The in-housing debate: What Unilever has learned from U-Studio

In some ways, my heart goes out to a marketer nowadays – the opportunities are fantastic, but negotiating change, and the speed of that change, is tough.

When I started out, we were using data that was three months old and second-hand. Today, you can engage in real time, with first-party data, at scale. This gives us great opportunities to connect with people but massively increases the demand on the marketer.

We realised early on that to be fit for the future we needed to adapt to changes driven by the rapid increase of technology and make the lives of our marketers simpler.

About three years ago, the explosion in video, and increased media time from mobile, drove a huge step change in the need for more content. We needed much more content but were confronted with the challenge of “fast, quality, affordable – choose two of the three!”.

How could we create real-time, fast, quality content without blowing the production budget? We began by defining what “content” we needed. To us, there are two worlds of brand communications that exist side by side: “interruption advertising” – interrupting people’s lives with branded messages; and what we call “seek-out content” – when people are genuinely seeking out information about your brand or product.

Next, we asked ourselves whether we had the best structure to deliver both. We felt we needed a solution to increase the volume and turnaround speed of news-based interruption advertising and to create more seek-out content for our own channels based on the needs of our consumers.

So, we set up U-Studio, Unilever’s in-house digital agency, specialising in creating digital, needs-based content, and social and digital advertising at scale. We started with a small pilot in four countries and it grew from there.

We found that having an in-house solution works for us because of the proximity it creates to our marketers. It means that the agency teams are better able to understand our marketers’ priorities and create high-quality work at increased speeds, delivering “real-time” assets and agility while complementing our wider agency portfolio.

This was our vision, and we selected Oliver to help us to execute it because it is an expert in doing this for clients.

Since launching in 2016, we now have 18 U-Studios across 15 countries. They sit with our marketers and are regarded as centres of excellence. Our marketers like the new way of working and it has delivered on the anticipated benefits of speed, quality, cost and agility. 

Now in its third year, U-Studio is only becoming more ingrained in and core to our ways of working.

In terms of external agencies, we still love them – and always will – but we are changing the way we work with them. We are elevating our relationships away from individual agencies to an integrated approach from our trusted holding company partners – WPP, Interpublic and Omnicom – aimed at delivering better creativity, effectiveness and better consistency across disciplines. 

U-Studio also sits within this new agency ecosystem, with us ultimately using horses for courses – we share out the work according to need.

Our in-house digital agency model also complements our data-driven marketing approach through Unilever’s Digital Hubs.

Last year, we deployed 11 Digital Hubs, focused on building audiences, delivering and optimising targeted content, all under the umbrella of our strict data governance standards. You have all the experts around the same table, including our agency partners and, via U-Studio, an end-to-end team, working in real time and making changes as they go along.

This is critical to bring data-driven marketing to life and contributes to efficiencies across the business. 

In a nutshell, by in-housing we created the tech, tools and talent needed by our marketers to better serve and anticipate the needs of our consumers. 

That’s why U-Studio has become a strong, complementary addition to our agency ecosystem.

Keith Weed is outgoing chief marketing and communications officer at Unilever


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