Kate Howe on Procurement’s Pitching Predicaments

In the first of three articles, MSQ’s Executive Director and organiser of Procurefest Kate Howe discusses the big challenges and opportunities facing marketing procurement, as well as the wider agency and marketing sector.

Pitching. For us as agencies – just like it can be for procurement and marketers – it can be the best of times, and it can be the worst of times.

It allows you to unlock new thinking. To put your best foot forward and really get under the skin of a problem. It allows you to build new relationships or reinforce those already made.

But it also puts a huge amount of stress on everyone involved. From a resource point of view, from a cost perspective and, increasingly, from a mental capacity.

Little wonder that industry bodies, agencies and marketers having been so hotly discussing the topic recently. We’ve seen new pledges be made, new suggestions – such as making appointments after chemistry stage – be tabled. Things do need to change.

But the one issue I’ve had with all the conversations so far around the changing nature of the pitch is that almost all of them seem to have ignored contributions from the procurement community.

That’s not overly surprising – this certainly won’t be the first article in this publication disappointed about the lack of clarity between the marketing agency echo chamber and the world of procurement.

Indeed it’s why we at MSQ started our Procurefest series. Procurefest encompasses research pieces, events and roundtables where agencies and the procurement community can share ideas, solve challenges and embrace new opportunities.

So for our latest Procurefest panel, what better topic to dive in to than the pitch process? Chaired by marketing procurement evangelist Tina Fegent (one of Producers & Procurers iQ’s Women of Influence, no less) we wanted to bring together brands, agencies, intermediaries and procurement to identify what’s working and what needs to change.

No more agencies or marketers pushing forward one-sided views. Because procurement’s role in the pitch process is vital, right? For our highlights and learnings from the session, that question seems like a good place to start…

Pilot or co-pilot, procurement need a place in the cockpit

Should procurement be leading the pitch process? Certainly, they should be in one of the driving seats. Pitches are complex processes (our panellist Ali Aylward, Marketing Category Buyer at Suntory, counted almost 50 steps in Suntory’s ‘template’ for pitching!), with a lot being done in the background. From challenging the need for the pitch to working with the successful agency post-appointment, Ali emphasised the need for procurement to be engaged from the very first moment and throughout.

Certainly, the best pitches we’ve been involved in recently have seen procurement run the commercial negotiations alongside the main pitch. It not only avoids scares later down the line, it allows an agency to hit the ground running when appointed.

But beyond the commercials, procurement will be wearing many hats. As Kyrsten Halley, our panel’s marketing representative (Kyrsten is Brand Creator at Samworth Brothers, and previously Head of Brand at Ryvita) pointed out: “Procurement provides more objectivity on value. I talk a lot about the role of ego in marketing – everyone wants to look great. Sometimes you need procurement to say, ‘hold on a second, you guys said you wanted this, let’s not get distracted by the new shiny baubles that have come along’.”

That can be helped by getting the initial pitch list right too, Duncan Wood, Managing Partner of Ingenuity, explained. And procurement is rightly playing a more critical role in sourcing. “If the quality of the initial agency list is on the head of the procurement person, it can make a big difference, and answer a lot of questions later down the line,” he believes.

Communication, Communication, Communication…

If there was one overriding theme from the entire session, it was for the need for clear, transparent communication. That starts with providing commercial clarity up front – all panellists agreed it was mad to suggest not sharing the budget with the agency beforehand.

The more transparent procurement can be at the start, the better solutions they’ll get in general., “When I run pitches, I want them to be as efficient as they can be,” Samworth Brothers’ Kyrsten said. “If we’re all investing the time and energy and effort that a pitch requires, I only want to be having conversations about the ideas that matter.”

From an agency perspective, wanting to know the commercials upfront isn’t just because we want to splash the cash – I agree with Kyrsten’s assessment that constraint can actually be a big driver of creativity. But I care about the commercials early because we need to understand why the pitch question is really being asked.

Marketers are facing an ever-growing number of channels, an ever-growing number of customer journeys and changing consumer attitudes. Which means there are a number of different ways we can answer a brief now. At MSQ, we therefore craft the right team to solve the problem, bringing the right specialists to the table, rather than approaching every brief the same way. We can only really work out what the optimal solution might be – or even to table different options – if we understand exactly what the business outcomes need to be, and how much money is available to achieve that.

Give a little respect

Not all pitches are created equal, so the suggestion of a ‘one-size-fits-all’ process for pitching was refuted by our panel. But whilst a fixed process may be wrong, certain principles and behaviours should remain. And a lot of that boils down to respect.

For procurement, that means giving agencies the best chance to succeed. Have a clear project plan in place, the panel advised. Be open with your marking criteria. Allow agencies to speak to all your stakeholders early on. Make decisions quickly. Give feedback (to those who aren’t successful and the ones you’re taking on). Acknowledge the strain the pitch will put agencies under – a 9am Monday morning deadline suggests you know agencies will be working the weekend, a pitch first week of January means they’ll be working through Christmas. It sounds obvious to many, but we still see a lot more of this than we’d all like.

As Ingenuity’s Duncan Wood said: “There’s nothing worse than an agency being left in the dark on everything. Procurement’s role is often to herd cats and gets answers out of people. Keeping that drumbeat moving and hitting the timelines established is a key addition procurement brings that makes a difference between a good and bad pitch process.”

And from an agency’s point of view, it’s about respecting the criteria in place and having grown-up conversations. A true test of a business partner is not to criticise the budget, but explain what will and won’t be enough to get the right outcomes, and having the foresight to uncover different approaches to doing more with the budget.

I agree with Suntory’s Ali Aylward when she concludes that too often agencies still approach pitches with ‘the answer’s yes, now how are we going to deal with it?’ Let’s instead have more open, more respectful dialogue, both during the pitch process and beyond.

We at MSQ hope initiatives like Procurefest can provide a positive start.

This article first appeared on Producers & Procurers iQ here.