The love/hate relationship between PR and procurement

Can PR and the bean counters ever become bosom buddies, asks Alex Benady.

It was not love at first sight when PR and procurement first met back in the 1980s. Not so much blind dates as blind, deaf and dumb dates, with neither speaking nor understanding the other's language.

Their encounters were often frigid and deeply unsatisfactory - and sometimes very, very brief.

One agency head admits he stormed out of a pitch because of interference from procurement. "We had been presenting to Sainsbury's and we had won the business. But this procurement guy just didn't get it," he recounts. "He didn't get what PR was. He didn't get its unpredictability, in particular he couldn't get his head around why we should be paid if we couldn't provide guaranteed results. I was so frustrated that I just walked out of the room."

It felt a bit like asking Wayne Rooney before a game to predict how many passes he would make, how many tackles, how far he would run, how many goals he would score and what the result would be.

"In those days," laments Beige partner Larry Franks, "they treated PR like a utility and focused on one dimension - price. They didn't look at value, depth, reach or impact." If Franks found the procurement approach alien, the lack of comprehension and trust was mutual. Procurement spent most of its history supervising the purchase of physical items such as building materials, supplies and the oft invoked "bog rolls". As long ago as 3000 BC, pyramid-building Egyptians were tracking the supply of stone, wood and workers on papyrus rolls.

More recently, it turned its abacus on marketing services. "For people with a procurement background, used to the concrete and the quantifiable, the way PR worked was an utter shock," says a client-side procurement specialist who asked not to be named. "Not only were there no guaranteed outcomes; the purchasing process was often opaque to say the least, and success depended on nebulous concepts like 'relationships' and 'creativity'."

To make matters worse, agencies were often amateurishly run businesses in their eyes, poor at cost control, and unable to provide basic management information about the way their businesses worked. But because PR contracts tended to be small, valued in the thousands of pounds, at least the two professions did not need to meet too often. Today, the involvement of procurement has become a normal part of the new business process - if not quite the norm.

Stuart Pocock, chief executive of marketing resources management consultancy The Observatory, estimates that at least 50 per cent of larger pitches worth more than £200,000 have procurement attached. And many much smaller projects from governments, NGOs and multinationals are now accompanied by a detailed request for information from a procurement specialist.

Given that PR and procurement now have a 30-year relationship, he says he is amazed at the extent to which they still fail to understand each other. "My experience is that the majority of smaller agencies still don't have a clue. A client says to them I want a campaign. Rather than asking what they are trying to achieve and why, most agencies are like builders. Their first response is how much have you got to spend? They can't work out their costs properly so they can't provide full financial information."

But often the problem is on the client side, he says. It is not unusual for the marketing or corporate comms people to be at odds with the procurement people, which does not help.

And procurement is still failing to come to terms with the elusive and flexible nature of the PR world. "Take hourly rates. Procurement can carry out benchmarking exercises. But then they have a real problem on timing. Obviously senior people can do a better job more quickly than junior people. But procurement will tend to go for the cheaper option."

Then there is the question of valuing relationships. In some industries like construction the quality of relationships is less important. In fact projects can be brought to a successful conclusion even when the client and contractor hate each other. "But in PR good relationships are key to creativity. The problem is it's very hard to place a value on them," says Pocock.

In some ways pressures have increased since the financial crisis. Not only are procurement departments driving down prices; they have been one of the driving forces behind the extension of payment terms and the introduction of e-auctions. So it is now quite possible for agencies to win a place on a client's roster without a single face-to-face meeting.

Yet for all the carping between the two camps, relations are improving. PR people say that procurement people are upping their game. "They have made it their business to get to know our industry landscape. It is seen as a strategically important part of the marketing mix. They recognise the value of earned media," observes Andy Last, chief executive at Salt.

The Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, which is currently working with the PRCA and CIPR to update guidelines on procurement, agrees that exposure to softer disciplines is altering its approach.

"There is a change in procurement with a move away from just hard facts and statistics. As procurement professionals are encouraged to develop these soft skills, this offers a good grounding for a warmer relationship between procurement and PR," says Trudy Salandiak, PR manager at the CIPS.

PR agencies too are beginning to see the advantages of procurement. Rachel O'Connor is managing director of Siren, a small agency employing 16 people. Procurement is involved in only a small fraction of her new business pitches, but each time she estimates that it adds three to four days of senior executive time to the cost of pitching.

"The total cost must be around ten thousand pounds year, which is unwelcome. Yet they do make us up our game, especially when it comes to defining our policies on all sorts of intangible issues like company culture." She would like to see those questions addressed through common management standards like ISO 9001, which would shorten the process and reduce its costs.

Franks agrees: "Relationships between PR and procurement have definitely improved over time. We've been forced to value and understand our own businesses better. The process is much easier now that we have most of the information on file. They understand our business better too. I think we have met in the middle."

How to get the best out of marketing procurement

Tina Fegent, marketing procurement consultant

1. Accept and respect procurement's role

 Procurement people are often around longer than their marketing counterparts so work with them. And they move on. It is always helpful to be a procurement-friendly agency when that next pitch list comes up.

2. Appoint an opposite number in your agency to contact

 It is time-consuming to have to deal with the FD, the CSD, the GAD, the external lawyer, etc at an agency. It is easier to have one central point of contact to work with.

3. Be open, honest and transparent

Procurement people are there to ensure you make a fair profit. If you feel that you should mark up third party goods to cover the time spent sourcing them, say so.

4. Push back if you feel bullied

 If you feel a procurement person is being unreasonable then tell them. Stand up for what you believe in.

5. Teamwork

Sometimes it is hard for the procurement person to engage with their internal clients. Show them that by all working together, the relationship will blossom.

6. Education, education, education

A lot of the procurement cynicism comes from a lack of knowledge of how an agency works. Take them on a shoot, sit them at a Mac, sit them with your writers.

7. Process improvement

Time and cost savings can be made by looking at ways of working, both with the client and internally. Engage procurement teams to review these processes together.

8. Talk measurement and effectiveness

Procurement people love numbers so talk KPIs, SLAs and ROI. Helping the client justify their expenditure by measuring results will not only help them but you too.

9. Management information

Supply regular reconciliation reports on the fee and scope of work or even savings made to date on production - and procurement will adore you.

10. Relationship management

Implement a relationship management programme with procurement. Ensure you get an opportunity to talk about how things could be improved.

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