Weed Treats Social Media LIke Palm Oil: You Must Shape Up Eventually

Keith Weed

Unilever Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Keith Weed has gotten tougher on big digital platforms – but he’s not ready to go cold turkey on the Google-Facebook duopoly just yet.

His threat to stop doing business with media that “breed division in society or fail to protect children” in yesterday’s speech to the IAB leadership meeting isn’t an ultimatum with a firm deadline, he says in an interview with Ad Age. But he isn’t giving social media forever to make things right, either.

Think of it this way: Weed is also in charge of Unilever’s sustainability program. When Greenpeace sent folks in gorilla suits to scale the company’s London headquarters in 2008 over it using palm oil that led to deforestation, Unilever didn’t go cold turkey on producers who clear-cut rainforests overnight. Its goal is to use 100-percent third-party-verified sustainable palm oil by 2019, while steadily weaning itself off questionable ingredients in the meantime.

Now Weed is applying the same approach to the “digital supply chain.” That means eventually – though Weed isn’t saying when — Unilever will stop buying media that leave the social fabric in tatters. In an edited interview, he elaborates on how that will work.

Exactly how are you going to make good on this pledge not to do business with digital media that breed division or don’t protect children? How do you measure that?

With the three V’s, viewability, verification and value, two and a half years ago, we set a direction and then started moving fast. That’s worked well. It’s the same way in setting this up. It’s more in setting the direction where we believe the digital media area should go.

Individually, back in January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas, I talked to each of the platforms in terms of where we need to get to in terms of safety, but not just brand safety and suitability, but also to the point that we wanted to talk about the platforms having a positive impact on society. Each of them have their own opportunities and challenges. We’re working with the individual platforms and not coming up with generic industry statements and ultimatums. In terms of how we measure, that goes toward the talks we have with the individual platforms.

Is this in the same vein as the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan?

Exactly. You’re talking to the man who’s also responsible for sustainability and the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan. It’s the same way we have 1.5 million smallholder farmers who supply us, and we engage in Madagascar with Save the Children on assuring we have sustainable vanilla. So we’re not just talking about what happens in our factory. We’re talking about the extended supply chain in terms of human rights, ensuring we don’t have child labor, reducing our water footprint or our greenhouse gas or waste. We now have zero landfill waste from our factories.

Similarly, looking at the extended supply chain in digital media, [we’re] making sure the people we work with have the same responsibility. Responsible business in the digital world is not just about impact of our products on society and the environment, it’s also the virtual responsibility we have in the digital ecosystem.

Is there any deadline, any ultimatum, line in the sand, do this by a particular date or this relationship is over?

Not in that sort of way. Ultimatums don’t work well. They’re good at capturing attention. I think it’s much better to work with someone on a plan that is achievable against milestones and a roadmap you work toward.

The challenges we have on the internet now are unintended consequences. All of these platforms start with the intention to make people’s lives better, to make the world better. They don’t want them either. If it were an easy fix to sort them out, it would have been sorted out already.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have a desire to move quickly. On the contrary, I think you are better holding people to account by working closely with them on agreed milestones as opposed to public ultimatums.

What prompted you to take these positions now?

If you’re asking if there was an ‘ah hah!’ moment, to me it’s the issue of crumbling trust. Brands, companies, society are all based on trust. Brands are based on trust that for a given value you will get something that smells like this or tastes like that, so you can shop quickly when you go down the supermarket aisle.

What concerns me is that in the digital world, there’s an undermining of consumer trust. Increasingly, we’re doing more data-driven marketing, so we have greater personalization and can serve people’s needs better. These are all positives. But in a situation where there’s no trust, there’s no data. And with no data there’s no brand, going into the future.

What we did see in the Edelman Trust Barometer [earlier this year] was a separation between traditional media and social media. So for you it’s good news as a journalist: 58 percent of people trust traditional media, and the trust in experts and specialists was up as well. But social media was down at 30 percent, and that’s really concerning.

On digital infrastructure, when you’re talking about people working together toward a single standard, what should that standard be? Should it be the Unilever and WPP standard on viewability, or the Media Rating Council industry standard? Or something in between?

I believe on things like viewability standards we’ve still got a long way to go. The way I judge, a view is a view of 100 percent of the pixels.

Even before we get to viewability standards, one measurement system across TV and digital, even on something like reach, is something that would help optimize significantly the digital world and the media world. We as an industry overserve some people and underserve others. But at the end of the day it is just one budget and one consumer, and we need to be able to optimize across all media.

The pilot with IBM on blockchain that you mentioned, is this something that ultimately can solve the fraud problem in digital media?

I sincerely hope so. I think it’s truly exciting. I realize everyone needs to talk about blockchain now. It seems to be compulsory in any interview. But this is a genuine inclusion. This could really bring back transparency. The pilot we did on historical data did show some discrepancies. We’ve now gone live on real situations. We’ll see how that plays out. But in theory, this should be the solution to greater accountability and transparency in the digital supply chain.