Unilever’s Jennifer Gardner Is Tired of Talking About Transparency

If new ad products and platforms don't come with visibility, they shouldn't debut

Photo of the Unilever logo and Jennifer Gardner
Unilever's Jennifer Gardner will appear at Adweek's NexTech conference on July 27. Unilever, Getty Images

Key insight:

A surge in demand for cleaning products and packaged-food items during the pandemic, coupled with the rapid acceleration of online shopping, has kept consumer goods companies like Unilever busy these days.

A longtime advocate of tackling harmful content found on the web, the British-Dutch company was one of the first major corporations to pause U.S. advertising on various social media platforms following calls to boycott Facebook over its lack of action on hate speech and misinformation.

Ahead of her July 27 appearance at NexTech 2020, Jennifer Gardner, Unilever’s senior director of media, North America, spoke with Adweek about in-housing, transparency and how she intends to diversify spending plans during its cessation of advertising on Facebook and Twitter.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What is Unilever’s current digital media-buying setup? Are you moving more in-house and away from media agencies?
We believe strong collaboration with our brand marketing teams, our Unilever Media team and Mindshare is critical to efficiently and effectively planning and executing our media and communications programs. We continuously look to evolve our team structure to address the needs of the business such as increasing our agility, collaborating across functions, etc. For example, we’ve found that increased deeper collaboration with our sales team, PR teams, shopper marketing teams and legal is critically important to our approach moving forward.

Advertisers are paying a lot more attention to ad tech after a PwC report found that only 51% of media budgets make their way to publishers. Do you think brands will accelerate in-housing, or even buy their own ad tech?
We believe a responsible and transparent media ecosystem is critical to the health and progression of the industry. We continue to work in partnership with Mindshare to ensure our tech stack and our media terms and conditions meet our visibility requirements and we will continue to assess this space ongoing. Fundamentally, in-housing is not a solve to these industry issues.

How is Unilever addressing issues of transparency in the programmatic marketplace?
Over 10 years ago we created our own programmatic trading desk within Mindshare and as part of this, we partner to assess technology solutions through media inventory deals and solutions. This approach has evolved over the years, but our focus remains the same with all of our media, not just programmatic—we are committed to driving a responsible media ecosystem with increase accountability and transparency as part of our Responsibility Framework that we introduced in 2018. As part of this, we focus on key areas such as viewability (the ability for our ads to be seen), fraud (human traffic not bot traffic), brand safe and suitable environments, and measurement (cross-media) all underpinned by independent third-party verification.

What do you think will ultimately happen with third-party cookies?
It’s important to have an industrywide solution that allows us the ability to measure reach and frequency cross-platform and cross-media types and channels. Building on our first-party data is [an] important part of future-proofing our organization to create a better experience to our consumers—whether it be they visit our website, email communication, or the media we serve them.

Can you please elaborate on what went into the decision to pause U.S. ad spend on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the remainder of 2020? Why the pause without officially joining the Stop Hate for Profit boycott?
We support efforts to drive trust and transparency in the digital ecosystem, but we have not joined any specific campaign. Unilever’s decision to focus on paid advertising is a broader decision based on where we felt we had the most influence as we continue to work with these platforms and industry partners to create positive change.

How, if at all, is Unilever using that money saved from spending on the platforms? Are you finding new, better, more efficient ways to advertise?
We are maintaining our total planned media investment in the U.S. by shifting to other media.

What concrete steps can Facebook, Instagram and Twitter take to get Unilever back?   
Standards, accountability, and transparency are key.  We are working with industry groups such as the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) with other marketers, agencies, associations and media partners. Through this, we hope to drive lasting change.

What’s the latest with Unilever’s initiative to cease marketing food and beverages at children?
We’ve been part of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) for quite some time now and continue to collaborate and support these efforts as consumer behavior and data points modify over time.

Anything else you’d like to add?
The need for marketers to have increased visibility and transparency within the advertising ecosystem is not a new call to action unpinned by independent third parties. Yet we find ourselves having the same conversations about this each time a new ad product is created or a new platform launches. The need for visibility and transparency doesn’t change—therefore, this should be factored in and available upon launch of new ad products and platforms.

We need media partners to collaborate and work with us to deliver cross-media measurement solution. Advertisers have come together through the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and media partners have been part of these efforts. We need to partner together to deliver solutions that improve the industry at large.

As retailers become media players they need to be managed and treated as media partners. Expectations won’t be different between retailers and other media partners. This encompasses operating in a transparent and visible ecosystem.

Jennifer Gardner will participate in a conversation about strategy, innovation, and the metrics that matter at NexTech 2020, a four-day summit beginning July 27. Register now for this complimentary virtual event.

@hiebertpaul paul.hiebert@adweek.com Paul Hiebert is a CPG reporter at Adweek, where he focuses on data-driven stories that help illustrate changes in consumer behavior and sentiment.