‘Nobody’s first pancake is their best!’ 

Senior leaders from Unilever, Cannes Lions' 2024 Creative Marketer of the Year, offer tips and advice for nurturing a culture of creativity

Last month, The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity* named Unilever its 2024 Creative Marketer of the Year.

It is the second time that Unilever has earned the accolade, which is given to organisations that amass ‘a body of iconic, Lion-winning work over a sustained period of time’.

Unilever was first named Creative Marketer of the Year in 2010, and since then it has won over 230 Lions at the festival. In 2023, the FMCG multinational corporation gave its strongest performance in a decade, winning 28 Lions across seven of its brands (including the Grand Prix for Media for Dove’s #TurnYourBack), having 58 entries shortlisted and taking second place in the Creative Brand of the Year rankings with Dove.

No brand consistently produces top-tier creative work by chance. And in this case, we know more than most about what it took Unilever to create an environment where creativity is championed as a driver of growth. Our advisory team has worked with the company over the past five years to put in place structures and practices that turn creative excellence into a repeatable process, rather than the byproduct of divine inspiration, helping to set up and run Unilever’s Creative Council and Creative Community, for instance.

So we called in a favour and asked the senior marketers on Unilever’s Creative Council and Community to share how they created an organisation worthy of Cannes Lions’ Creative Marketer of the Year award.

Finding the sparks and fanning the flames 

Esi Eggleston Bracey, chief growth and marketing officer at Unilever, and chair of Unilever’s Creative Council: ‘Unilever has a legacy of truly understanding the power of human connection to serve people and grow our brands.

We’ve focused on placing human creativity at the heart of our marketing approach. Finding opportunities and engaging in the simplest format to stand out in culture and be effortless to buy with ideas that are social by design. To drive this, our Creative Excellence program delivers effectiveness education, boosts creative ambition, nurtures talent, and removes barriers to creativity.

Leadership plays a crucial role too, our business group chief marketing officers, brand leaders and agency heads form Unilever’s Creative Council — where I have the pleasure of serving as chair. Together, we champion creativity and support our teams to craft innovations, ideas and brand propositions that address unmet needs and desires that may not be obvious on the surface.’

Nathan Cook, senior global director of creative partnerships: ‘Unilever brands have always produced strong work, but there was an opportunity to push creative boundaries even further, faster, and at a wider scale. We found pockets of excellence and used them as a catalyst to engage, energise and motivate more creative marketing across the company.

‘Everyone needed to be excited about the change, and the opportunity that building a stronger creative culture presents. Culture is created and nurtured by the people, so we built a creative excellence program that provided the structure to deliver on our ambition to build a stronger, bolder, more progressive creative culture.’


Ale Manfredi, the chief marketing officer for Dove: ‘I focus on three things. Developing a team culture that is allergic to mediocrity and fosters courage in creative development; hiring the best crafting talent and partners; and benchmarking yourself with the absolute best across all industries.’

Kathryn Swallow, the global head of Unilever deodorants category: ‘It all starts by instilling a passion amongst the full team to push boundaries, to be constantly curious about what’s happening all around us, to actively share amongst ourselves, and above all to trust our intuition. As a leader, you must be the catalyst to ignite this by walking the talk wholeheartedly, bringing the energy for creativity and bringing external inspiration to help fuel this culture everyday.’

Nuria Hernandez, the chief marketing officer for personal care: ‘In Personal Care, we aspire to weave our brands into the fabric of culture. We believe in driving a culture of experimentation, strong external orientation to stay on trend and working closely with our partners to bring our brand stories to life and be unmissable.’

Mohammed Elsharkawy, the global brand vice president for CLEAR: ‘By aiming to drive superiority in everything we do, it pushes us to challenge ourselves to be better all the time; better than what we have done in the past and better than our competitors in addressing people’s needs and desires.’

Nurturing talent, collaboration and trusting partnerships 

Firdaous El Honsali, the vice president for Dove masterbrand global & North America: ‘To nurture a progressive culture within my teams, I do two things:

‘Make sure everyone feels part of the team and can initiate the spark, identifying the trend or finding the idea — no matter your level of seniority or where you sit (on the Dove team, in an agency partners or the creator community). Then the whole team contributes and makes it into a big idea.

‘Instill an “everything is possible” mindset. As long as we are clear on our job to be done, on the brand and the boundaries, this mindset enables the agility and speed to capture cultural trends and deliver the best creativity.’

Annemarieke De Haan, chief marketing officer for home care: ‘At Unilever, fostering inclusion and embracing diversity isn't just a virtue; it's the very foundation upon which our creativity flourishes. Creativity is more than just curiosity, experimentation, and ideation; it's about the unrestricted freedom to express oneself. It thrives on breaking paradigms and defying norms to create the novel and the unexpected.’

