AURORA: You are the CFO of Unilever Pakistan, yet the function of media relations and media buying comes under you, which is rather unusual as finance and media are two distinct – and some would argue opposing – functions. Practically how does this work?
ALI TARIQ: It is unusual, as media is typically not a core responsibility of a CFO. However, I have been given additional responsibility and I double hat. For media, I am supported by an in-house team of experts in traditional, digital and OOH media, headed by a media manager. Driving Return on Marketing/Media Investment (ROMI) is a key thrust for Unilever. Collaboration between finance and media teams ensures that we deliver powerful media strategies and plans. Side tracking a bit – at Unilever, marketing heads ensure that all brand planning and execution decisions are signed-off by their finance business partners to ensure end-to-end ‘value creation’. Dedicated finance teams are therefore part of all marketing departments, partnering with the brand and media teams. In terms of media planning, my finance team’s analytical skills combined with their industry expertise make a strong combination.
A: Doesn’t that create a kind of tension in so far as it may inhibit the brand team’s instinct to look beyond purely financial considerations?
AT: The objective of the finance business partners is to deliver sustainable, competitive and profitable growth, not just numbers and analysis; which means that they are not far off from what the brand teams are targeting. This ensures goal congruence, while at the same time bringing in financial expertise. A separate line of finance business partners also ensures independence in decision making.
A: To do this effectively, they require more than a superficial understanding of the dynamics of marketing. From where do they get this??
AT: It is part of the training process they go through when they first come on-board. The training ensures that they have a good understanding of how a brand marketing plan is created and executed – from the identification of ‘issues and the opportunities’ to the deployment of the plans on media and on ground. For example, they are trained to understand the marketing lingo, the brand jobs and objective setting methodology and how to optimise Advertising & Promotions (A&P) deployment; otherwise they would not be able to add value, challenge or advise.
A: What does your role as head of media involve in terms of mandate?
AT: Our responsibility is to optimise media investment across brands and categories. We are expected to be the independent gatekeepers who ensure that the investment is fully aligned with the intended brand objectives in delivering competitive growth. We market 30 very diverse brands, from mass tea to premium hair care, and have to ensure that the right amount of money is spent, on the right medium, targeting the right audience. We also manage relationships with key media partners and stakeholders; channel heads, channel sales heads, creative agency heads, media buying houses and account managers.
A: Practically, how does this work when it comes to putting together a media buying strategy?
AT: My in-house media team function as the interface between the brand teams and our external agencies such as media buyers. They leverage each other’s expertise to develop strategies and plans.
"We have global relationships with some agencies and with others we don’t. Also, as one of the leading and diverse FMCGs in Pakistan, several agencies are excluded because they work for the competition and there is a potential for conflict of interest."
A: How does that interface express itself?
AT: For example, when a brand team wants to run a campaign, a set of detailed brand objectives and target groups are defined. This information is communicated to an individual in the in-house media team who then works with multiple external stakeholders to develop a plan and present back to the brand team. The media team mediates the discussion for gate keeping and plan finalisation.
A: Is this a way of optimising media neutrality and transparency?
AT: Having an independent media function ensures that all decisions are taken in the best interest of the brands and the overall organisation. At a brand level, we partner the marketing teams in doing the right thing. We ensure the right media mix, the right channel mix and the right amount of money – no less no more. At an organisational level, we advise on how to best prioritise and optimise deployment of resources across categories. Not all battles can be fought at the same time.
A: Do you have an interface with the creative agencies?
AT: Yes and no. We manage relationships where a piece of creative work is requisitioned by the local brand team. However, as is the case with most multinational organisations, the bulk of the creative work comes from the regional teams, in which case, it is the regional brand development teams which liaise with the agencies.
A: So when it comes to appointing an agency in Pakistan, you are a key influencer of the outcome?
AT: We set up an independent cross functional team which collectively assesses and takes a decision. For extra transparency, the process is also monitored by our internal audit team. However, it is not often that we appoint new agencies; we already have a panel which we work with.
A: Because of the multinational affiliations?
AT: We have global relationships with some agencies and with others we don’t. Also, as one of the leading and diverse FMCGs in Pakistan, several agencies are excluded because they work for the competition and there is a potential for conflict of interest.
A: How do you allocate your media spend across platforms?
AT: We go where the consumer is. Today, TV is the most important medium, but I must emphasise the word ‘today’. There is a huge shift in consumer eyeballs to other platforms; it is perhaps a bigger and a more rapid shift than we would like to believe.
A: On what basis do you gauge this?
AT: There is independent albeit limited data available, that tells us where the consumer is. For example, we know that internet penetration is already +/- 19%. We have seen the rate of increase in internet penetration in India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and other developing countries and there is no reason why the same trend should not follow in Pakistan. Similarly, mobile penetration is estimated to have increased to approximately 65% and is therefore a key medium for us in reaching the consumer. Cable penetration is gaining pace in rural and has more than doubled in the last two years. At Unilever, we believe that we live in a rapidly changing and ‘VUCA’ Pakistan – VUCA standing for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous. We have to learn to manage and flex our plans in this environment. Therefore, we encourage our teams to keep going back to the drawing board to review whether the assumptions made earlier still stand valid. The mantra we follow within the media function is that there is nothing called a fixed plan or budget. You have to keep refreshing assumptions and dynamically managing plans and resources.
A: Doesn’t the theory of working in a constantly evolutionary environment require people, not so much with different skill sets, as with completely different mindsets based on agility and flexibility?
AT: Absolutely; a mindset that is receptive to frequent and radical change and risk taking. I spend more time influencing mindsets than telling people what to do. What to do is easy.
A: Does Unilever Pakistan generate its own data or do you rely on external sources?
AT: Both. We use external research data and conduct our own through our Consumer and Marketing Insights (CMI) department. In addition, insights are also channelled into the business through sales and marketing teams following their market visits and consumer interactions.
A: How much tracking do you do to ascertain that the media you opt for is providing the required ROI?
AT: When we invest in an innovation or in a media plan we set ourselves rigorous input and output based objectives; these range from GRPs to unaided awareness to brand equity and attributes scores to weighted distribution to market shares, and so on. We have a structured post evaluation governance framework to assess progress against those objectives. Learnings are extracted and circulated for future incorporation. This post evaluation governance is perhaps one of my most powerful tools in driving ROMI.
A: Who does this extracting?
AT: It varies according to the metric. For example, the brand equity scores are extracted by our in-house CMI department using our third party research provider Millward Brown. Competitive spend data is extracted by our media department using Mindshare. Distribution data is extracted by our sales team using Nielsen. The brand teams then bring it together in the form of a standard scorecard and work with the cross functional teams to analyse performance and extract learnings.
A: Like all major advertisers, Unilever Pakistan is largely dependent on the availability and credibility of audience measurement mechanisms. To what extent do you leverage your clout as a major media spender to improve the credibility of these mechanisms?
AT: We are fully supportive of initiatives that help develop the advertising industry and deliver brilliant marketing. However, in doing so, we work through independent professional bodies; for example the Pakistan Advertisers Society (PAS) and we never influence or reach a conclusion on the basis of what we think or see individually. We were an integral part of the industry discussions to bring an electronic TV audience measurement system to Pakistan. We supported the introduction of MOVE, the outdoor system of measurement. In fact, we were the first organisation to sign up with MOVE. It is new territory and whether it will work or not, is anybody’s guess, but we are happy to pioneer and take risks for the right reasons. So, yes, we participate actively, but at the end of the day we rely on the independent judgment and decisions of the relevant professional and/or regulatory bodies.
Ali Tariq was in conversation with Mariam Ali Baig.
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