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Dear Keith Weed...yours admiringly, but frustrated too

11 Mar 2019  |  Dominic Mills 
Dear Keith Weed...yours admiringly, but frustrated too

The Unilever CMO has made admirable public promises to clean-up parts of adland - but remains strangely tight-lipped about any progress, writes Dominic Mills

There is much to admire in the way Unilever's CMO has put himself, and his erstwhile employer, front and centre of the drive to improve advertising standards across the industry.

It takes courage and it takes effort too. Many of his peers - not just client side - will be more than happy to watch from the sidelines or, if they choose, continue to stick their heads in the sand.

Last week saw Weed open up the latest front, courtesy of his role as president of the AA, with a series of actions listed in the Arresting the Decline of Public Trust in Advertising document.

It’s thorough, bold, wide-ranging and ambitious. What’s not to like?

Weed presented the plan to what felt like general approval from the audience at last week’s ISBA conference, adding what felt like a more personal plea for greater creativity. “Great advertising,” he said, “is the best builder of trust.” Amen to that.

What’s missing, it seems to me, is a greater sense of public commitment from other major advertisers. Of course, other parts of the industry have their parts to play too, but in the end they’ll take their lead from their clients. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune. I’d like to hear more advertisers publicly take up the baton rather than silently sign up via ISBA or the AA.

And then I’d like them to tell us what they’ve actually done. Because that’s how they’ll really get the rest of the industry to take them seriously and be inspired.

This brings me to my greater frustration. It’s just over a year since Weed made his ground-breaking speech to the IAB in the US.

This was the key passage from his speech: “Unilever will not invest in platforms or environments that do not protect children or which create division in society and promote anger or hate. We will prioritise investing only in responsible platforms that are committed to creating a positive impact on society.”

This is big stuff, followed up a few months later in Cannes by a promise to take action on bad practice in the influencer market.

So, I thought, what could be more appropriate than an anniversary update? I’ve asked, but (official) answer... zip.

So what we have is a list of public promises, but no public list of actions. Grrrr. The same goes for the tough stance on influencers. How many has Unilever stopped working with? How has it encouraged platforms to play their part too?

Now I never imagined that putting these promises into action would be easy. You can read my take on some of the tricky problems here, starting with the big one: who decides what constitutes an environment that does not protect children, promotes anger or hate, or creates division?

In the absence of concrete answers it might be tempting to conclude two things. One, when push came to shove it was just too hard to do anything; or two, there was never an intention to do anything anyway.

Some will say these are unworthy thoughts. Perhaps, but scepticism is healthy.

My private enquiries suggest a slightly different picture, although with nothing that can be substantiated. One insider told me that Weed would not make a speech of the kind he did last February unless Unilever had a good idea of what it could do and had already started. Another tells me that Unilever has drastically reduced the long tail of publishers with whom it works — from many thousands to the high tens — by buying in safe, contextually relevant environments. But this is not necessarily a global picture since it’s not always possible to get the same volumes and reach in a safe environment outside Europe and the US.

I’m also told that, of the duopoly, Facebook has listened harder, which may be because, compared to Google, it is a purer advertising business and therefore has more to lose.

And by the way, I don’t buy the suggestion, made by one insider, that there is a level of commercial confidentiality that applies. It would be perfectly possible to summarise the actions in aggregate, and describe the process by which decisions were made, without giving anything away.

And so I remain frustrated, and not a little irritated. It’s as though Weed/Unilever has marched the advertising community to the top of the hill and said ‘Behold, the promised land of milk and honey. But if you think we’re going to tell you how we got there, think again’.

Zzzzz...the sound of the industry waiting for Campaign Agency of the Year

This morning — March 11, no less — Campaign took it upon itself to announce its AoTY winners for 2019. Yes, that’s a whole 10 weeks after the end of 2018.

The winners are much deserving — read the list here. But to delay the announcement till the second week of March is just a joke. While they celebrate, the rest of the industry will shrug and go: ‘Meh. That’s so last year’.

If the Oscars, a far more complex (and political) process can be done and dusted by February, what’s the problem here?

I’m told there are three reasons: one, deadlines were extended so agencies could include Christmas work (as opposed to getting more entries); two, to allow time for the judging process to be audited by PwC (the same people, ironically, who buggered up the Oscars two years ago); and three, the monthly print publishing cycle.

AoTY is, or ought to be, about excitement, and that in turn depends on timeliness. No later than the January issue, I’d suggest.

It’s like winding up the kids’ excitement for Christmas and then telling them they can’t open their presents for a few weeks — till March 11, for example.

Wow! A big promise from Facebook

For those paying close attention to Facebook’s Steve Hatch at last week’s ISBA conference, there was a jaw-dropping moment.

This was the point at which he said Facebook was planning to spend more on user safety and security this year than its revenue in the year, 2012, in which it went public.

It turns out that that is a lot of money. Revenues in 2011, the last year before its IPO, were $3.7bn. In 2012 they were $5.08bn.

If Hatch is basing his claim on the 2011 figures, then my maths makes that $10m a day; if it’s the 2012 figure then it’s close to $14m a day. You can get a lot of content moderators for that, assuming that is what the bulk of the money goes on, whether they’re based in Estonia, the Philippines or London.

Let’s say you pay them an average of $250 a day. That makes 56,000.

About the same as Man City’s average home attendance.

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