What is the Right Approach to Agency Compensation?

14 Nov

agency compensationThe topic of effective, mutually beneficial ad agency remuneration methodologies has been discussed ever since the mid-1980’s when full-service agencies and 15% commissions became passé.   

There has been no shortage to the variations on compensation structure that have been explored, adopted and debated over the last thirty years, well before the emergence of procurement in the agency sourcing and contract negotiation mix.  The perception among many industry professionals is that agency compensation is a “zero-sum” proposition… somebody wins and somebody loses.  Further, agency representatives have long alleged that procurement wants one thing, year-over-year rate decreases in spite of the fact that advertisers are asking their agency partners for increasing levels of support. 

Experience has taught all of us who have been participants in constructing agency compensation packages that there is no silver bullet.  The variables which come into play to customize a fair remuneration program which optimizes an advertiser’s return on agency fee investment while properly incenting the agency vary greatly from one relationship to the next.  In our agency contract compliance practice we have reviewed commission only, fee only, base fee plus commission, direct-labor based fees, retainer fees tied to SOWs, flat fees and on and on.  Each has its pros and cons. 

In our opinion, the key to crafting a proper remuneration package comes down to one item, measurement.  It has been said, “If you aren’t measuring, then you are just practicing.”  Time and time again we find that neither the advertiser nor the agency has the requisite inputs to assess and effectively negotiate and or monitor a balanced compensation program.  Ultimately, the way to create a “Win-Win” scenario in this area is for an advertiser to tie agency compensation to agency deliverables.  Unfortunately, advertising is a complex sub-set of the professional services arena and valuing deliverables is a major challenge. 

The good news is that consultants such as Farmer & Company have made inroads in the area of connecting compensation to outputs.  Like most things worthwhile, the initiatives are challenging, but can be tackled.  Farmer & Company takes an in depth, data-driven approach to compile historical project / task level information that many agencies and clients have not maintained.  Why?  They’ve simply never tracked variables such as the effectiveness of the client briefing process, time-on-task, rework levels and or the quality of the outputs.  All are achievable and rewarding, but require a commitment among both client and agency stakeholders to begin capturing this data at the requisite level of detail. 

Recently, I came across an article written for Procurement Leaders by Danny Ertel a partner with Vantage Partners entitled: “Complex Services: Alternative Pricing Models.”  The article addressed the topic of service purchasers achieving their “budgetary concerns with pricing models that do a better job of aligning incentives.”  Importantly, marketers and agencies alike can take solace in the balanced approach proposed by Mr. Ertel for a more “strategic” approach to negotiation, rather than focusing on “trading volume for discounts.”  To quote noted actor and martial artist David Carradine: 

There’s an alternative.  There’s always a third way, and it’s not a combination of the other two ways.  It’s a different way. 

If you’re interested in learning more about balancing risks and outcomes, you will find the article to be thought provoking.  Separately, if you’re interested in discussing how to lay the groundwork for valuing outcomes on this important topic, contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at AARM at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation.

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