Matt Williams: why Unilever’s The Foundry takes the CSR argument an important stage further

Inevitably, there’s a hell of a lot of talk here at Cannes about advertising for good.

Maybe it’s people feeling guilty that they’re spending the rest of the day drinking heavily, maybe they genuinely want to change the world. I’ll leave that up to you to decide.

But some of the initiatives that have come out of Cannes over the past few years have been hugely impactful, and kudos to Richard Curtis, Sir John Hegarty and the team for making such a big splash with #TheGlobalGoals, which was promoted at Cannes this morning in a bid to end poverty.

It’s a valiant and creative attempt to streamline sustainable development goals, and I hope and believe it can work wonders.

Following Hegarty and Curtis on stage this morning was Unilever’s Keith Weed. He always brings in a big crowd here at Cannes – well, so would you if you had an agency roster like his – but the full house is usually justified.

And amongst lovely little tidbits that had Twitter getting all excited – the fact that a human attention span has reduced from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, one whole second less than a goldfish, was a particular favourite of mine – it was Weed’s passion for the Unilever Foundry that most caught my eye.

The Unilever Foundry (below) is one of the company’s CSR initiatives, where they connect with entrepreneurial start-ups and give them a platform to innovate. Of course Unilever get much more than goodwill out of this – access to some of the world’s brightest and most energetic minds isn’t a luxury you overlook. But it’s clearly also important to them to be seen to be innovating and associating themselves with the future.

It gives the company a different focus, away from washing powder and ice cream, something for colleagues and managers to rally around and be a part of.

And you know the funny thing? You genuinely get a sense that Weed and co are truly, truly proud of this initiative. I’ve seen various Unilever chiefs pick up on the Foundry recently, and all are singing from the same hymn sheet – that this isn’t just a tick in a box, it’s a perspective and culture that runs throughout the company. That they all want to get behind.

That’s pretty special if you ask me. And when we do inevitably get people raising their eyebrows when we discuss how advertising can do a hell of a lot more than just ‘sell stuff’, I think it’s an impressive example to uphold.

But to do it, it has to be ingrained in that company. It has to be right, and it has to have buy-in. I thought it interesting that Weed said he was responsible for running Unilever’s marketing department and it’s sustainability arm. As he believes, “you can’t have the marketing team in one corner, and the sustainability team in another.”

Too often you get companies paying lip service to CSR. Creating half-arsed ideas to tick a box. Or coming up with something just because it might win an award. The Unilever Foundry shows that doesn’t always have to be the case. I’m the first to be cynical about these things, but I was won over today.

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