Claire Willis is Procurement Director at dentsu, a global media and advertising agency spanning 143 countries and with 66,000 employees. She has been with dentsu for seven years, having previously worked in procurement in both the services and manufacturing industries.
She spoke with Procurement Heads about her procurement career and what advice she would give women setting out on a career in the profession.
How did you get into Procurement?
Like most people, I ‘fell’ into Procurement.
I was working at a company that had recently been purchased by Private Equity and the new owners brought a Specialist Procurement Consultancy in and I was asked if I’d like to take a secondment to work on the project.
I jumped at the chance as I was still at the very early stages of my career and was excited to work with, and learn from consultants, as well as spend time working in London, which felt very glamourous to me at that time as I was living in Yorkshire where I grew up.
What are the roles and responsibilities the Procurement function holds within your organisation? How do you split the function out?
As a media company, dentsu doesn’t have a typical spend profile – there are very few goods that we buy which are physical items, so we don’t have logistics to contend with.
Technology is a key spend area for us due to the nature of the business. The team is split into two hubs that are responsible for different spend areas. Within those sub-teams, the work is split as appropriate based on capacity. This allows each individual to manage their own projects while working as part of a team, to share learning, and to share the workload.
Our Procurement function plays many roles from sourcing, negotiating, contracting and supplier relationship management while often being a project manager, facilitator and mediator.
What are the challenges that you and your team currently face?
One of the main challenges, that seems to exist in most companies, is the lack of good data.
One of our objectives is to pull local agreements into global agreements where appropriate, but this can be challenging where we have limited visibility of market data.
I implemented an S2P platform across all Global Functions two years ago and that is providing invaluable insights and efficiencies.
What are you most passionate about when it comes to Procurement?
Achieving a business objective gives me the biggest sense of satisfaction in the role.
My team is lucky to be involved in such a cross-section of diverse, interesting, strategic projects at board level. Playing a role in working on initiatives that will impact a global organisation is very exciting and motivating.
What do you think are the key focus areas for Procurement right now?
I think sustainability should be key for any Procurement team today. It is incumbent on every single one of us, both personally and professionally to make good choices for the future.
What are your team and organisation doing with regards to sustainable procurement?
Dentsu is a global leader in digital, data and creative services, and so has the ability to change mindsets and influence the choices people make every day – and I’m very proud to say that we are proactive in being responsible.
We are committed to using our influence to tackle the climate crisis, encourage sustainable consumption and play our part in decarbonising the global economy.
We have ambitious social impact targets and are very proud that we’ve hit our target to procure 100% renewable electricity, where possible, across our global operations, ahead of schedule. This means all of our operations – spanning 145 markets – are powered by renewable energy. This major milestone has also enabled us to reduce our carbon emissions by 43% per full-time employee since we set our environmental targets back in 2015.
Tell us about your biggest achievements in your Procurement career?
We won Global Sourcing Project of the year at this year’s CIPS Excellence in Procurement Awards and were finalists for Best Collaborative Teamwork Project.
Dentsu is a Japanese-owned company but the Japanese business has always worked independently of the international business.
My Procurement team is responsible for the ‘rest of the world’ but in this piece of work, we embarked upon a global sourcing initiative in the first major integration work to bring together the two separately operating business entities.
The team had to overcome huge challenges including conflicting business practices and behaviours driven by a wide range of stakeholders, competing supplier relationships and worked hard to navigate cultural, language and time zone challenges in order to achieve our goal.
The outcome was unified, consistent technology platforms which delivered significant cost savings and operational efficiencies while developing a collaborative relationship between the two businesses.
This has acted as a catalyst for continued mutual success and we have subsequently completed an additional two agreements with Japan and have six further agreements in progress.
I am hugely proud of the team for delivering an outstanding piece of work and delighted that this has received external recognition.
What skills do you consider essential to be a Procurement leader? What do you look for when hiring?
Soft skills; communication and influencing, that are so often overlooked are absolutely fundamental for success in procurement.
We work with so many different people, in all parts of the business, at every level of seniority, both internally and externally.
Managing those relationships and learning how to adapt your communication and interactions depending on who you are dealing with is the key to being successful.
Procurement often has to navigate through complex challenges with competing and conflicting objectives. It takes a lot of skill to manage these situations and deliver a successful outcome while maintaining healthy working relationships with all involved.
This all requires a high level of emotional intelligence but makes the difference between someone being great in their role and someone that the business and suppliers want to avoid working with.
When hiring, I always ask myself – can I put this candidate in front of our various stakeholders; the CTO, CFO, our suppliers, Project Managers etc.
I need my team to have good procurement experience, but how they come across to stakeholders is just as important.
What has been the best lesson you’ve learned in Procurement?
Always get it in writing!
If you think you have agreed something with a stakeholder internal and external – write it down! Send an e-mail stating what was agreed so that it is clear to everybody and it doesn’t get remembered differently (or forgotten) over time!
Who has had the most influence on your Procurement career and why?
This would have to be Stuart Stephens who was the Procurement Consultant that I worked alongside in my Procurement secondment as a graduate. He taught me what procurement is, how to do it professionally, and walked me through my first strategic sourcing exercise. Working with him inspired me to pursue Procurement as a career.
We kept in touch and he actually recruited me to work in his team at dentsu seven years ago. He has since moved on, which gave me the opportunity to step into the Procurement Director role almost three years ago, which I have loved. Without him, I doubt I would have ended up in procurement, so I remain grateful that he opened my eyes to the opportunity.
What advice would you give someone who is embarking on a Procurement career?
Take all the opportunities that are thrown your way.
Each project will teach you something new. We are very lucky in procurement to have such a varied landscape of work, and everything you work on will be different and add something new to your skillset.
