There are two moments in particular that I feel are worth calling out; one that I expected and one that I did not. I fully anticipated IAB CEO Randall Rothenberg’s masterful illumination of the direct brand economy in which unencumbered upstarts like Dollar Shave Club, Glossier and Warby Parker soar at the expense of Gillette, L’Oréal and Lens Crafters. Along the way he got very specific about the continued growth of these players, how they’ll reshape the businesses of the major corporations that compete with or perhaps acquire them, and how data becomes the new capital of the 21st Century. R2 closed by committing the IAB toward adapting to and embracing the Direct-to-Consumer ethos. That was big.
What was less expected was what happened next. A 150-year-old multi-national marketer took the stage and gave what I considered one of the most important speeches in the history of the advertising business. First, some background.
Last year at the same conference, Procter & Gamble’s Marc Pritchard famously called out the tainted supply chain that the digital ad business had built over the past decade, a set of institutions and practices that had promulgated fraud, waste, lack of accountability, shady content adjacencies and more. And then he pulled all his company’s money until very specific steps were taken. Pritchard lit a fuse that sent shock waves of immediate change throughout the business.
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This year Unilever’s Keith Weed did him one better. In a well-crafted, visually-arresting presentation, Weed raised the stakes and the temperature. While our “sleepwalking through the swamp of the digital supply chain” may have once (like in 2017) been seen as an advertising problem, it is now a full-blown social issue. “Now it’s about how it’s impacting society.” As the events of the last year have shown, the digital advertising machine has become a dependable financial bulwark for internet trolls, hate speech, misogyny and political destruction. And Weed’s unambiguous message was that since marketers’ money had fed the beast, only the future use of that money could kill it.
He went on to say that that marketers will be defined and rewarded based on whether they end up on the right side of history on several closely-linked issues. Yes, the kind of content a brand sponsors and enables is a critical responsibility. But so is the battling of gender stereotypes in advertising and packaging; so is the protection of children; so is indirect stewardship of the environment; so is the economic treatment of growers and farmers and others in the physical supply chain. The marketing dollar can either support good or evil in the world, and Weed has committed that Unilever’s dollars will stand for good.
Over a decade ago, Unilever acquired Ben & Jerry’s, one of the original direct-to-consumer, socially-conscious brands. Up near my home in Vermont there was a righteous fear that Unilever would change Ben & Jerry’s. Maybe just the opposite has happened.