Adidas' Rachel Wentzel on Directing $1B Marketing Spend, Agency Relationships & Her Beauty Essentials

Jason Papp
June 11, 2024
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AMSTERDAM -  If you happen to be exploring the culinary scene at dinner while in the Capital of the Netherlands, whether sitting and savouring Georgian fare at Batoni Khinkali or eating authentic Italian at Gustatio’s, you might happen to find yourself in the company of Rachel Wentzel

In 2015, Cincinnati-born Wentzel first landed in Europe while shifting to Herzogenaurach, Germany. Recruited by the global sports brand, adidas, she was tasked with “starting the procurement area for production.” Seven years later, in 2022, Wentzel added creative procurement to her day-to-day, moved to Amsterdam and began life as adidas’ Director of Global Marketing Procurement Creative & Production. 

A New Chapter: Senior Director at adidas

In March 2024, Rachel was promoted to Senior Director HQ Brands Procurement. In this role, Wentzel will lead the Global Brand Non-Trade Procurement organisation. Her remit is to “deliver opportunities beyond sustainable negotiation success for adidas by driving innovative approaches and continuous improvement practice.” Rachel explains, “We will also be strategic business partners by providing market insights and trends to our global stakeholders. With KPIs, compliance and value creation at our core, we will implement leading, best practice methods, processes and policies to ensure the brand continues to be the best sports brand in the world.” Commenting on her new role, she says,  “I am looking forward to harmonising our procurement objectives with the brand realities. Especially looking forward to what’s to come in terms of AI and technologies.”  

And so with a discerning palate for sonic branding and sound marketing, Wentzel is trying to steer the athletic apparel juggernaut through a reimagined landscape where visuals are just the beginning. Her innovations? Aiming not only to be seen but felt and heard in equal measure. 

Breaking Ground in Marketing Procurement

Up until Wentzel arrived marketing procurement wasn't really a thing. And, it’s immediately apparent. Rachel’s approach is exactly what marketing procurement demanded. Wentzel shows us why marketing procurement is so much more than cost-cutting and bad cop budget-watching. It’s about bringing all talents together to create culturally defining moments and, ultimately, ‘selling the thing’, as Gary Vee puts it (read our interview). 

The P&G Influence: A Foundation in Procurement

Wentzel started her career at P&G in packaging purchasing. To put things into perspective, she says that P&G has been embracing marketing procurement for over 30 years. 

So why did adidas establish a marketing procurement department just nine years or so ago? Wentzel says, “Marketing procurement has been growing a lot. And [talking generally] I just don't think it's a known function or it’s that people don't really understand the benefits of what marketing procurement can bring. Adidas is a very interesting company, from Adi Dassler creating shoes at his house to a global corporation with over a hundred offices globally. I think it just takes a while to figure out these functions within an organisation that needs to be established.”

Challenging Procurement Stigmas

But the word ‘procurement’ in any business has a stigma not only with external partners but with the varying departments in-house, too. And so marrying the creative aspect of any brand with the responsibility of keeping account of budget spent is an interesting position to be in, perhaps at times, conflicting. 

Overcoming Challenges and Changing Perspectives

Discussing some of the challenges of marketing procurement, Wentzel shares, “The biggest challenge that we have is just explaining to the business what our intentions are and what we do. For so long we were seen as cost cutters, the bad cop, when it comes to working with the agencies. But I would say on the contrary, to be very honest with you, it depends on the person, of course. There are some marketing procurement professionals who really love to play that role. But at least my approach is very much being more like a marriage counsellor than a marketing procurement person. Because you kind of play that role in between the business or the brand and the agency. You are a non-biased party and ultimately bring in data and facts and remove emotion. And that's really kind of a role I think marketing procurement can play.”

A marriage counsellor is a fitting illustration of where marketing procurement needs to be. Notoriously tricky to navigate and get in front of - for creative agencies, procurement is one of the most vital departments to develop a relationship with. Wentzel shares what she wishes new business directors and agency owners knew about her role, day-to-day, saying, “creative agency directors [need] to really be clear on what sets their agency apart. There's so many. What is their, not necessarily their secret sauce, but their unique selling proposition in terms of what makes them different?”

