If It's Broke, Fix It

The recent announcement regarding the dissolution of Pepsi's procurement department resonated with me as the owner of an experiential marketing agency and former marketing leader (and client) inside Levi’s. From both sides of the table, I’ve seen the model work to best and worst advantage. Sadly, more often the later. There is indeed something broken with the procurement model in regards to how it is used today – as a barrier between brand and agency and, at times, a tool to source competitive pricing from other shops via RFQ exercises that involve extensive questionnaires and requests for detailed budget spreadsheets with no creative or strategic ask and, clearly, no real intention to source a new shop but rather to leverage the information as a negotiating chip with their current agency. (For the record, we always decline to participate in those.)



Fortunately, the clients we work with who have procurement departments mostly use them well, but Pepsi's bold move brings to mind a recent RFP experience that has me scratching my head and wondering how this process has failed both the agency and brand side alike. A brand I have admired and longed to work with for years (and one we have been invited to pitch three times via a revolving procurement team with no response or follow up three of the four times we responded) invited us to pitch as AOR for experiential. Given the scope and the passion of the marketing lead (whom we had met on numerous occasions and who had expressed admiration for our work), combined with the detail of the Q&A, it felt like a perfect match. To boot, the brand was inviting all who participated the opportunity to present in person. A chance to do great work and present it in person to the broader team in order to test chemistry for both sides is always a win. We were in.

We followed procurement's instructions, invested tens of thousands of dollars and eight weeks of a core A-team to deliver a thoughtful, passionate and compelling response.  We gave it our heart and soul. Mid-pitch, the brand had some business issues, and we thought perhaps the pitch would be delayed or off entirely, but they said to keep going and that they were committed to the original process. Business as usual, right? Well, not exactly. The pitch now needed to be delivered via email and there would be face-to-face meetings only with a subset. We took a deep breath and did a gut check. Were we being led down the primrose path again? We were already three weeks into conception and creative, were fleshing out some exceptional ideas that had the whole agency buzzing and felt confident our “get it” factor would snag us an invite to present. Yep, we were still in. All in. We don't know how to do it any other way.

The big day arrived. We uploaded our file via the specific share tool they requested we use and procurement confirmed that the "download was successful" (thank you). But many weeks later and still counting, we haven’t heard one word in regards to next steps; that we did or didn't make the cut, that they read it or that they were super busy and needed more time. Or even that they called the whole thing off. Crickets. To make it worse, we sent three emails to procurement asking simply for a status. Once every two weeks. Total silence.

So is my example of a broken relationship in this cycle an issue with procurement or the brand? Having a procurement team creates a great wall between the brands and agencies — as a former client, I get that there can be good times for that divide. However, it also allows brands to hide behind procurement and to potentially not take responsibility for dealing with agencies in the respectful manner they deserve. After all, it is the brand writing the brief and making the ask for agencies to deliver with little to no return (as odds can dictate). All on their terms, timing and parameters. It is the price of being a global agency invited to bid on exciting work and one I am willing to pay. However, I don’t think the price tag should include foregoing courteous, timely and respectful communication.

I say to the dear brand that I loved and would have given anything to work with (except my self respect): You knocked on our door, you asked for our best and most strategic ideas, detailed work plans and budgets, and we delivered. Please acknowledge our investment of time, money and passion with at least a considerate response.  If you don't want to work with us, that's fine, it's part of the current broken game we agreed to play, but at the very least, treat us like you would a colleague — not like some annoying salesperson knocking on your door. We didn't knock at your door, we accepted your invite to dinner and even paid the bill. 

There is so much more to ponder in this procurement consideration. I say kudos to Pepsi for putting the responsibility of the relationship back in the hands of the brand teams. At the end of the day, good work comes from great partnerships and those are best forged directly by the people who have skin in the game. Perhaps this Pepsi move will have us all open to the idea this old way of this business doesn't bring forth the best work and that we can create a new system based on equal parts relationship and respect and, of course, great work. 

We have amazing clients and for that I am beyond grateful. They negotiate the work fairly (mostly) and with mutual respect, and to those clients whom we currently serve, we say thank you. If only the majority of the others could take a cue from you. To those of you who treat agencies you request free thinking from like pesky sales people who do not warrant a response: shame on you.

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