Unilever’s Foundry – Finding Innovative Start-Ups To Drive Marketing Performance (part 1)

You may start reading this post and think it is only relevant for marketing services procurement people. Please think again and read on – part 2 tomorrow will ask some significant questions that we think every procurement leader needs to consider!

At last week’s ProcureCon Marketing event, one of the most interesting presentations came from Jeremy Basset, who runs the “Unilever Foundry”. Unilever is the world’s second-largest advertiser, with huge global brands such as Persil and Knorr. As such, the firm is always looking for innovative ways of engaging with customers, and The Foundry is an internal organisation created a couple of years ago that looks to drive new ideas and experimentation in terms of how the firm achieves that.

Basset told us that “the pace of change will never be as slow as it is today" – in other words, everything is accelerating.  And, as he said, “start-ups are inventing the future, so we need to engage with start-ups”. Unilever is looking to combine the power of their brands with the innovation of start-ups.

So The Foundry links Unilever’s brand managers with innovative people and firms who have ideas that can help those brands from a marketing point of view. That can be everything from online market research firms to an interactive point of sale recipe display to promote Knorr, to “Sofar Sounds”, a firm that puts on secret gigs in people’s houses, and uses the Axe/Lynx brand as a “sponsor”.  Major areas of interest include innovations linked to “sustainability,” omni-channel enablers (e.g. in-store technology), connected devices, content creation, market research, and technology for emerging markets.

Basset explained that to ignite experimentation, you need three things.

  1. A start-up mind-set, the agility and nimbleness
  2. A risk framework - not every experiment will succeed
  3. Global partners - don't have to do it all ourselves

Jeremy bassetThe projects work through four steps –  brief, pitch, pilot, and partnership. The brief generally comes from a brand manager and is very different to those used with traditional agencies. “Think broadly, give them scope, enable the unknown. Invite the world to pitch potential solutions” says Basset, and the firm does just that through their website – see examples here.  (Very much outcome-based specifications in procurement terms).

The pitch stage gets down to a handful of potential partners and then the best are taken quickly to a pilot stage. 50% of the pilots then go on into partnership; Unilever has invested some $20M so far in pilots, and over 4500 start-ups have applied.

The level of interest in this session was reflected in some great questions (and answers).

Q - How do lead agencies work with these Foundry providers?  “We got agency partners to engage with The Foundry. We have invited them to get involved ... but there hasn’t been huge uptake to be honest.  If Agencies were more innovative, we might not need the Foundry”!

Q - How do procurement add value in this initiative?  "Procurement is a key partner – we both realise the need to rationalise our supply base but we have to embrace innovation too. Procurement realise they can drive both and are 100% behind Foundry. The first deal with the start-up is via The Foundry - if we move into a longer-term partnership, Procurement then gets involved".

Q - How do you protect IP? "We look to move to a more open approach, but start-ups tend to bring their own IP – it hasn’t been a real issue so far".

Q – How do you avoid brand people wasting your time? "Good question - we ask marketing people to commit $50K to the project before we go to the market, and to nominate a person who will “make it happen” – we are well aware of the dangers of tech tourism”!

Basset himself was very impressive – we stalked him on LinkedIn and found that he trained as an accountant, which perhaps explains why he came over as having strong creative and communication skills as well as a pretty structured approach. We loved his session, but it left us with some hard questions for the procurement profession, and in part 2 tomorrow, we’re going to ask those questions.

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