You Got This - adidas Advertising Campaign; Media - EssenseMediacom, Creative - TBWA, Social Media - We Are Social

Fostering Talent and Innovation

Honing in on what is grabbing her attention right now, Wentzel says, “I think the biggest thing for all agencies is the talent and expertise that they can pull together, tapping into whether it's technology or other emerging trends. But I would say the best thing an agency can do to really set themselves apart is to bring ideas and innovations to their clients, to make them feel that they're the special client for that agency, because this really helps, I think, strengthen that relationship.” 

She says, “If Creative Agency X starts hearing about a new automation, let’s say, dynamic content platform or something like this - bring in that idea and that technology. Because of course, we're always trying to save money on things that don't bring value. So the non-working budget exists, and it has to be there, but really separating that proportion of working dollars versus non-working and showcasing that everything that we are doing and spending is bringing value to the company to drive return on investment to increase your net sales.” 

The Strategic Role of Procurement in Agency Relationships

Driving home the point, Wentzel states, “I think creative agencies that understand our business objectives and where we are and what we need to do to succeed and then partnering with the brand to showcase 'Look we're here, we're not just the typical Madison Avenue agency trying to rip off clients. We really understand your challenges and are here to help drive your objectives and goals as well.' That goes a long way.” 

Incorporating agency partners into her role, last year Rachel began evaluating adidas’ current supply base. Part of this, according to Wentzel, included asking, “Who are we working with? How much are we spending? What are we doing?” 

Wentzel's distinct role in the company involves comprehensive oversight across all sectors, a vantage point where marketing procurement truly shines. It's here that marketing procurement injects value, benefitting not just the business but also enriching agency partnerships.

Building Trust and Transparency in Creative Collaborations

Commenting on this Wentzel explains, “I'm not looking only at running. I'm not only looking at football. I see what every BU team is doing in one overarching view. So, if we have an agency that is working on running and on football, I can bring that knowledge and insight to the business to say, look, they're going to be overloaded, we're not setting them up for success. And then work with the agency to say, ‘hey, how is it working? Are you getting briefed too late?’  I then can take that feedback to the business as well. Like I said, a kind of marriage counsellor. Because the agencies don't always want to, you know, they want to appease the client and they don't want to talk about, ‘hey, you're not briefing me, hey, you're not doing these things well.’ They never want to criticise, but I can be that voice. I also work a lot with the business on gaps. So, it's like, okay, you're planning this project, what are the key kinds of deliverables and needs that you have? And then based on my understanding of our current agency landscape and their capabilities, then when I hear about a project coming that needs these skills I can start marrying them together.”

A small team, adidas’ global marketing procurement team consists of eight colleagues looking after around $1B spend. And perhaps you are all too familiar with being on a brand’s roster regardless of having not worked on a project together for a couple of years; adidas has been working to fix this. 

Marketing procurement, again, is asking, for instance, ‘Of the say 500 agencies on roster, why haven’t we spent any money with say 50 of them since 2022?’ The reason for this could be that an agency’s strengths lent itself to a special project. And adidas, a legacy brand with challenger tendencies, gets involved in a lot of collaborations. But beyond that one collaboration, there may not be any immediate opportunities for an agency to partner together. 

A keyword that comes to mind here is transparency. 

Wentzel says, “I did a robust analysis to really get a comprehensive overview of, ‘did you know we grew with X agency 50% from 22/23, what are we planning with them for 24/25? Then I can feed that back to the agency and say, ‘look, this is what’s coming in the pipeline so that they can plan their talent and their staff. This is a lot of what I have been doing - sharing the facts and data.” 

And this approach can only add value to both sides involved in the creative process. This is an approach that, embedded into any organisation, can not only encourage creativity and appreciation of a client’s business goals and pain points but also can forge lasting relationships and budget savings, too. Ultimately, opting not to play the ‘traditional’ procurement game, being straightforward, will foster a better work-life balance for everyone involved. And we are all for that. 

Wentzel's Personal Journey into Procurement

Perhaps Wentzel’s collaborative approach to marketing procurement comes from the fact that she didn’t originally train for a career in procurement but PR. 

