How to stop procurement teams from strangling the creative process

Written by: Simon Clark
Published on: 6 Aug 2017

Spy Studio founder and creative director Simon Clark advises on how consultancies and in-house procurement teams can work better together.


Something is happening in corporates and public sector bodies, which might be slowly strangling creativity in design. Ever mindful they have to build an investment case and understand the ROI for every pound they spend, large organisations – understandably – are increasingly involving their procurement function in briefs, creative pitches, contracts and the on-going relationships between marketing teams and their design partners. But is this to the detriment of creativity? How can you commoditise creative thinking?

A procurement team, is tasked with finding and buying goods or services, usually via a tendering or competitive bidding process. As one procurement professional said to us recently. “We’re here to ensure fairness and consistency in the process and agency selection.” If you’re on a roster, it’s highly likely the very existence of that roster is down to procurement. And rosters are no bad thing – they are there to make things equal, make sure that work is spread out and to make sure the company doesn’t become too dependent on one supplier. So far, so good.

The tension between consultancies and procurement teams

However, although it is common sense for organisations to put safeguards and measurements in place, there are a number of reasons why giving procurement such a free rein is having a negative impact on blue chips’ relationships with creative agencies.

For a start, to help procurement teams to categorise design and measure output, they need to be able to label things, put suppliers in boxes. When we complete tenders, we have to select a category from a drop down menu and always have to select the catch-all ‘printing and design.’

Now, we all know that every profession has its levels of expertise and experience. You can’t and shouldn’t make an assumption that everyone is the same and produces the same output. Take an old client of ours, an international corporate – their procurement team got involved, and tried to standardise hourly rates for all design and printing work.

Procurement teams need to tailor solutions

Whether it was our studio at one end of the design spectrum, doing strategic branding work, or a printing agency at the other end printing brochure ware and annual reports, to procurement we were all one and the same and they wanted to enforce payment terms to those ends. But it’s not the same. Procurement people need to be able to differentiate and define different types of output from different types of agencies.

We had hour upon hour of meetings, where the procurement team struggled to understand what we did and how to label it, as they tried to throw a slew of key performance indicators and metrics at us to measure our output. We weren’t going to agree to slash our hourly rate by half, just to fit into the organisation’s new definition of what design was. So in the end? We had to throw in the towel and we no longer work with them.

This insistence that everyone fits into the same box, this failure to properly understand and measure creativity is bad for our industry. And it is also bad for client organsiations, as it reduces competition – many agencies will drop out of the tendering process if RFPs are too arduous, or they are just going around in circles when they have meetings with procurement teams. And this outcome is is counterintuitive to what procurement is trying to achieve in the first place – to try and stimulate competition and ensure a level playing field.

Of course, not all procurement teams work in that way. There are many that are more progressive and forward thinking and understand that creativity is fluid and intangible and not necessarily that easy to measure or fit into a box.

Lessons that can be learnt

So how can client organsiations and designers work better together? And how can procurement be involved in a way that enhances creativity and the final output? Here are some tips that can help:

  • Knowledge: Work with procurement on a ‘design adding value’ course – you can even run them internally and get your partner agencies to come along to give a talk. Create insight days, where procurement can be on site at different agencies for a day, so they can really start to get a grip of what the company is trying to achieve and how the agency is trying to help.
  • Be realistic: The same approach for everyone isn’t going to work. You might be able to do that with stationery suppliers or catering, but you can’t do it with design. You have to think about the design requirements that the marketing team has– it might be knocking out brochure-ware, but it could be doing a brand workshop or giving the brand a refresh. They aren’t one and the same.
  • Talking is good: Don’t shut your suppliers out. Don’t hide behind spreadsheets and box ticking exercises. Talk to them, work with them, understand how they can work with you to get the most cost-effective and creative result. That’s the only way you’ll figure out a way of working together effectively.

Of course, there’s not always a solution. In the same way you have good and bad designers, you have good and bad procurement people. Some are really switched on, progressive and willing to learn. And some aren’t. But it’s an issue that large corporates and marketing teams have to address – otherwise, nobody wins.