OPINION: US PERSPECTIVE - Learning to live with the procurement specialist

Are procurement specialists now a fact of life in our world? From a US perspective, the answer is yes. They're fast becoming as ubiquitous as the media auditors of the UK, who themselves are establishing a strong beachhead on this side of the Atlantic. Their presence puts the exclamation mark on the commoditisation of our industry. We haven't been smart about establishing iron-clad accountability and self-regulation mechanisms. Clients demand transparency, accountability and integrity, and now they're taking the matter into their own hands.

The procurement specialists seem to inspire a reaction that is often a mixture of fear and contempt. Yet an open-minded and collaborative attitude from our industry will serve us well as they're here to stay. The sheer complexity of today's communications landscape and the pressure to justify marketing investment demands that the professional negotiators of goods and services turn their rigorous skills to an investment area that is notoriously nebulous.

From the recent WPP and Ford global marketing communications centralisation debacle, it seems that the procurement specialists will demand company policies and guidelines are adhered to in the purchasing of creative and media services and not just raw materials.

So, what can we do to ensure that the presence of these corporate gamekeepers enhances, rather than limits, our excellence?

We can begin by putting ourselves in our clients' shoes and recognising that increasingly the marketing function is under severe pressure to maximise its effectiveness and to prove that it is an investment and not a cost.

Education in the media arena is especially critical. Media practitioners have traditionally cloaked their trade in jargon and black-box complexity.

From the client point of view, the procurement specialists are highly trained negotiators and not emotionally involved with the agency. This allows the marketing folk to focus on their core competence and not waste endless hours arguing about the agency's fees. The smart procurement specialists that I have met do not fall into the category of "knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing". They are sensitive to the complexity of the creative process and recognise the valuable contribution our industry has in building brand equity and subsequently corporate wealth.

At the same time, we have all heard the horror stories of the "cost merchants" who will shop an assignment based purely on the lowest price, guaranteeing a short-term fix but a long-term headache. I have collected a broad range of examples of procurement directors' successful participation in the creative and media process. These are the common threads:

Cracking the ROI issue and agreeing to measurable metrics.

Defining success in business terms. We often over-state, over-promise and under-deliver.

Delivering on the integrated promise. The sheer complexity of the marketing communications process demands we "walk the talk".

Establishing key performance indicators to reward flair, skill, creativity and innovation, not just lowest cost.

Leveraging the strategic marketing partnership opportunities offered by the global media owners, recognising that there is more value to be identified and extracted as strategic partners versus trading adversaries.

Ensuring that we treat the procurement specialists with trust and respect, recognising that they're here to stay.

- Stuart Elliott is away.