At the start of your career, it is great to get a wide range of experiences, it will help you to work out what you enjoy doing the most (and least!) and what areas you want to develop and focus on.
What do you think are the current Procurement trends/hot topics and what emerging roles do you think we will see in Procurement as a result?
At dentsu, sustainability, social impact and diversity are all very hot topics and these are all things that Procurement can influence.
It would be great if we could have a dedicated resource in the team to work with our suppliers on these areas, but at the moment this forms part of our Procurement Managers role in supplier relationship management.
What role have you and the Procurement function played in enabling the company to face the pandemic?
As a business, the norm was very much to be in the office but we moved to almost 100% working from home overnight.
Technology has had a huge part to play in that and fortunately that’s something we were already prepared with as we had already rolled out global agreements with collaboration tools. As a result, we haven’t had to have any kneejerk reactions to the change in working conditions and no PPE needed as dentsu has taken employee safety very seriously and have not asked for anyone to return to the office.
What have been the major challenges you and your teams have had to navigate during the pandemic?
The only real challenge we have felt is the isolation of working from home day in day out. We have a great team culture and we miss being together and meeting with our stakeholders, but we have found ways to maintain the culture, keep things fun and even managed some socially distanced meetups over the summer.
What impact has Covid had on dentsu?
2020 has been a strange year. We have had to replan our year based on expected revenue reduction which means a change of priorities and some projects being postponed, it’s tough for everyone but it also drives a lot of positives and has helped to really drive focus into the organisation and to move at pace on the things that really matter.
What has worked well and what would you do differently with the benefit of hindsight?
Working from home has worked well for our team – it’s good to see that we can continue to do our jobs just as effectively both in and out of the office.
One of the benefits of this year is that it will pave the way for a more flexible working life for so many of us going forward. With this flexibility can bring better work-life balance, job satisfaction and enjoyment which in turn will make for a much happier, more balanced and in theory more productive employee – win-win!
What challenges have you faced as a woman in the industry?
I started my career in the manufacturing industry in a very male-dominated environment but I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to move into this career and I grabbed it with both hands and ran with it without stopping to consider if my gender was a limitation.
I can honestly say I have never expressly felt I have been held back in my career by anyone else because I am a woman, but one thing that I reflect on regularly is whether things would be different if I were a man.
I can’t know the answer to that, but I do believe that women are prone to hold themselves back. That could be a lack of confidence – AKA imposter syndrome – resulting in not putting themselves forward, not speaking up in meetings or generally keeping a low profile.
All these things I see more in female behaviour and so I think the biggest challenge to overcome is often ourself and self-confidence.
It’s something that I am becoming more and more aware of the more experienced, and older, I get.
How can we encourage more women to choose procurement as a viable career?
The challenge with getting anyone into procurement is that so many people still have no idea what it is and what we do, so procurement as a profession is not even considered.
There is often a perception of procurement that it is just about hard bargaining with suppliers on price which can put people off as they think they are not cut out for that kind of confrontation.
The reality is that that is a tiny part of our role, and so we need to educate young people studying business in college or university about the huge variety involved in the procurement profession.
What advice would you give women setting out on the profession?
Do the job in a way that is comfortable for you.
You will learn valuable tips of what does and doesn’t work from watching others but you need to behave in a way that is natural to you. Don’t make the mistake of copying that one guy who is angry all the time and shouts at suppliers – that doesn’t work long term.
Procurement is not about being tough and bullish in negotiations, that is a very small part of the job and is often not the best approach.
Building relationships and navigating through difficult situations requires adaptability and much more emotional intelligence to get to the best result.
What is your view on how women are represented across the profession?
My view is that they aren’t represented anywhere near enough!
At the entry-level and mid-level, I see a good gender split in the profession, but that starts to change once you get into Senior Management.
So far in my career, every single one of my Managers has been a middle-aged white man!
The only way that is going to change is to cultivate the next generation of female leaders to rise up the ranks.
I’m very proud that I have some excellent females in my team who I have absolutely no doubt are going to go on to achieve huge success at the very top of the profession.
Is there anything you would have done differently during your career?
I’m quite comfortable with the choices I have made throughout my career, any mistakes I have made, I’m glad I made them as it has taught me something valuable.
One key learning is to take opportunities, don’t wait for things to happen to you, if you see an opportunity, go for it.
Your career is in your hands.
What skills are essential to be a good procurement leader?
For me, my biggest priority is the team – making sure they have the help and support they need to do their jobs, whether that is moral support, being a sounding board, an escalation point or technical advice, I want to ensure I am available for all those roles.
As a leader, you have to be decisive and forward-thinking – have a plan for what you want to achieve and inspire the team to want to achieve it with you.
What do you like doing in your spare time? Do you have any favourite books, films, destinations, sports etc?
I got into running four years ago after doing a couple of triathlons and realising that I hated the swim and cycle bits! So now I like to get out and run along the river.
I love reading and that used to be my commute activity which was such a treat but now the commute has gone I seem to have lost the reading time (but don’t miss squeezing onto the tube!)
If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Have confidence in yourself; if you act like you can do it, others will believe you can do it
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself
I recently ran my first virtual London Marathon.
It was my third marathon and it was definitely the most mentally challenging!
I enjoyed the camaraderie of the previous two events (plus I didn’t have wind, rain and mud to contend with on those!)
Do you have a personal motto that you live by? If so, what is it?
I never regret a run.
It’s something I realised during the lockdown and have said it so many times since – on those days when you don’t quite have the energy or the motivation, go out and do it anyway and you feel amazing after.
I sometimes regret not going for a run, but so far I have never regretted going for one!
This might not sound like a life motto, but I really find that the endorphins that kick in after exercise improve my mood and productivity for the rest of the day and so for me, exercise is an important part of how I live my life and this mentality can be applied to all aspects of your life.