It was a simpler time in 1864, or so it seems, when the “Commodore,” James Walter Thompson, founded his namesake agency.
As the ad industry grew over the next several decades, a commission based compensation system was the predominant means of remuneration. Simply put, full-service agencies kept 15% of the gross media rate charged by media owners from whom agencies purchased advertising for their clients. At some point in the 1960’s commission based remuneration began to give way to labor-based fees that were predicated on an agency’s direct labor and overhead costs and a reasonable level of profit.
It wasn’t long afterward that the agency “holding company” was born and full-service agencies gave way to agencies that specialized in a particular area such as creative development, media planning and placement and sales promotion. Both of these trends directly impacted “how” and “what” agencies charged clients for their services. As importantly, advertisers became more acutely interested in understanding more finitely the details behind the composition of their agency partners’ fees. This in turn created anxiety and concerns on the part of ad agencies and clients alike. Advertisers sought to reduce the level of fees that they were paying and the agency community sought to protect their profit margins and maintain some level of privacy surrounding their financial operations.
Fast forward to 2017 and the topic of “non-transparent” agency revenue sources such as rebates, kick-backs, float income and media arbitrage has been at the forefront of contract and compensation discussions since the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) completed their landmark “Media Transparency” study in 2016. Rightly or wrongly, many in the industry feel that client procurement tactics, focused on squeezing agency compensation led to the rise in non-transparent revenue. Agencies for their part, feel as though they are overworked and underpaid, while clients continue to sense that they are paying too much for the resources being proffered by their agency partners.
Challenging times to be sure. Add in the shift from traditional media to digital, the attendant impact on workflow and resources, the rise of new competitors to ad agencies that include consultancies, publishers and ad tech providers and the rapidly increasing impact of technology on operational efficiencies and the topic of agency compensation becomes even more vexing.
And while agencies wrestle with their organizational, talent and cultural issues, the industry is poised for a giant leap forward in operational efficiency. Algorithms that can place media and inform resource allocation planning and artificial intelligence bots that can actually create advertiser content and oversee the production of creative materials have the potential to displace agency personnel across multiple functions. The question is: “What is the impact of these technology trends on agency remuneration systems?”
For an industry that has relied on labor-based fees linked to marking-up employee salaries and selling their time to advertisers, the notion of automation and doing more with less can certainly be daunting. As IBM Watson Chief, David Kenny, once said:
“If you are using people to do the work of machines, you are already irrelevant.”
Thus it is time for the ad agency community to rethink both how they organize themselves to deliver client services and how to evolve from labor-based compensation models to outcome based remuneration systems.
Wonder if there is an AI bot that can assist with this transition?
If you’re an advertiser and interested in learning more about how to compensate your ad agency. Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal, AARM | Advertising Audit & Risk Management at email@example.com for a complimentary consultation on this important topic.