Q&A: How Unilever’s CMO Is Trying to Help Make Digital a Safer Space for Brands

Keith Weed calls on platforms to step up efforts to combat divisive content

Keith Weed is cracking down on YouTube and Facebook. Getty Images

Unilever CMO Keith Weed put the advertising community on notice Monday during a keynote speech at the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s Annual Leadership Meeting in Palm Desert, Calif. Weed called for tech platforms—namely Facebook and YouTube—to step up their efforts in combatting divisive content, hate speech and fake news.

“I don’t think for a second where the internet right now is how the platforms dreamt it would be,” Weed told Adweek in an interview at the event. “Things have just moved so fast; technology’s changed so quickly. There are so many unintended consequences now.”

Weed controls about $9 billion in advertising across all of Unilever’s brands like Dove, Ben & Jerry’s and Axe, so it’s no surprise the mandate raised more than a few eyebrows.

Much like Procter & Gamble CMO Marc Pritchard—who spoke at the IAB’s 2017 event and outlined a multipronged, yearlong plan—Weed is looking to pressure tech companies to increase their resources on cleaning up the platforms or risk losing multimillion-dollar budgets.

But unlike Pritchard, Weed is not giving the platforms a public ultimatum. He’d rather get into conversations about the nitty-gritty details in private and claims he’s already shifting money around.

Adweek spoke with Weed at the IAB event about what needs to change in digital marketing and how Unilever’s media agencies play a role in making Unilever’s goals attainable.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Adweek: What’s not working for you in digital marketing?
Keith Weed: We’ve been talking about the three Vs—viewability, verification and value—for over three years now when not very many people were talking about this. Last year, a lot of companies and advertisers started to talk about it and that’s really what I’m trying to encourage this year is to get more people on board.

We have leading industry viewability standards. I don’t agree that half the pixels for two seconds is a viewable standard. I [would] never buy a TV ad if you told me I’m going to have half the pixels [on the screen]. I’m working with GroupM and others on a test right now [measuring] video standards in-feed and we continue to do the work there.

What I’m trying to do now is move the agenda on for one big reason: This has gone beyond us talking internally within the industry about the efficiencies of the media supply chain. This is now impacting trust as a societal level, which I think brings great urgency.

So how do you put pressure on the platforms?
I believe the best way is not to create ultimatums and cut spend and walk away because frankly then you just leave people to find their own way forward. The beginning of last year, many big advertisers walked away from YouTube and were very outspoken about that. We were equally outspoken by staying with YouTube [and] have stayed all the way through.

In doing so, we have positive conversations with them. Would you prefer to engage and listen with someone who is still engaged with you or not hear anything because the other person just walked away?

That’s a really interesting point: It takes two to tango. If you decide, “We’re going to pull $400 million out and it’s going to be a veiled threat,” does that actually help either the industry or society at large? I’m not quite so sure.
 I mean, ultimately, you can move money. We are already moving our money. We’ve been very clear about what our standards are in viewability and third-party verification and our spend has already moved against that.

How much have you moved?
I haven’t gone public, but we have moved a meaningful amount based on standards that we’ve set.

I believe that the best way to engage with people is privately [and] publicly talk about the industry. It doesn’t mean for a second that I’m not challenging or vigorous, but I think people are more likely to listen to you if you sit down and speak to them in such a manner.

What role do your media agencies play in all this?
GroupM is our principal media agency but we also do some work with Omnicom and Initiative. [GroupM has been] very proactive and a supporter of how we believe things [need] to shape. They’ve been very much behind the vision that we have.

How do you balance a mandate like this from you and then have your media partners able to serve other clients when they’re buying a ton of inventory on Facebook and YouTube?
The good news is we are a rather large client to Mindshare and GroupM and we won’t be surprised to hear that our voice tends to be heard.

I can’t comment on others, but it’s in everyone’s interest for online advertising to be a positive experience. We need to get to a situation where we have one measurement across TV and digital. Right now, we parcel the budget out because we can’t optimize it across the media. Some people get over served [with ads] and some people get undeserved. It’s not efficient for the industry and it’s incredibly annoying at the individual level.

Do you think that agencies—in how they’re compensated or their motivations—have in part led to malfeasance in the industry?
 I think lots of things have changed in a very short period of time—we’ve changed contracts and agencies several times over recent years—and is going to continue to change going forward.

I’m very happy about our evolving relationship [with agencies]. I don’t think this is a focus on agencies. I think this is focused on the platforms and the speed of change that they need to do to address some unintended consequences.

@joshsternberg Josh Sternberg is the former media and tech editor at Adweek.
@laurenjohnson lauren.johnson@adweek.com Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.