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Will AI Render Media Agencies Obsolete?

11 Sep

artificial_intelligenceArtificial intelligence (AI) is already reshaping how advertising is developed, planned and placed. The marketing applications being envisioned and adopted by agencies, consultancies, publishers and advertisers are nothing short of remarkable.

From the onset of “Big Data” it stood to reason that the concept of predictive analysis, the act of mining diverse sets of data to generate recommendations wouldn’t be far behind. Layer on natural language processing, which converts text into structured data, and it is clear to see that “deep learning” is on the verge of revolutionizing the ad industry. As it stands, algorithms are currently optimizing bids for media buying, utilizing custom and syndicated data to match audience desires (or at least experiences) with available inventory.

Effective, efficient, automated methodologies for sorting through vast volumes of data to evaluate and establish patterns that reflect customer behavior for use in segmenting audiences and customizing message construction and delivery holds obvious promise.

So, what does this mean for media agencies? Will they be at the forefront of automation technology? Or will they be swept away by the consultancies and ad tech providers that are already investing here?

If media agencies desire to remain in control as the industry evolves, there are real challenges that they will have to address to remain viable:

  • Re-establish role as “trusted advisor” with the advertiser community. Recent concerns over transparency, unsavory revenue generation practices and a failure to pro-actively safeguard advertisers’ media investments from fraud and from running in inappropriate environments have created serious client/ agency relationship concerns.
  • Attract, train and retain top-level talent to re-staff media planning and buying departments. The focus will need to be on bridging the gap between developing, and applying automation technology and providing high-level consulting support focused on brand growth to their clients. Presently, media agencies are not effectively competing for talent, whether in the context of compensation and or personal and career development options being offered by their non-traditional competitors.
  • Provide a framework for addressing the compensation conundrum. Whether this is in the form of cost-based or performance-based fees tied to project outcomes, commissions or hybrid remuneration systems, tomorrow’s successful media agencies will need to establish clear, compelling compensation systems. These systems will need to reflect value propositions that will differentiate them from an expanded base of competitors, while offsetting (to some extent) non-transparent sources of revenue that many media shops have come to rely on in recent years.

This will not be an easy path for media agencies, particularly for those that are hampered by legacy systems, processes and management perspectives that may limit their ability to more broadly envision and ultimately, assist client organizations addressing their needs and expectations.

Either way, the race is on, as management consulting firms are acquiring various marketing and digital media specialist firms and as media agencies raid the consultancies for personnel to build out their strategic consulting capabilities. The key question will likely be, “Which business model holds the greatest promise, in the eyes of the Chief Marketing Officer, for improving brand performance?

 

 

 

Economic Growth Projections Raise Concerns for Ad Industry

25 Aug

economyAdvertising agencies are finding that organic growth will be a difficult objective to achieve in the near-term.

One contributing factor comes in the form of marketing spending constraints on the part of advertisers. Why? Organizations are feeling pressure to control costs in the wake of lack luster market conditions that are limiting growth and reducing margins.

The key economic indicator driving advertiser concern is “slow growth” which is impacting many sectors of the economy:

  • GDP growth of 1.2% during the 1st quarter and 2.6% in the 2nd quarter (short of the sustained 3%+ growth rate promised by the White House)
  • U.S. retail sales, excluding auto and gasoline, rose 0.5% in July ’17
  • Fast-Casual restaurant sales fell more than 3% in the first quarter 2017
  • U.S. automotive sales have fallen for seven straight months (Jan. – Jul.)
  • Homebuilder confidence sank, posting HMI’s lowest reading in over 6 mos.

Two CPG giants have announced dramatic moves, which reflect the nature of this challenge. Unilever signaled its intent to reduce the number of agencies on its roster by 50%, while cutting the quantity of ads produced by 30%. Procter & Gamble Co. indicated that it would trim $2 billion in marketing spend over five years as part of an enterprise wide expense reduction initiative.

It is worth noting that there are motivations beyond “cost reduction” driving these decisions by advertisers. Consider fast-food giant McDonald’s, which earlier this year trimmed the number of agencies that it works with from 60 to fewer than a dozen. Their goals included streamlining marketing and improving the consistency of their output… in addition to reducing expenses.

