‘WPP@Unilever is not an agency and does not want to be one’ – David Dahan at Mumbrella360 Asia

At Mumbrella360 Asia in Singapore, WPP@Unilever CEO David Dahan started off his session dismissing what was perhaps the most persistent misconception about the recently launched initiative, and said: “We are not an agency and do not want to be one. The reason why this was created was to try and answer a fundamental question: how do we best manage a global brand in today’s world? We are currently doing this for one client only – Unilever.”

Debunking other myths surrounding WPP@Unilever he said: “This is not an experiment or a pilot. It is our life.” 

He was at pains to distinguish WPP@Unilever from in-house agency setups. He said: “We are not in-house but in the house. We wanted to contribute to the ecosystem. We are independent and needed to keep the ability to challenge Unilever.”

Dahan elaborated on how WPP@Unilever was conceived, while reminding the audience that it was just six months old in its current shape and form: “At that age, we have learnt how to scream and maybe how to start walking. But we still have a lot to learn and are trying a lot of things.”

He pointed to the fact that making digital, research and creative work together was a lot harder than it seemed. He said: “We have been talking about integration for a while, powered by the muscle of collaboration. When you ask people if they want to collaborate, of course they say they do; but when you use that muscle, it hurts more than you think.”

David Dahan: WPP@Unilever communicates with a new language

A key step along the way, he said, was creating an entirely new language that both the creative agencies like Wunderman Thompson and Ogilvy as well as media agencies like Mindshare could speak, instead of expecting them to learn each other’s languages. Dahan said: “We are almost like a gang with signs. We wanted a common language to help us communicate fast with Unilever clients so they understand what we mean.”

WPP@Unilever is housed at level three of the Unilever office – a significant choice considering it is the level occupied by Unilever Foundry, the FMCG’s startup accelerator programme. 

Dahan said: “It has been an incredible important vector. It is the floor where Unilever is thinking about the future and we want to be part of that conversation.”

The operation has scaled from two operating companies – Mindshare and Kantar to four companies and 70 dedicated people. 

Dahan said: “We have to make sure we deliver – Unilever is holding us accountable.”

Speaking about WPP@Unilever, WPP Team Unilever chairman for Asia, Africa and Russia Sudipto Roy said: “What spurred us on was winning the global communications planning mandate. Singapore is a massive global hub for Unilever and it was a great opportunity to start thinking about how to disrupt the model. 

“This has cut down decision making and innovation time very sharply. What we were missing is true disruption – the opportunity to tie the whole thing end to end.” Ever since creative agencies had become a part of the mix, he said: “There has been a big difference at the execution stage between the first and the second year.”

WPP@Unilever Wunderman Thompson executive creative director Marco Versolato said that the initial concerns on the creative front had been addressed: “It is a different way of working. So far everyone is really happy and optimistic. The second step will be a Grand Prix.”

Unilever global brand director on Vaseline Richard Kohler said: “The move came as a surprise. For the last 10 to 12 years, I thought we were lucky to have an agency that was a 10 minute taxi ride away. The quality of interactions has improved. It will be very difficult to go back to a different way of working.”


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