has also advocated for working with Google, Facebook and programmatic tech companies instead of reflexively turning campaigns on and off.

“We’re no longer talking about making the digital supply chain more efficient,” Weed said in February at the IAB Annual Leadership Meeting. “We’re talking about how it impacts society. There’s an underlying issue of trust and truth going on.”

CMOs often avoid difficult industry debates because they could interfere with the brand’s messaging or create tensions with partners and media sources, Cooper said. “But where other marketers are reluctant, Weed’s been willing to engage.”

Weed will still be active in the ad industry. In September, he became president of the Advertising Association, a British trade group, and on Twitter he hinted at plans to remain in digital marketing.

“It’s interesting to consider that Weed and Marc Pritchard (Procter & Gamble’s marketing chief, who’s been with P&G for 36 years) give the lie to this notion that CMO tenure now is 22 months or so,” Norman said. “If you think about the people who have greatly influenced the culture and craft of marketing, the ones who stay at a brand can be much more influential than those who danced from place to place.”

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