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The truth about Simon Clift’s exit from Unilever

We all know that Simon Clift, chief marketing officer of many years’ standing at Unilever, is stepping down. What’s less apparent is whether the imaginative, regenerative campaigns associated with his tenure are also on the way out. Clift inspired or was responsible for, among others, Dove Real Women, the award-winning Axe/Lynx campaigns and Persil’s Dirt is Good.

There are some reasons for supposing campaigns such as these may be casualties as new Unilever chief executive Paul Polman tightens his grip on the organisation and cements in place a new top team. Polman, in a move unprecedented in Unilever’s history, was parachuted in over stiff internal competition to fill the role somewhat over a year ago. Immediately he came from Nestlé, but the important thing to remember is his 27 years of experience at arch Unilever rival Procter & Gamble. He’s a marketer, Jim, but not as Unilever knows it.

Some commentators see the hidden hand of P&G training in accelerated product extensions and more emphasis on “moment of truth” style promotional advertising since Polman’s arrival. They surmise that action-oriented Polman – who has had a fair degree of success so far – was unsympathetic to Clift’s subtler, slow-burn approach. They detect a more dictatorial, metrics-driven attitude to agencies, which bodes ill for “open source” creativity.

But that view is by no means universal. One former Unilever employee (who will remain nameless, but spent 15 years at the company) sees Polman as a breath of fresh air, sweeping away the cobwebs of “nepotism and empire building”. “The fact was,” the source tells me, “Unilever never was a meritocracy and every move had to be ‘sponsored’ by a corporate elder. Clift epitomised this culture more than anybody.”

So two very different perspectives on the Clift era. Further insights (on a strictly confidential basis) very welcome. In the meantime, there’s more on Polman cracking the whip and changing the guard in this week’s magazine column.

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