Delivery Sessions Interview with Darren Adams, Global Digital Innovation Director at Unilever

From marketing manager to startup founder to global innovator, Darren Adams, Global Digital has had anything but a linear career path. But with every experience, his innate desire to seek out the unexpected and challenge the norm has only been more prevalent. And now, he’s using this curiosity and skill to make the world a better place as Innovation Director at Unilever.

We sat down with him to hear all about his journey through global innovation, the skills that have made him successful, and tips for fellow founders and innovators. Check it out.

Tell me about your experience leading up to your role at Unilever. What drew you to digital innovation?

If there’s one word Darren would use to describe his professional career, it’s probably not one you’d think. “It’s been squiggly for sure. I came across this term late last year; a ‘squiggly career,’ and it’s immensely interesting as I never recognized it in myself. But a lot of people follow a typical path when they go into a career, but mine certainly did not.

“I started out as an economics major by trade but found myself taking on marketing for the entire first decade of my career. But I think in my heart, I always recognized I wasn’t truly a marketing person. What kept cropping up for me was this yearning to embark on different avenues in consumer engagement. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t a lot of scope to do this at the time; it was far more traditional — print, TV, radio.

“So I started to seek different ways to engage with people and build relationships versus the unilateral communication of the time. This is back in 2006/07 when terms like community building and content creation weren’t really known, so we were just playing around and challenging the norm. But I would always try to link things back to traditional media to maintain that connection — and instead create a different outlet for it. Reflecting on my 25 years, this desire to try different things has always been a theme, which is also what led me into the startup world as a founder of three different companies.

“My career has certainly been ‘squiggly’ as they say — from pure startup with two guys in a backroom, sharing dreams and far too much coffee all the way through to 100,000-people corporations, working across multiple markets and trying to drive change. I just never knew that it was digital innovation at the time, until we did.”

Where do you seek/find your inspiration to keep pushing the boundaries of innovation?

“I inherently have a pretty high-risk tolerance, which certainly helps! I’m the guy that sees something on IG and buys it just to try it without knowing anything about it. I’m always willing to try new brands and experiences because it exposes you to new things — good or bad. Maybe that means dedicating 60-70% of the budget somewhere safe, but also allocating 20% to something a little more risky and off center to see where it goes. That’s my way of operating.

“My inspiration largely comes from two places. For starters, I read a tremendous amount! Anything I can get my hands on. But I also seek out people in organizations that are on a similar path as my own. I want to find people who think differently. Whether it’s a creative strategist or a designer, I will sit down and get to know what they’re working on. I listen to their ideas and share my direction so we could mesh the two together. You have to spend that time. Because if you always treat the relationship as a simple ‘answer the brief I give you’ scenario, then you’re always going to get that standard response.”

Unilever’s goal is to make sustainable living commonplace — What is your role in making that happen? What are the driving factors behind any successful strategy in this area?

For Unilever, the term sustainability takes a multitude of shapes and meanings. Each of their internal brands has its own unique methods of getting toward sustainability in the world around us, all with a shared goal of making the world a better place. “Before anything else, you need to define what ‘sustainable living’ is. When you think of a nutrition organization, it may be regenerative agriculture; how are we making the very limited space we’ve got more efficient and productive without drawing too much out of the earth? When you take it to a beauty environment, you’re thinking about the ingredients that go into these products; how do we find alternatives to natural ingredients as a growing population causes demand to rise? It’s all about delivering the right products to the consumer; ones that impact their lives in meaningful ways and in a sustainable manner to ensure we are providing for the generations to come.”

“At Unilever, my role is to accelerate that goal through external partnerships. We play such an important part in sustainability and have the ability to drive this new mindset, but we’re not the only group that can do this. Think of a supply chain; we have to affect each of the multiple groups who play a component in that process. A group like mine can help the organization see what the future ecosystem looks like and what new technologies or solutions we can bring to bear that will impact operations and offer an alternative solution.”

What does it take to be successful in digital innovation for consumer goods?

“Consumer trust is a big one. To be successful in this area, consumers need to understand your definition of sustainability and how you’re measuring it. There isn’t a lot of consistency in that respect in today’s world. Are you talking about recycling? Carbon footprint? Packaging materials? There are a lot of different ways to define it and a lot of attributes involved. But if consumers don’t believe the claims you’re making or they place it down to being profit-driven, then anything you try to do is going to be met with skepticism.

“So how do you gain this trust? Through transparency. That means being able to track and demonstrate how you’re making a sustainable product, so people can actually see the components involved. What many people don’t realize is that when technology, such as BlockChain, is applied to the supply chain, you can see the journey of a product from where it was manufactured to how it got to your home. I think this would surprise a lot of people and impact their decision-making.

“It’s also important to have simplicity in your messaging. If people feel like you’re talking in complex terms, their first instinct is you’re trying to hide something from them. And with that, being able to tangibly demonstrate the impact of both the consumer’s and the corporate’s decision. When a consumer is looking at a shelf with a variety of similar products, how many would ask if I make this choice over that one because it seems like the greener one, what impact am I really going to have? And their hesitation is probably justified because it’s not that one decision, but the multitude that we make over time.

