the strange dance of the trading partners

Peter Mayle once described advertising as a great first career: where else could one person have access to so many brands and verticals and industries as an agency? Shop rosters are routinely full of amazing (and confounding) brands: tobacco & hospitals; banks & charities; airlines & shoes. Gyms & sodas.

Sometimes I wonder if my own early agency experiences fomented the desire for unique & interesting work environments down the road: a non-profit here, an e-commerce site there. Ad agencies are just as adept at creating professional nomads as they are finding homes for them.

But this post isn't about ad agencies. It's about my current unique workplace environment: sitting between trading partners, brands & retailers, settling up their coupon data and coupon dollars. Coupons get a bad rap because they're blunt-force marketing tactics that don't appeal to our better brand angels. But they're also an enormous business, and one that's been throwing off big data long before "big data" was ever cool.

These days in promotion circles, it's fashionable to talk about "alignment": specifically, retailer & CPG alignment. Brands at shelf, retailers at point of sale.

And guess what? All the vendors are for it! We are all on board. Some of us serve brands; some of us serve retailers; some of us serve both. We ALL AGREE that communication & data sharing & trust & coordination of sales & marketing are noble and lofty goals… and we have a variety of wares to help trading partners do this.

Unfortunately, too many vendors are also naive. Not only underestimating the complexities, but misunderstanding the realities. Like it or not, the tension & occasionally adversarial relationship between CPG and retailer is a natural and normal thing. Unfortunate to be sure, but nobody's being a meanie here. They are both rational actors. Coupons taught me this.

Retailers want to make sure their shoppers have access to every coupon available, while manufacturers would prefer to discount only as a last resort. Nobody's wrong here. Coca-Cola really only wants you to buy Coke products, and they don't care if you buy them at a gas station or a grocery store. While the grocery store doesn't care if you prefer Coke or Pepsi; they just want you buying from THEM.

These interests will NEVER really align. They're not supposed to.

But it seems like every other pitch deck I come across promises better CPG/retail alignment. Will we ever see more nuanced messaging? An acknowledgment of divergent interests without alienating trading partners? (Am I allowed to say I serve primarily manufacturers, and solve primarily manufacturer problems?) Maybe I'm the one being naive here, but it would be great to see more vendors and solutions clearly acknowledge which client masters they serve, and whose interests they represent. It's ok. We're all adults here.

Note: Originally published on June 14, 2014 on my LinkedIn blog. See post here.