More empathy, less blame: marketing procurement post-Covid

By defining what good governance and stewardship looks like for marketing procurement, we can allow advertisers to focus on the big stuff, rather than the small.

As the world blinks and businesses start to emerge from the most challenging year in living memory, advertisers are faced with the same set of challenges they were pre-Covid – and then some. The global media ecosystem has gotten no less complex over the past 15 months, and, in many ways, it’s become more challenging for brands to navigate a path to ever-better return on marketing investment.

Not only did the pandemic cause many to pause, cancel, or rip up plans for 2020. It also accelerated many underlying trends, from ecommerce to OTT TV. And on top of that, Google is standing firm by its commitment to phase out cookies on its market-dominant Chrome browser by 2022, creating significant challenges for martech dependent on third-party data.

In this context of continuing disruption, it’s worth considering what the skills and approaches are that will enable advertisers to thrive in the coming ‘next normal’. From my role as the North America MD of FirmDecisions – the world’s biggest, specialist, marketing contract compliance auditing business – I’m focussed keenly on what good governance and stewardship looks like for marketing procurement. And while marketing savvy, technology know-how, and financial probity are all table stakes, my starting point is, in fact, empathy.

Putting ourselves in each other’s shoes

For many in marketing services, one of the enduring benefits of coronavirus must surely be the collective, enhanced ability to see the world from other people’s points of view. Because everyone everywhere was quite literally in it together – and because almost all carefully-constructed media and marketing plans were forced to change – advertisers and agencies, finance and media, marketing and procurement were faced with a predicament. They could work, from home, in their own organization’s or department’s best interests. Or they could work together in partnership to make the best out for everyone of a very bad situation indeed.

Most of the evidence I’ve seen over the course of the last year suggests that partnerships between advertisers and their agencies, between magic (in marketing) and logic (in finance and procurement) have been strengthened not weakened under Covid. Success in marketing procurement in particular has come from empathy, from putting the dynamics of relationships first.

All parties have seen the benefit of going that extra mile to create genuinely win-win outcomes, not only think of their own targets in these cash-strapped times. This spirit of cooperation and willingness to see the world from the other party’s perspective has already strengthened many advertiser-agency relationships, through increased openness, candour, and willing to experiment. And relationships reinforced and strengthened under Covid are likely to be relationships that prosper on the other side, too.

Both advertisers and agencies generate fluid, dynamic, creative working environments where staff turnover can be high. Many only stay in one role for 18 months or a couple of years, to be replaced by others from inside or outside the company or the agency. This dynamism is exciting and one of the very real lures of working in marketing services.

But in terms of institutional memory and “how we do things around here”, it can also have a profound impact on good governance of agency relationships. That’s why I’m optimistic that the benefits that closer partnership and cooperation – and at their foundation, empathy – that have been accelerated by the pandemic can endure as the world of work evolves into the 2020s. As the decade progresses, I’m confident that empathy will become an ever-more important dimension of successful marketing procurement.

Good governance goes beyond just media

Because brands invest most of their marketing spend on advertising – and the lion’s share of that on media – good governance in media was the focus of the ground-breaking report into transparency in the U.S. media market from the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) in 2016. And while many big advertisers have taken some action in this area in the five years since – spurred into action by the recommendations that FirmDecisions helped the ANA to write – there’s still plenty of work to be done here. The hard reset forced on all advertisers by the pandemic, however, means brands should seize the spirit of advertiser-agency collaboration to take the noise out of the system and up their governance game in media as a priority.

But marketing is about more than just advertising, and frequently brands do not apply the same degree of rigour across all areas of marketing spend. Social media, sponsorship, PR, direct marketing, events (when they’re allowed back) – all of this spend should be subject to the same principles of good governance as above-the-line advertising.

For consumer brands, shopper marketing and in-store promotion can command the majority of all marketing spend – sometimes 80% or more – and yet rarely do sales and marketing teams apply the same degree of rigour to this investment as they do to media. They should do so without question, and they should use the experience of the past 15 months and embrace the spirit of empathy and engagement to set all of their agency relationships to the same high standards.

Summing up

Good governance in marketing procurement – where marketers, finance, and in-house procurement professionals form a solid partnership – is about much more than penny pinching and blame and catching agencies out for failing to return rebates that are due.

Changing agencies is often expensive and counter-productive, even in the medium term. It’s frequently much more cost- and time-effective to get today’s relationship right for today and those who come after us than it is to go chasing after the shiny new kids on the block.

Getting agency governance right allows advertisers to know that the small stuff is covered and regularly assessed, allowing them to get on with the big stuff.


This article was featured in Producers & Procurers iQ