Q&A: Unilever’s ter-Kulve

NEW YORK Peter ter-Kulve has spent the bulk of his nearly 20 years at Unilever working on ice cream, be it in Shanghai, Prague or Rome, where he has been based since May 2005.

In his current global role as senior vice president for ice-cream products, ter-Kulve oversees a portfolio of brands that includes Magnum, Cornetto, Breyers, Ben & Jerry’s, Wall’s, Carte D’Or, Klondike and Good Humor. Collectively, those brands represent total global media spending of nearly $300 million a year.

Magnum was the focus of a global review that ended in January and resulted in ice-cream business shifting from Interpublic Group’s McCann Erickson and Campbell Mithun and independent Nitro to IPG’s Lowe (which won Magnum and other impulse brands sold by street vendors and delicatessens) and Omnicom Group’s DDB (which landed “take-home” brands like Breyers that are sold in supermarkets and typically eaten at home.)

The 42-year-old executive, a Dutch native, recently spoke with Adweek senior reporter Andrew McMains about why Lowe and DDB prevailed, what he has learned from working in emerging markets, why television keeps him awake at night and how Unilever is addressing concerns about childhood obesity. The following are highlights from that conversation.

How important is it to Unilever executives to strike a balance among the business they have at the various holding companies that they work with, be it Interpublic, Omnicom or WPP?
In every relationship, you want to be a significant part of each other’s life. We have a nice roster of agencies and I think we want to have big, important clients in all of them.

What’s the secret to getting great work out of an agency?
Giving very clear and tight briefs and then giving a lot of flexibility within the framework. As a client, when you don’t know exactly where you want to go with a brand, it’s very difficult to get really good work from an agency. When we, as a client, are clear about the space and what to occupy with a brand and help them and devise a clear brand communication idea, the creativity flows out relatively easily.

How did McCann get stuck on Magnum?
It was like a marriage where you both could not get the best out of each other anymore. And the marriage had become extremely rational. We were probably too rational and too proscriptive in what we wanted, and they were probably too rational in their output. After working for a long time, and we had re-briefed for at least an 18-month period, we just could not make it work anymore. And it’s sad because they are a really good agency.

Can you give me a flavor of what Lowe put forth and what made their pitch compelling?
They came in with a mind-blowing proposal for Magnum, which they worked out not only in multimedia, but they showed us how it would work in China, in Turkey as well as in the U.K. So, they really approached it with very strong creative content. . . . [The pitch] was highly impactful and very well suited to an impulse character. A large part of our business is out of home and impulse oriented and it sort of fit the impulse character of a large part of our business.

What stood out about DDB’s pitch?
DDB made an unbelievable rigorous analysis of the communication challenges that we face and how we can address those by leveraging the totality of our portfolio in a very global way. That was the core of DDB, and then [worldwide chief creative officer] Bob Scarpelli brought some fantastic creativity in his usual style to the game as well. Both Bob and [Lowe’s worldwide cd on Unilever] Fernando [Vega Olmos] made a great impression and will be fantastic partners.