Unfortunately, the impact of slower spending by advertisers is being felt on Wall Street. According to an August, 24 article in the NY Times, WPP which had earlier cut its revenue forecast saw its share price decline by 10.9% in London, with Omnicom Group and Interpublic Group falling 7% and 6.3% respectively in the U.S. and media stocks are generally lower as a sector.

Interestingly, advertisers have made a conscious decision not to fuel marketing spend to counter slowing sales, but to cut spending to protect margins, which is particularly concerning to the ad agency community.

With increased competition from non-traditional players (i.e. management consulting and technology firms) and the continued fall-out from an industry transparency crisis, the lack of confidence on the part of marketers regarding advertising’s ability to drive profitable revenue growth is certainly a worry.

Whether or not this slowdown in organic growth on the part of ad agencies portends a slump, remains to be seen, but at the very least the macro-economic uncertainty will serve to increase industry volatility. Perhaps the industry can find some solace in the words of Yogi Berra the hall of fame catcher and manager of the New York Yankees: “Slump? I ain’t in no slump… I just ain’t hitting.”

 

 

The Ad Industry is Metamorphosing

30 Jun

dreamstime_xs_83082522It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” Most of us are familiar with the opening line from Charles Dickens in his epic work A Tale of Two Cities. Many marketers may even consider it an apt description of both the current state of the advertising industry and the challenges that they face in sustaining brand relevance and driving growth.

Phoenix risingSo, who will marketers count on to assist them with the tasks of deepening brand engagement with core target segments, revitalizing sales and profits in a low-growth environment and in differentiating their brands for competitive advantage?

Over the course of the last few years, many have opined on the viability of the ad agency model and what it portends for advertiser/ agency relationships going forward. And with good reason. Concerns cited include threats from non-traditional competitors such as management consulting and technology firms encroaching on their turf, talent recruitment and retention challenges and margin compression due to downward pressure on fees and expanded scopes of services.

It may be as some predict that management consulting firms will leverage their capabilities in the area of strategy and integration to pirate work from ad agencies and that ad-tech providers will enable marketers to take certain tasks in-house. The question remains, how will marketers adjust to this dynamic and the evolution of their agency networks to potentially include consulting, data and ad-tech firms? There are already very real challenges related to agency stewardship today due to under-resourced client marketing staffs.

The aforementioned challenges, combined with the rate of digitization and the emerging role of artificial intelligence occurring within the ad industry, certainly pose challenges for advertising agencies and could serve to lessen their stranglehold on the marketing and advertising sector. In a recent McKinsey article entitled; “The Global Forces Inspiring a New Narrative of Progress” the authors note that “disruption is accelerating.” They opine that this dynamic is raising serious concerns for many organizations relating to the question, “How long can their traditional sources of competitive advantage survive in the face of technological shifts?”

That said, in spite of these risk factors and other marketplace developments, ad agencies are doing just fine:

  • Agency holding companies have continued their aggressive acquisition drives, supporting both their horizontal and vertical integration strategies. While overall M&A activity is down from 2016 levels, WPP and Dentsu have consummated twenty acquisitions with a combined value of $700 million through the first 4 months of 2017. (Source: R3’s “State of Agency M&A report” for January – April, 2017).
  • While down from 2016’s 5.7% growth rate, global ad spending is projected to grow 3.6% in 2017 (Source: Magna Global, June, 2017). Of note, this is higher than the International Monetary Fund’s projected increase for global GDP growth.
  • Even though 1Q17 Advertising Industry gross margins fell to 44.15%, the industry itself is healthy. For instance, within the services sector, the Advertising Industry achieved the highest gross margins, net margins, EBITDA margins and pre-tax margins for the quarter (Source: CSIMarket.com).
  • Some 86% of mid-sized ad agencies are confident that this year will be better than last in terms of profitable growth (Source: Society of Digital Agencies (SoDA) survey).

Importantly, since the demise of the “good ole days” of full-service agencies and the fifteen-percent commission remuneration model, agencies have demonstrated a unique ability to not only keep up with industry changes, but to take the lead from both a thought leadership and innovation perspective. They have been able to scale, attracting more clients and deeper talent pools, they have invested in emerging technologies to deal with increasingly complicated, data driven processes and to pioneer the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence to efficiently execute deliverables ranging from digital media investment to creative adaptations… all while dealing with evolving client expectations.