Julien Barraux, the chief marketing officer for ice cream: ‘In the Ice Cream team, we deeply value and trust our advertising, social and design partners - they're part of the family. Even when we're not sure about an idea internally, we often say ‘yes, let’s try it if you believe in it,’ because we know ideas are fragile at first and sometimes the agency sees their power before we do.’

Ben Curtis, the global brand vice president for Magnum & category lead for luxury ice cream: ‘When you trust your partners you can take risks together which empowers the agency to unleash their full creativity on your brand’s challenges. This trust comes from time working together, understanding each other — and the brand — deeply. It comes from taking risks and then backing each other even when things don’t go perfectly first time. Nobody’s first pancake is their best!’ 

Severine Vauleon, global brand vice president for LUX: ‘Creativity is a team sport. We try to embrace open-mindedness, collaboration, and continuous learning. We encourage our teams to value and appreciate the creative process without being overly critical, shifting our mindset from problem-finding to idea-building. Giving ideas room to grow and taking some risks. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn’t, regardless we hold hands on it, as one client-agency-country team.

‘Also, sharing and celebrating both our successes and our failures is key. When ideas land with impact, the brand team, agency partners, and country teams are constantly motivated and encouraged to challenge themselves to do more every year.’

Creating the conditions for, and eliminating barriers to, creativity 

Robbert De Vreede, the chief marketing officer for nutrition: ‘There is no one magical ingredient, but there are a few elements that we believe work well for us in Nutrition:

  • We made the case for change by facing the hard truth that many of our ads were scoring well on rational aspects, but were viewed without any emotion. Knowing that fame quadruples efficiency, we had to change.

  • We had ‘brutal honesty’ conversations with some of our agency partners, doing two-way feedback on what both parties felt was missing and how the other could support to get more impactful work from our brands. 

  • We founded creative councils that gather our best marketeers from brands and markets across the globe with select agency partners to meet on a regular basis. In these forums creative ideas are pitched, challenged for creativity and impact, and then the best ones are backed with support. These councils showed dedication to creativity, but also created a platform for raising the bar.

  • We leveraged creative festivals like Cannes Lions where there is tons(!) of creative inspiration we can learn from. At gatherings like these the best partners show up with their best people in a very creative and can-do atmosphere. We discovered places like this are great to not only get inspired and connect with creative partners, but offer a great foundation to share and discuss specific briefs. This led to a change of mood and mindset and a higher level of creative work.’

Kathleen Dunlop, the chief marketing officer for beauty and wellbeing North America: ‘Creativity is a muscle that we need to exercise. We do that by looking at creative work together, sharing work we admire and talking about it. We discuss things like: what was the brief that led to that idea? And could we have made that happen in our organisation? The more you surround yourself with great creativity, the more easily you can spot the creative diamond in the rough, and the more you will believe it is possible to bring it to life.’

Frank Haresnape, the global brand vice president for Knorr & scratch cooking: ‘One of the things we did very deliberately is put creativity at the heart of Knorr’s refreshed strategy. We set an objective to make the brand crave-worthy in popular culture, anchored in both our iconic products and top dishes they hack. This centrality of creativity to our business strategy and market impact means that it is a core focus and deliverable, not another layer or head-office exercise.’

Luis Di Como, the executive vice president global media: ‘A media and consumer insight can often be a springboard for an unmissable creative idea for a brand, and vice versa a creative idea can spark a new use of a media channel. In my role, I champion the coming together of creative and media by crafting fully holistic partnerships with the major media platforms, where we leverage our spend to not only drive media efficiency and value, but drive macro learning, creative best practice, and measurement.’

Joao Brum, the senior manager for Hellmann’s new markets & PR/Advocacy: ‘For Hellmann’s, our Evergreen one-liner briefs truly unlocked our creative potential. These were crafted around four creative territories directly linked to our brand strategy, enabling our agencies to always be thinking proactively on-brief.

‘We set up quarterly creative councils, meetings to engage our partner agencies and markets to explore and explode potential creative ideas. These sessions have provided more opportunity for us to discuss and pressure test ideas, ultimately enabling us to say yes more than no to great ideas.’

Pau Bartoli, the Dove global brand director masterbrand & strategy: ‘Once you’re clear on what your brand is about and what key themes matter to people that you can tap into, then you can get the creative magic to happen. Allow space to have broad, always-on, open briefs available for creative partners to answer the big themes and challenges of the brand. Seek unexpected, fresh perspectives that allow creatives to come in with no constraints against a single-minded brief. 

‘Build a network of partners from outside the organisation, with long-term relationships in mind: agencies, experts, thinkers. This helps to keep the work fresh and bring the outside in, open your work to new takes on your long-term creative platform.’

*The Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity is part of Ascential PLC, which also owns Contagious.

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Contagious Advisory works with some of the largest and most influential marketing organisations in the world, helping them to transform their creative cultures and capabilities in the pursuit of commercial outperformance.

If you would like to find out how Contagious Advisory could partner with your business to embed and cultivate a culture of creativity, please send us an email on [email protected] and one of the team will get straight back to you.

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