“So one thing Unilever is doing is rewarding consumers for the decisions they make and showing how the aggregation of choices can make a significant change. We know the ways in which science and innovation are making a positive impact, but getting through to the consumer is much more difficult. A lot of groups are very good at making these high level commitments, ie. by 2030, we’re going to be carbon neutral, which is great, but distilling it down to a day-to-day impact is still a challenge.”

What specific skills have you learned over the years that have made you successful in this world?

    1. Being able to run and walk at the same time. “The true skill in innovation is being able to hold both a long-term view and a short-term view simultaneously. When you look at a marketing or brand-driven group, they are, by very nature, short-term oriented — thinking 6-12 months out. Conversely, a science and tech team is looking at developments that can take years to provide distinct outcomes; decades even. But digital innovation is at the midpoint of this spectrum. You have to understand what you can potentially build toward (ie. your North Star), but also be able to bring it down to something more substantive that people can latch on to today. People get very excited with a bright shiny object, but the challenge is keeping the excitement going and encouraging people to engage in the short term when the delivery is so far off.”

    2. You have to be a great storyteller. “To my point above, you have to be able to tell that long-term and short-term story, taking the audience on a journey to see how that first step is going to send you on a pathway. This just has to be part of your natural way of operating, and if it’s not, it’s a great skill to develop. I recommend watching people who excel at telling stories and testing some of those practices in your own life.”

    3. Addressing both strategic and cultural shifts. This is something I’m quite passionate about because you can put in tons of frameworks and processes, but if you don’t understand the cultural pressures on an organization, they won’t be effective. Yes, it’s important to have digital tools and tech, but equally as important is finding those champions within the organization who are going to go on that journey with you, particularly when it’s not part of the natural way of working at the time.

      “Simplify, repeat, repeat, repeat. Instead of overly complex processes, give these people catchphrases and words around the opportunity that they can start blending into their normal ways of thinking. To many, digital innovation can feel like a distraction, so it’s going to take time to get that mindset going, but it’s so important.”

    4. Recognizing that this isn’t just a quick thing. “Innovation isn’t just something you can just go to another organization for, lift and shift, and put into practice. Every organization has its own way of working; its own cultural aspects and unique distinctions that will either enhance or detract from innovation, and you have to understand that in order to bend and suit the organization.


You’re responsible for creating 3 startups. Tell me what it takes to be a founder today.

Darren’s innate ability to see things differently led him into the startup world as a founder himself, partly out of ego, but largely because finding different ways to bring change is his entire brand. “Founders need to be adaptable. In reality, what you start out wanting your startup to do is not necessarily what it’s going to end up doing. There’s a lot of classic stories here; the problem a founder thinks they’re solving is realized as being applied better in a different area once they start validating. It’s critical not to get locked in from the start. You can always go backward; pick where the attention is and how it can be applied then go back to your passion.”

“Secondly, find similar-minded people and surround yourself with them. Founders are stepping onto a very difficult path. You’ll have countless people doubting and rejecting you, but the support you will have will come from people on a similar journey as you. And you can learn a lot from those people because they understand the route and will challenge you.

“Next, you also have to think past the use case. So many groups I’ve mentored would confidently say ‘we’re solving this important issue,’ and I’d say ‘great, what’s next?’ It goes back to the ‘run while you walk’ mantra. Single-use isn’t the way people look at startups anymore. How do you create something that other people can build upon? You have to look at it from a global perspective and figure out how to open up multiple revenue streams.

“Lastly, you have to learn how to talk to corporations. The funding groups that will help you scale and go to market speak a different language. If you haven’t come from that environment, you can get swept up in the motivation but that’s not what they care about. They care about things like effortless integration, continuous support, and profit margins. When your application goes down, the VC or Corporate organization isn’t going to fix it, they’re going to look to you. So how are you going to support that — especially when the site is on the other side of the country or planet? That’s what they want to know.”

What are the key factors in running/implementing successful digital innovation on a global scale?

    1. Being aware of global vs. local considerations. “There are certain tools and frameworks that can work on a global level, and you need that universal story that keeps everything aligned. But you also have to have very specific considerations toward the cultural and market forces that have an impact on innovation. For example, China is very quick to get to market, while
      the US can have more platform-based thinking and a focus on longer-term, sustained solutions. It’s crucial to understand these differences upfront because it drives different approaches to innovation in these environments.”

    2. Understanding cultural variances. “Similar to the point above, we know that how our China team works with and talks to stakeholders is very different from the ways that the US or European team does it. So you need to be aware of certain conversations that need to happen, and the nuances it entails. China is fiercely hierarchical, while the US takes a lot more risk. If you try to force one way or another, it will be met with resistance.”

    3. Commitment to being on the ground. “Be present. You have to spend time in the markets in different countries, participating in workshops and seeing the differences in how these teams engage. You simply can’t do innovation through Zoom.”

    4. Share learnings across the team. “Don’t underestimate bringing your teams together on calls and in person. As a manager, you’re being pulled in different directions, but again, you have to spend that time! Innovation teams by nature are quite small, so it can feel isolating. If they start to feel disconnected from the global team, they can also get swallowed up in local groups, meeting their needs versus those on a global scale, which is dangerous. It’s so important to be diligent in keeping the teams connected.”

    5. Having clear and adaptable processes. “You need to develop playbooks and frameworks that allow the team to adapt to the local environment. The way you work has to translate to the local environment, so you have to invest the time to understand the methodology of operating and making sure everyone is on that same train.”