“It’s funny, because I went to school for PR, my undergrad. I thought I would work at a PR agency in New York, which was my dream. And then I got an internship at Procter & Gamble in procurement. I had never heard of procurement. I was 20. I was 20 years old and I was like, I like buying stuff, I like shopping, I can do this, this is what procurement does, right? We buy stuff. So I kind of just happened to fall into procurement, I actually bought packaging to begin with. I learned some very good fundamentals, especially now in the advertising world, when you think of printing. And I moved over into marketing procurement where I was buying digital advertising agencies, which, you know, back in 2010 was a big thing. And then I was also buying ethnic advertising agencies. So United States Hispanic-specific and African-American-specific creative agencies. And then I was hired by adidas in advertising production.”

Sound and Sonic Branding

Holding an MBA in Marketing, Wentzel is fluent in the language of marketing and deeply understands her colleagues' objectives, an aspect crucial for effective collaboration. Exploring the cruciality of music and sonic branding, Wentzel shares, “I think this is something that people don't talk a lot about. We always talk about the big creative and the celebrity and this and that talent. But if you have rubbish music or sound that's not going to enhance or resonate with that content, it's a huge, huge mess. You can spend millions on the content and then think of music as an afterthought that can clearly make or break an ad. And it's something I really want more people talking about in the industry. There's such power there.”

Financial Acumen Meets Creative Spirit

Although Wentzel’s role sits under finance, and now under global operations, she isn’t an “accounting person.” Commenting on what makes her role difficult, Rachel says it’s that “we have to be financially savvy. We have to understand all the financial numbers including net sales and growth and all these things. But then we have to play in the marketing area and really understand marketing. And so we wear all these different hats. And, you know, we have to really fight for our seat at the table and really build that credibility and showcase to them what value we bring, how we can help them deliver their goals. But often our KPIs are different from theirs.”

And creatives want to be creative, of course. And spend the necessary money to make the best campaign. And so Rachel affords us a unique view of the role marketing procurement plays internally. 

A Balanced Approach to Agency Engagement

Adding external agency partners to the mix, Wentzel evidently feels a sense of duty to overthrow long-held dread agencies feel when procurement is mentioned. She says, “Some are scared of procurement, they're like, they don't want to talk to us at all. And then some lean on us a lot. But it's because we don't own comms budgets. So that's also difficult. It's not like I have the decision authority to give an agency business or not. I have to influence the stakeholder. It's influencing on both sides, influencing the agency to keep their costs low and how to bring value, and influencing the business to even work with that partner. It's a dynamic place to be.”

Drawing on two examples from her time at Procter & Gamble, Wentzel says, “It's pretty straightforward because they have agency of record, at least they did nine years ago. I can't speak for them now, but nine years ago when I was there, basically, each brand had their determined agencies. So they had their lead creative, they had their digital agency, they had a point-of-sale agency, PR agency, and it was very clear that X brand worked with X agency and it wasn't where they did big pitches every year.”

She continues, “I don't know if you remember, I think it was in 2013, when P&G decided they were going to pitch a new creative agency for Gillette, after working with BBDO for like 20 years, right? There's a Harvard Business case on this, because it was so shocking. 

But what I would do is, okay, I knew we were going to work with one agency, for example. At the time there was an agency partner under the Omnicom Group. And, say they were doing Always. What I would do is I would sit with the brand manager and help determine, okay, you're going to launch this product, so we're going to have this campaign. They kind of knew what campaigns were going to come. I mean, there's not so much new technology in femcare so often, so you are prepared in the pipeline of what's coming. And then I would work with the agency to say, look, we might not know that we're going to have three big, two medium, whatever, but let's make the principle base that, two small equal one medium; two medium equal one large. So then we can plug and play based on the realities of the year. And then they would go off, build their team, quote the retainer. And then the brand manager would say it was too high and then I would go through with the agency to look at the assumptions.”

Focusing on getting to the best outcome for both parties, Rachel highlights her approach to overcome these roadblocks. “It's like, you've assumed six rounds of reviews and revisions. If we take it down to three, where does that get us? And then we would save some money, we would reduce those costs. And then it was clear to the brand manager, okay, look, you have three rounds of reviews and revisions. If you exceed, you need to pay. It was a healthy balance.”

