(Picture courtesy of my phone and a very old carrot from the back of the fridge)

Let’s have a rest today from pandemic related buying failures, (potential) frauds and so on, and look at something more heart-warming.

Advertising is a fascinating field when it comes to bad – or good – buying. That’s because of the multiplier effect. It is one of those spend categories where the impact of the spend can be out of all proportion to the amount of money actually paid out. That can be either a positive or negative impact, it is important to say.

So if I am buying cleaning services, or packaging, or raw materials, then as long as there isn’t a major fraud (contaminated material, perhaps) probably the worst that can happen is we “lose” the value of the expenditure.  The packaging doesn’t work on our production line, or the cleaning service is hopeless. Even then, I may well be able to recover something from the supplier. But if I spend a million on a brilliant advertising campaign, that spend could generate tens or even hundreds of millions of “brand value” in terms of future sales and profit. And if I make a lousy buying decision, we might lose similarly large amounts of value.  

There’s a great seasonal example right now with supermarket group Aldi and their “Kevin the Carrot” campaign, which first was aired in 2016, five Christmases ago.  I don’t know how much Aldi paid for the creative genius behind Kevin, but it was money very well spent. Aldi now receive millions of pounds worth of free advertising as the media highlights the adventures of Kevin without the firm paying a penny for much of the coverage.

There is even a range of Kevin-related soft toys, and demand is so great that “to help reduce crowds in the current climate, this year Aldi has introduced a digital queuing software that’s also used by music festival Glastonbury”, according to Wales Online’s coverage of Kevin!

But we might imagine the first meeting when the agency pitched this to the Aldi marketeers… “ a talking carrot? Are you sure? I mean, carrots aren’t even very Christmassy really”? 

“Yeah, but a cute talking turkey might not work…”

Anyway, marketing and advertising can go the other way too. Remember the backlash in 2017 when the Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner seemed to suggest that public demonstrations would all turn into happy, cheerful love-ins if Kendall just shared some Pepsi around the police and the protesters? That was withdrawn and although Pepsi got free publicity too, just like Aldi, it wasn’t quite as positive.

There’s an older example in my Bad Buying book, with the case of Schlitz Beer. It’s a multi-part story really, because the firm’s problems started with a sequence of recipe changes to the beer, which didn’t go well in terms of customer reaction. With sales falling rapidly, a new advertising campaign was the answer.

Unfortunately, the creative contribution was the opposite of the inspired talking carrot, as Schlitz used a boxer who got upset when someone offered him a beer that wasn’t Schlitz. His anger at this proposal was not very appealing however, and it went down in history as the “drink Schlitz or I’ll kill you” campaign!  The firm was eventually bought at a knock-down price by a competitor, as sales continued to slide.

That was an example of advertising spend having that negative multiplier I described earlier and I’m sure we can all think of ads that made us feel less rather than more inclined to buy a product. But in the meantime, enjoy Kevin, and I’ll see you in the queue for the Giant Kevin the Carrot Plush Toy! (too late, sold out already…)

We’re seeing so many interesting procurement and supply chain issues during the pandemic, but focus tends to shift week by week. We’ve had the challenge of finding more ventilators, which has more or less disappeared as medics have found that such treatment isn’t advisable for many patients. Then we had global shortages of PPE (personal protective equipment) – that issue certainly hasn’t disappeared, and we’re now all very interested in how a tiny pest-control business in England could win a contract for over £100 million of PPE supply.

But there’s another “spend category” that could make £100 million contracts look trivial. According to the Guardian today (June 18th), the UK’s National Health Service is considering a huge deal with the private hospital sector to use the private facilities in order to help clear the backlog  of non-Covid treatments that re urgently needed. (The NHS has effectively taken over the private hospital sector since March, but there is evidence that many of their facilities have not been heavily used up to now).

The newspaper says that “Matt Hancock, the health secretary, and NHS bosses are pushing for a £5bn-a-year deal to treat NHS patients in private hospitals and tackle a spiralling backlog amid the coronavirus pandemic”.

However, the Treasury (the UK finance ministry) has refused to sign off the deal, and has told the health department (DHSC) to “get more detailed commitments from private firms about the number of patients who will be treated every month in return for the payments”.

Well done, the Treasury!

I’d like to think that some sensible procurement professionals are involved in those discussions, although I am surprised that those procurement experts who sit in the DHSC (and there are a few…) didn’t get everything in line before the deal went to Treasury. It does also suggest that Sir Simon Stevens, who leads the NHS, and was apparently about to announce the deal, maybe doesn’t really “get” procurement. That is something we have suspected for a while and was reinforced by his choice of a Chief Commercial Officer last year who had no procurement experience whatsoever.

In any case, throwing £5 billion at some private firms without knowing exactly what they will do for the money wouldn’t be sensible and would indeed be “Bad Buying”.  It may be that the view was to set up some sort of “cost plus” or “time and materials” arrangement with the private firms, rather than having very clear deliverables, payment based on outputs and so on. But those mechanisms, where payment to suppliers is based on their costs rather than what they actually do, has some major disadvantages. Here is a short extract from my forthcoming book, “Bad Buying – How organisations waste billions through failure, fraud and f*ck-ups” (to be published by Penguin in October). I’m talking about construction contracts here, but the principles are absolutely the same.

“How about ‘time and materials’? In that type of agreement, the builder keeps a record of all materials they buy for the project, and the time that staff – bricklayers, carpenters, labourers and the like – spend on the work. The buyer agrees to pay those actual costs, plus some sort of margin to cover overheads and profit. Traditionally, many such agreements were based on a ‘cost plus’ model. So, you might agree to pay your builders all their costs, plus 20 per cent on top.

But you can see the incentivization problem here. Not only does the firm have no incentive to buy bricks as cheaply as possible, but they actually have an incentive to spend more on material and to make the work go on as long as possible, as they recover all those  costs back, plus 20 per cent on top of that! You could put a cap on the profit / overhead element, but that doesn’t fully address the incentivization issue on the materials or labour”.

Anyway, it is right that the government takes its time and applies all the skills it has at its disposal to get these contracts right. We’ve got blasé about large amounts of money being spent through the pandemic, but this is £5 billion we’re talking about. (“A billion here, a billion there… pretty soon you’re talking real money”, as the phrase goes).

I’d also hope that best practice contract and supplier management principles are going to be adopted here too. But that’s another whole story …