Further, it bears noting that the publicly traded holding companies; WPP, Omnicom Group, Publicis Groupe, Interpublic Group of Cos. and Dentsu, had combined estimated worldwide 2016 revenue levels of $60.7 billion (Source: Advertising Age, June 2017). When one considers the pre-dominance of the estimated billing process and agency remuneration schema that includes direct labor and overhead cost reimbursement plus guaranteed profit margins of 14% to 17% or more, one must also respect the financial clout that these publicly traded entities wield.

Is there a need for near-term belt tightening to offset softer 2017 ad spending levels? Yes. Do the holding companies need to consolidate agency brands and realign capabilities to boost the efficacy of their service delivery models and generate much needed efficiencies? Yes. Will agencies need to improve their talent recruitment and retention practices, across a diverse range of specialties? Yes. But no business is immune from these challenges, including management consultants, ad-tech platforms and publishers.

The big question the industry in general and marketers will need to assess is related to whether these players will be able to boldly transform their current business models, repositioning their firms to deliver integrated, multi-specialist services in a nimble, cost efficient, on-demand manner.

Broadly speaking, all participants are facing challenges as the ad industry undergoes its current metamorphoses. We believe that it is too early to predict winners and losers or to suggest that marketers adapt an attitude of empathy toward any of their marketing supply chain partners. After all, it is their marketing spend that has built this sector into a $457.4 billion global machine in 2017 (Source: Statista, 2017). And they must vigilantly safeguard and optimize that investment.

Below is one of the closing lines from A Tale of Two Cities, one that many may not be as familiar with:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…”

With this parting thought, Dickens’ suggests that the main character in his novel and the city of France will be resurrected, rising above their present strife and “made illustrious.”

Here’s hoping that the ad industry achieves similar transformative success.

 

 

Has the Time Come and Gone for Digital Advertising Agencies?

28 Apr

digital trading deskWe all understand the concept of “specialization” and the potential benefit delivery for certain service providers in select industries. That said, the era of the digital media specialist agency may be drawing to a close.

Think about it, we have specialist agencies for programmatic advertising, paid search, organic search, social media, email, mobile marketing, website development, user experience, social, native and display advertising.

Why? What are the advantages that accrue to an advertiser from this level of specialization? More importantly, how many advertisers are equipped to engage with multiple media agency partners?

Integrating strategy and resource allocation decisions, coordinating roles and responsibilities and effectively managing relationships among several media agencies takes time, energy and money… assets that are tougher and tougher for marketers to come by. Not to mention, the additional costs incurred for overlapping agency services/personnel.

Specialist agencies aside, when it comes to digital media, advertisers are also contending with general market agencies, PR firms, multi-cultural, experiential and promotional agencies that are also involved with their digital marketing efforts. It is damn difficult for a marketing staff to coordinate and optimize digital communications along this many fronts, let alone integrate such efforts with an organization’s “traditional” media efforts. And, let’s face it, the task is not any easier (or cheaper) for an advertiser’s media agency-of-record to take the lead on this task and coordinate multiple disparate agencies working collaboratively and cohesively toward a common goal.

The ultimate question for advertisers may be, why take what is already a complex process and further complicate it by dividing efforts and resources across so many players?

In our contract compliance auditing and financial management practice we have seen advertisers pay a steep price for assembling agency networks that are too broad for their existing teams to effectively manage. This in turn leads to cost inefficiencies related to duplicative services and fees tied to the lack of clear role differentiation across agencies, and in turn, a reduction in working media. Say nothing of the impact on digital media effectiveness tied to communication and briefing gaps that inevitably arise in these scenarios. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from the words of William Blake, 18th century English poet and painter:

“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”

We believe that the time has come for advertisers to give more serious consideration to streamlining their agency networks in general, and specifically to pare back the number of agency partners involved with their digital media efforts… beginning with “specialist” shops.