From femcare to a global fashion sports brand with all its incredible collaborations, the procurement process is more intricate. 

Commenting on this, Wentzel shares, “adidas is a bit more complicated because there are so many layers to it. But typically what happens is, if the business already knows what agency they want to work with, because they've worked with them last season, say it's X agency on Ultra Boost, we know we've worked with them the last three seasons. We like working with them. It's good. I will work with the business to say, let's get clear on the brief. Let's make sure that we're identifying deliverables and expectations and then go off and work with them. Easy, because we have a contract. We have the framework in place with rates already negotiated. So as long as they're using the rate card, then it's kind of smooth. 

If it's a new area or, for example, a business decides that we've been working with X agency for the last three years, but we know we're going through a transition and new product, we want a new agency. What I'll do is look at our list of rostered agencies. If we see that X agency already has lots of projects coming up the next season, they're probably not going to be set up for success to take on something else, but looking at another agency which has great capabilities and really only demand planned for two projects - let's review them. And then we'll run a pitch process. We will send three agencies the exact same brief. 

It can be a very long process, but what procurement brings is fair play. We are really making sure that we're treating the agencies equally to allow all of them the same opportunity versus telling this one little bits and bobs and little things, telling this one something else. Our role is to ensure compliance, fairness, and playing by the rules. We are about rationale and documentation as to why the agency did win the business versus not, to really give feedback to the non-winning agencies to allow them the opportunity to improve for the next time. That's the role I play a lot.”

Embracing Boutique Agencies and Nurturing Innovation

What about independent agencies, do they have a chance or is it all in favour of the big boys? 

True to their challenger brand tendencies, Wentzel says, “I think we have a decent healthy mix. We tend to work with a lot of boutique agencies because we like that kind of nitty gritty, agile, scrappy type of working, because sometimes we have a really cool project with a great brand or a nice collaboration, but the budget's quite small. So we do play a lot with boutique agencies, especially on the fashion side. For marketing, it's all about the network. It's about who you know and what kind of talent you can bring in. So it's very difficult because, for procurement, we're always targeted to reduce roster, reduce roster, reduce roster.”

Wentzel is the most tenured global procurement person at adidas and, along with her other colleagues in marketing procurement, she oversees a global roster of over 100 agencies; locally within each country, there’s a ‘plethora of agencies’ to choose from.

Wentzel shares, “We did a project where we consolidated a lot of the market work to one global agency so that we could get transparency of what markets are actually doing. Because if they're working with their mom-and-pop shop next door, it can be great and cost effective, but it prevents the global team from having that creative control. 

So, one of the big things I've worked on in the last four years is really building out this model. Yes the guy in Peru knows what is going to sell to his consumers but it needs to be within the global framework so that we don't look like a fragmented brand. 

Again, I have a broad perspective across various aspects. I see spend data and agency amounts. Additionally, I observe innovative projects emerging. These projects don't diminish the importance of marketing for the consumer. Instead, they integrate different elements to build smart agency solutions. This approach allows us to remain nimble and agile. At the same time, it ensures we have transparency and access to necessary data.

And this for me, I'm always looking for strong, smart data so that we can make better buying decisions, ultimately.”

Building Relationships and Changing Perceptions

Tasked with being the aforementioned marketing procurement ‘marriage counsellor’, making sense of data, being responsible for part of the $1B budget, and setting agencies up for success, I asked Rachel what she enjoys most about her role. And, without hesitation, she comments, “I love building relationships. Building relationships with the marketers. Nothing satisfies me more than coming out of a conversation with somebody from marketing and that they say, ‘thank you so much. I didn’t realise the importance of, or the value you can bring, or how cool marketing procurement people can be. Changing that stigma is amazing.”

