The departure of a client CMO would worry any agency partner. But in the case of Simon Clift, an agency advocate who forged tight bonds with the leaders of some of Unilever’s roster shops, the news could be even more worrisome.
As a champion of smaller creative agencies in particular, Clift built strong relationships with Lowe worldwide chairman Tony Wright and Bartle Bogle Hegarty worldwide CEO Simon Sherwood. Wright survived the loss of his CEO role to Stephen Gatfield in 2006 — when Wright shifted to chairman — largely because of his connection to Clift, who sources described as an iconoclast and intuitive marketer. Wright’s friendship with Clift also provided considerable leverage for the Lowe executive amid last year’s merger of Lowe and Deutsch, enabling him to retain his top role after the Interpublic Group shops combined.
From a business perspective, Unilever’s happiness with Lowe has been crucial to the shop’s survival within IPG. Even while the agency’s global revenue was shrinking during the last few years, its share of assignments from Unilever — its largest client — has grown. (For example, the shop added oral care business in 2006 and ice cream brands in 2008.)
Unilever is also the largest global client at Publicis Groupe-backed BBH, which owes its placement on the roster in 1995 to Clift, who hired the agency to work on Axe/Lynx. BBH has since added laundry brands Omo and Surf, and Vaseline.
“He has been a big supporter of ours and we’ve been a big supporter of his,” Sherwood said. “So, obviously, him going is going to be a shame. And from a personal point of view, I have a very good relationship with him and I shall miss not having that, at least on a professional basis. But we have to be positive and look forward to the future.”
Wright described Clift as an “inspirational client” who has been an “absolute flag-waver” for the notion that “effectiveness and creativity can go hand in hand.” He added: “What he gave to agencies — Lowe, but not us alone — [is] he created a real sense of incredible creative ambition that we can work in categories that had not traditionally done fantastic creative work and ask the question, ‘Why not?'”
Given Clift’s agency allegiances, the Unilever roster, which also includes creative shops DDB, JWT and Ogilvy & Mather, obviously will follow the search for his replacement quite closely. Clift, who spent his entire career at Unilever, plans to leave in April.
Unilever CEO Paul Polman’s plans for filling the post are not clear, but sources expect him to look both outside and inside for a successor. Before taking the helm of Unilever last year, Polman was CFO of Nestle, where he spent two years. The bulk of his career — 27 years — was at Procter & Gamble. A Unilever representative declined to comment on the search, saying that an announcement would be made “in due course.”
In his first year, Polman focused on taking layers and cost out of the organization, while Clift, far from the brand work he enjoyed, tackled corporate tasks such as a region-by-region global review of media duties that concluded last week. “He was never very comfortable in a head office corporate role,” said a source. “He’s a bit more maverick.”
From a branding perspective, Clift advocated campaigns that transcended category work, including Dove’s “Campaign for real beauty,” Omo’s “Dirt is good” and “The Axe effect” for Axe/Lynx. Polman, for his part, is said to prefer work that focuses on product benefits and innovation.
“I think I have played a role in making space for really good people to make some brave work,” Clift told Adweek on Friday, “whether it was, obviously, the Dove campaign [from Ogilvy], or particularly the ‘Dirt is good’ campaign [from Lowe]. I certainly didn’t think [the latter] up, but I’m convinced it wouldn’t have seen the light of day in its fully fledged form” without such efforts.
“If I hadn’t thrown a protective veil around it and the people developing it,” he continued, “it would certainly have gone [away]. And that’s probably true of the Dove campaign as well.”
Clift, a Cambridge graduate, joined Unilever in 1982 as a management trainee in marketing, becoming the company’s first CMO — and group vice president for personal care — in 2005. (He shed the personal care role in 2008.) Along the way, he held top roles in five different countries. Now, the 51-year-old Briton plans to spend most of his time in Brazil, where he keeps a home.
“In professional terms, I have absolutely no plans,” Clift said. “I’m a non-executive director of the BBC-I will certainly fulfill that commitment. But I shall take the advice of [former Unilever CEO] Patrick Cescau and listen to everybody and say, ‘Yes,’ to nobody, for the time being.”