Unilever chief Polman’s ambitious growth target means ad bonanza for agencies

It does if they’re represented in what Unilever CEO Paul Polman calls “white space” anyway, markets across the world where some Unilever brands are unavailable.

Polman has told the Financial Times that he believes Unilever, now in a hotly contested five-horse race with Procter & Gamble, Nestle, Kraft and Reckitt Benckiser among the world’s consumer goods giants, can grow at 7-8 per cent a year without doing any big deals.

This is a formidable organic growth target, ahead of even the seven per cent that high-performing RB has delivered over the past decade and also Nestle’s promised 5-6 per cent.

But Polman has said he wants to double Unilever’s 2010 sales of €44bn by 2020 and that will require a market-leading rate of growth.

This is hardly the Unilever of old of course (where the emphasis was more on margins under his predecessor Niall FitzGerald) but Polman, who worked in senior roles at both P&G and Nestle, has consistently said that sales growth is his priority.

And the key is rolling out more of Unilever’s 180 brands into uncharted territory.

“We still have only about half [our 180 globally available] brands in all the countries in the world. So, the opportunity to introduce in white space, as we call it, is enormous.

“Market development is probably one of the biggest drivers that we see, in these emerging markets especially. These markets are often one tenth of the markets that we see here in Europe and the US, and they’re rapidly catching up.”

All this means a big boost for Unilever’s ad agencies. In recent years marketing budgets have suffered as the world’s biggest companies have concentrated their firepower on mergers and acquisitions and other measures designed to improve shareholder value such as share buy-backs.

But global ad budgets bounced back strongly last year as companies chose to make the best of what they had, responding in part to investors’ desire for them to avoid risky deals.

The downside for Unilever’s current agencies (but interesting for the rest of us) is that such a policy usually means regular shake-ups to the agency line-up. Kraft has been making the running in the US by awarding small projects to an extended line-up of creative agencies, threatening the hold of the global marcoms networks.

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About Stephen Foster

Stephen is a former editor of Marketing Week and London Evening Standard advertising columnist. He wrote City Republic for Brand Republic and is a partner in communications consultancy The Editorial Partnership.