Equally important to Wentzel is building rapport with agencies. “I have that trust with them that I’m not here to steal their money or cut their margins. No company is in business to give away free stuff. That’s why we are in business. We need to make money but being fair, I’m a very, by default,  transparent person. I don't think any of us have time for BS so I'd rather just say 'Let's just put the cards out there and see how we can help each other.' And if I don't feel like someone is doing it in the best interest, then I shouldn't be working with them. It's like being in a relationship where you think your partner is cheating and so you're always looking for excuses of why. It's unhealthy and will never be good for either party. So I'd rather just be very honest. I suppose that for the brand team marketing to have you there to set that relationship off on the best ground possible, where trust is at the core is invaluable. Some marketers love the negotiation and the dealing and that kind of back and forth. And some have no time for it. So it's like, look, you need to work with these people every day. Don't let a disagreement over cost distract you. Let that be my role that I can take and play and get the best cost based on benchmark data and other things like linking and leveraging. And again, they [her creative teams] see one project with that agency but I see that there's ten others.”

Wentzel is wired to question, “How can we get volume rebates, discounts, these kinds of things where the marketers don't need to worry about that, they need to deliver the next campaign. They need to think about what deliverables, what KPIs, and how they are going to sell more with this idea.” 

Rachel says, ultimately her role is to “take a lot of that kind of commercial, contracting, off their plate so that they can just focus on doing really cool stuff to sell the brand.” And we are all here for that. 

When a brand’s budgets are tightened, this is where marketing procurement can really shine. The marketers need help to negotiate how they can ‘get more for this money.’ But it’s also about challenging the spend by asking, “Do you really need to do that campaign, what’s the intention?” 

Rachel says, “Just because we used to do it this way or we've always done it this way doesn’t mean it’s the right decision for now. Because it's not just creating a campaign to be cool because I want to go do a shoot in South Africa. It's about what is actually going to turn into conversion, into sales. It's about challenging the business to think about the why.” 

But on the other side of it is agencies. And, Rachel points out, agencies want to increase costs as well. She explains, “And so wanting to increase their rates to keep their margins, they want to give their employees raises, inflation increases to keep their talent happy and not have to deal with those HR conversations. It's about being strong in negotiation. My favourite is, well, inflation increased 11%. I'm like, okay, so do you want me to increase by 11%? So when inflation goes back down, you're gonna go back down?”

Rachel Wentzel's approach to marketing procurement at adidas offers a blend of considered nuance and industry astuteness. Wentzel is reimagining the procurement landscape, looking beyond traditional cost-cutting confines to champion a strategy where value creation and strategic alignment with brand ethos are paramount. 

Her mediation between creative fervour and fiscal prudence stands tall. And this is making way for marketing campaigns that are not just financially sound but also culturally impactful. 

Her methodology, informed by her PR origins, is a testament to the power of effective communication and relationship-building in the corporate sphere. 

With a candid and transparent approach, Wentzel is fostering an environment of trust and collaboration. And by encouraging agencies to bring forward well-informed ideas and technologies to her colleagues. It's empowering a safer working environment that will foster long-term relationships with external partners to produce creativity that will move the business year after year. Good news for talent at the brand and their creative agencies. 

What do we learn from Wentzel’s strategic, inclusive vision, adaptability and collaborative approach? Well, traditional procurement professionals stand to gain immensely from her playbook, where the focus is a strategic blend of value creation and cost efficiency. 

Wentzel's method underscores the criticality of fostering collaborative synergies between creative agencies and the pragmatism of budget management, pivoting away from the traditional gatekeeper role to one of a strategic mediator. Her approach, characterised by a keen emphasis on innovation, transparency, and relationship-building, offers a masterclass in adapting procurement to the fluidity of modern marketing. 

Procurement professionals embracing flexibility, straightforward communication and aligning closely with their brand’s ethos will only enrich both the brand narrative and business objectives. 

Out of Office

"In 2024 I will travel back and forth between our Amsterdam office to our world headquarters in Germany.  The US will certainly receive some visits as I will head home several times this year.  And lastly, one of my closest friends is getting married in Jaipur, India in December.  That will be our (me and my boyfriend who’s based in the US) biggest trip this year.  Plus, the hen party in Italy."

"My favourite skin care brand is La Roche Possay.  I find their products affordable and effective. For a splurge I like Exuviance.  Their products are so silky and smell really good.  For haircare, hands down, my favourite is Oribe.  Though it is on the pricey side so I switch between that and Redken."

(From left to right) Redken, Oribe, La Roche-Posay & Exuviance.

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Jason Papp
Founder & Editor-in-chief