Unlocking The Creative Genie: How The Content Rock Stars at Unilever and Brandscapes Worldwide Collaborated to Help The Bar on Creative Development

It is not every day that a small insights-function step changes in-market impact for a huge multinational, globally. In 2017, Unilever CMI created the Content Centre of Excellence as a small team to step-up and change content execution, particularly in digital.

How do we step-up our creative capabilities?’ was a stirring if challenging gauntlet thrown down by Stan Stanunathan, EVP, CMI at Unilever. This was a daunting challenge considering Unilever pioneered content creation in many aspects, created content for over a century, and basically led the way for the world.

So, where do we start?

The question to be addressed was large, so it made sense to do a de Nuovo analysis of the creative landscape within Unilever and the industry, to identify factors that help or hinder creative development processes.

Some questions we asked:

  • What makes for winning communication?
  • How can we structure for cutting edge creatives?
  • How do current processes and practices foster/hinder creativity?

The content team briefed Brandscapes Worldwide and through a process of brainstorming arrived at a unique methodology that involved Conversations, Insight Mining and Debate.

Therefore, objectives we defined for Project Genie:

  1. Assess current processes of creative development
  2. Ascertain the process barriers
  3. Verbalise desired ‘gold standard process’
  4. Develop a model or recommendations to encourage/build appropriate behaviour/facilitators

We dived head-on into conversations with 33 internal and external stakeholders – spanning marketing, insights, brand-management, planning, creative and research. One-on-one conversations allowed for open expression and abundant anecdotal evidence gathering. We were clear that while our data points would come from people working with and in Unilever, our reach must exceed our grasp if we want true objectivity and inspiration. And so, we identified organisations/brands that had demonstrated creative excellence time and again and sought to speak to them about their mantras, both within and outside our industry. We also did follow-up conversations with either the same person or someone we were directed to, to further understand a point. Not sticking only to the usual suspects in assessing creativity – we included people from Finance, HR and commercial to look at every touchpoint within the creativity ecosystem.

Learnings were both insightful and surprising. Our passionate conversations got us brutally frank responses!

 The core team looked at responses alongside existing processes of creative development to identify areas of synergy vs. barriers. Additionally, we studied thought pieces, articles on creativity, motivation and winning tips and tricks. Ultimately, our learnings were distilled down to five core areas which directly impacted creative development

Culture | People | Human Inspiration | Metric | Leadership

Consumer Obsession:

Best examples were those where passion for consumers was kept on throughout the  journey – where consumer insights were brought into play early – when the brief was taking shape, when first level creatives were being discussed – not at the end “Consumer connection is not enough – consumer obsession is a passion that keeps creativity churning”. There was an opportunity to open constant communication throughout the journey, and often without a fixed agenda, to have a constant buzz of ideas, builds and creative leaps.

This led us to more agile, always-on approaches.


We learnt that how the creativity ecosystem and culture pervaded through the organisation made a huge difference, and that it needed to include the thousands of agency teams Unilever works with to create content globally. Better signalling the creative culture as the core and the most important part of one’s day job was one suggestion to jumpstart passion and involvement.

We needed to recognise and train both the science and the art: constant training and feedback through managers and team leads on the skills of recognising ideas, decision making and following one’s gut were important.


The best ecosystem for creativity was the human touch – `We are all in this together’ jam sessions, a day away or just walking the streets our consumers walk. Creativity together with our partners and consumers led to great results. The best way to embed this would be to bring extended teams together – using always-on consumer intimacy tools alongside old-fashioned brainstorming sessions.

Another interesting opportunity to unlock creativity and foster ideas across the borders was to have informal yet invigorating ways of local-global connects, including in onboarding. This would ensure regional and local nuggets shone through in creatives.


We did not want CMI to supervise or templatize creativity: we felt templates should be used only in the original spirit of having them – clarity, planning, goal posts. The focus should not be on compliance.

Everyone acknowledged the strong system of checks-and-balances up to the finish line, but the need was to ensure that focus on reaching the finish line did not take over. Loading the front end with culture, trends and consumer provocations were some suggestions. Further, processes may be linear, but creativity is not, should not and need not always be. “Creativity does take a detour; you do need to hit pause and rewind occasionally “

Leadership Role:

While creativity is a personal trait, creating a climate for creative development is an organisational imperative. The direction was clear – leaders could tap into the enormous influence they wield on teams to boldly set upfront an agenda for creativity, innovation and facilitating story telling. The vision was of an agile, entrepreneurial environment of failing quickly, leaning forward, rewarding, and acknowledging fresh thinking and efforts to push the creative envelope.

Outputs also provided cues to trigger-points and intervention-points to deal with blockages. One of the strongest outcomes was not just focussing on content but opening-up and embracing new channels, e.g. the digital opportunity, and using those as opportunities to create fresh content.


Through iterations based on small group brainstorming learnings were distilled into 10 key insights and 5 immediate calls-to-action which the content team took to senior management. An inspiration docket featuring examples from innovative thinking to HR practices were put together to create additional points of view.

To signal the change and build fresh perspectives, with precision recruitment over 6 months, we put together this team of 43 (mostly millennials, many new to research). This team would be tasked with creating change in the second largest advertiser in the world – Unilever!

This team changed the way content was executed in the organization through our THINK & LAND framework, pulled together using learnings from Genie.

THINK: The team had to lead the way in terms of thinking around new content formats, new consumer interest areas and content opportunities for Unilever.

  1. Set up systems of Digital Excellence Mandatories – Core creative inputs that would promise to increase ROI in double digits depending on channel: Helped Unilever unlearn and re-learn

  2. Huge Step-up in Digital Capabilities – 30 Meta-learnings on emergent areas like Brand Purpose, Voice, New to the world digital tools etc. defined and shaped our communication agenda and strategy: We used AI tools extensively to save the grunt and inspire.

  3. Introduce new Content areas underexplored by industry – One Example is Last Mile Content, which was presented at the MRS earlier in 2019

LAND AT SCALE: In a large organisation, thinking is not enough. We need to carry stakeholders with us and help the entire organisation raise the bar.

  • 300 Plus learning points across the organization to upskill the organization in one year

  • Using and implementing Artificial Intelligence tools across the organization across the creative cycle – scouting and developing themes with tools like MachineVantage and other advanced AI applications, using chatbots to engage consumers and testing.

  • New and innovative tools to story tell, replacing many PowerPoint with Live Dashboards, Touchcasts, Powtoons, Filmora etc.

  • Setting up an online Digital Monitoring system across 582 global data pipes in the span of one year to set up a data ecosystem.

  • Roll out 25+ global Creativity training for marketers covering all senior level marketers in 2018 to showcase Smart creativity- allowing people to engage at scale.

  • Presence in ‘Digital Hubs’ to create dynamic insights for dynamic content with close to real time insight support

  • We moved ALL Pre-tests we did to Live Testing/Live Optimization, and the entire creative testing suite of Unilever is now built on AI and Live consumer feedback.


Our aired asset universe across brands is a magnitude of many thousands of assets annually, and in this context, we have successfully raised the bar on a large base:

  • Unilever has won Marketer of the Year for the Effies in 2018 and 2019, linked to our performance metrics and the ability of our creative quality to drive them. 
  • Unilever Branded Creative Impact is more than competition and continues to grow (our ad-spends worked much harder in market)

  • Almost 80% of our creative development tools at the end of 2019 were ‘agile’(AI enabled, faster or more impactful)

  • Digital Quality in Unilever by end 2019 has improved across multiple creative metrics with many new experiments proving successful. Digital guidelines adherence has tripled in three quarters.

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