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Why client procurement and advertising agencies are at war.

Robert Solomon
Robert SolomonPublished on August 20, 2022

Why client procurement and advertising agencies are at war with one another.

Three years ago, in a moment fueled by a cocktail of exasperation more than anger, I wrote “Instead of whining about what’s wrong with the client/agency relationship, let’s work towards a solution.”  In essence I was calling out ANA’s Group Executive Vice President Bill Duggan – someone I met and did a presentation for early in his career – and The Four A’s CEO Marla Kaplowitz, a former Ammirati & Puris colleague, imploring both of them to address the ever-increasing fissures between clients and their agencies.

After writing the post, I shared it with Duggan and Kaplowitz.  Bill was kind enough to email back; Marla ignored me.  The solution I proposed – wacky, naïve maybe, even a little stupid perhaps – was my attempt to at least address the problem in a positive way.  It too was ignored.  Why was I not surprised?

Cut to the present; something finally has happened:  ANA conducted a research initiative exploring the client procurement/agency relationship, updating the results of a similar study issued 12 years prior. 

Things were bad in 2010; things are bad now.  

There’s a story  on the ANA study in Media Post, reporting an eye-opening, disturbing disparity between what procurement thinks of the relationship vs. what the agency thinks.  To wit (the boldface is mine):

  • “Fifty-four percent of procurement

    Procurement perceives that their definition of value is maximum growth and impact, but agencies believe procurement’s definition of value is lowest cost.

  • “Procurement views marketing as an investment

    “More than half (55%) of procurement respondents agree that procurement understands the economic value of successful marketing, versus only 5% of agencies.

  • Your own experience with client procurement might diverge from these numbers, but make no mistake: there is an on-going, largely unaddressed problem here.  

    To compound the problem, as procurement grows in stature, influence, and authority among many clients, the difference between what procurement does and what marketing does people becomes less distinct, meaning when you refer to procurement, you might just as easily be referring to your client, making the numbers here even more life-threatening.

    A way to make things better.

    Years ago, my Ammirati & Puris colleague Mike Lotito invited me to spend the day at one of the leaders in procurement management, a company called, you guessed it, Procurian.  Mike’s sold his firm, Media IQ, to Procurian, which then installed him as the Managing Director of the now-combined marketing practice.  Mike quickly saw a group of earnest, willing, but woefully ill-informed staffers in need of a reset.

    I was the re-setter.  

    I walked in the morning of my day-long workshop thinking “these people don’t have a clue;” I walked out at day’s end thinking, “these people really do want to help agencies, not be at war with them.”

    Okay, their boss – a former agency guy with agency baggage likely coloring his view – was in the room, everyone was on their best behavior, and I easily could have been played by the group, but taking all of this into account, I came away concluding there are three things that need to be addressed.  Client procurement and advertising agencies need to:

    • Learn 

      from one another; I mean it, meaning agencies need to better understand procurement, and procurement needs to better understand agencies.
    • Start from a position of mutual respect, which, over time, will develop into trust.

    Change starts with you.

    All praise to ANA for fielding the survey – hey, it only took three years and I’m sure it had nothing to do with my post – but will they follow-up?  Will they pursue the very things that will, over time, reduce tension and plant to seeds of trust?

    No, they won’t.  Nor will The Four A’s.  Agencies don’t trust procurement.  Procurement doesn’t trust agencies.  Want to know why the relationship agencies will never change, why things won’t get better?  That’s why.

    I say to hell with both ANA and The Four A’s.  If this is going to change, it starts with you, and your relationship with an individual client’s procurement team.

    My suggestion:  book some time with them, listen to them, ask really thoughtful questions, and begin to learn.  Let them teach you about procurement.  What their goals are.  What challenges they face.  What keeps them up at night.  Postpone talking; listen first.  Listen some more.  Ask even more questions.  

    When the time is right, offer to do the same for them.  If one person says “No,” find someone who says, “Yes,” then teach that person advertising.  Then find the next person.  And the person after that.

    Will things get better?  They cynic in me says, “Not likely.”  The optimist says, “It will, starting with you.”

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