A great place to start is to evaluate the potential for centralizing media planning for traditional and digital media. This is a logical “first step” and will allow marketing organizations to better leverage their data, to improve their targeting and segmentation schema, enhance their resource allocation decisions and integrate all facets of their communication plans. Additional benefits from such a strategy include more collaborative and improved media briefings and streamlined communications across agency partners. Similarly, when it comes to media buying, focusing on fewer partners makes it easier to leverage an organization’s overall media spend, optimize sponsorship and value-add opportunities across media properties, and to minimize agency fees by eliminating redundant buying activities across partner shops.

Major holding company media agencies and larger independent media firms, with broad resource offerings and the scale to provide “one-stop” service certainly stand to benefit from consolidation. As do ad technology firms such as Adobe, Oracle and Google that provide advertisers with the tools to manage certain digital functions in-house. It should be noted that while the large media networks of a holding company will benefit, specialized, stand alone digital media shops within those holding companies may face challenges related to such a consolidation.

In closing, we wanted to address the topic of the “rise of the management consultancies” as legitimate competitors to traditional agencies. As it relates to media planning and placement, we believe that the large ad agencies and holding companies will retain an edge in this area for some time to come. However, vulnerability in the areas of strategic consulting and customer connectivity (i.e. data integration, user experience and system development) is where we believe consulting firms will continue to make significant inroads with CMOs as marketers seek to fulfill corporate mandates to assist in digitally transforming their businesses. As this is occurring, some agencies have announced plans to expand their resource offerings to compete with the likes of Accenture, IBM, PwC and Deloitte in this area. Realistically, at least in the near-term, agency constraints on talent and functional expertise represent significant hurdles before an attack in this area can be mounted… while concurrently defending their current base of business.

 

Advertisers: Contract Compliance is Easier to Secure Than You Think

19 Apr

EasyIf you’re an advertiser, we have three brief questions for you to consider:

  1. Does your organization have contracts with its ad agency partners?
  2. Do those contracts contain right to audit clauses?
  3. Has your company ever enacted its right to conduct contract compliance and or performance audits?

Chances are your answer to the first two questions is “Yes” and very likely “No” to the third question. Why is this? Why would the majority of advertisers negotiate audit rights into their marketing supplier agreements and not take advantage of such an important control mechanism? This is particularly perplexing given the materiality of marketing spend and the many publicized challenges confronting advertisers and their relationships with advertising agencies. Challenges such as waning levels of transparency into agency financial management practices, lack of a direct line-of-sight into the rates paid by its agency partners, agency resource constraints and personnel turnover.

After years of conducting advertising agency contract compliance audits, our experience shows the agency community wants to do the right thing in most instances. Are there bad actors? Sure, as there are in any business sector. Are there lapses in oversight or judgment? Certainly. This is a people business and people make honest mistakes. Do errors occur? Of course, as in every organization… no entity is perfect in that regard. Beyond common lapses in judgement, follow-through and or mistakes the primary compliance challenge is often a sub-standard or outdated client/ agency agreement which does not supply an advertiser with the requisite legal safeguards and financial controls.

It is for all of these reasons that “Right to Audit” clauses exist and why it is considered “Best Practice” to engage independent audit support to assess an agency’s contract compliance and financial performance. The benefits of auditing are meaningful and many, with the resulting financial true-ups, identification of process improvement opportunities and new learnings in general, providing substantial contributions to future efficiencies.

These outcomes can have significant financial impacts for both stakeholders. For agencies, who have made oversights, misinterpreted or misapplied certain contractual conditions there is the obvious impact of correcting those items and reconciling their fee and or third-party expense billings. Advertisers benefit from the collection of past due credits, trueing up financial matters, identifying and eliminating unauthorized, non-transparent agency revenue and realigning its scope of work and agency resources on a go forward basis.

It is true that the consequences of an audit can sometimes cause an agency some discomfort and even be outside an advertiser’s comfort zone. However, these important accountability programs are more than offset by the positive outcomes that ultimately drive compliance with the agreement and motivate more effective financial stewardship. To this end, it was with interest that I read a recent article entitled, “Mix Enforcement with Persuasion” by Lucia Del Carpio, Assistant Professor of Economics with INSEAD. Professor Carpio wrote about the topic of improving compliance with laws and regulations. One of his observations had particular relevance to our compliance auditing experience and crystalized what we often profess:

“Compliance sometimes requires nothing but enforcement.”

 The cost to conduct agency contract compliance auditing is nominal relative to the benefits yielded by these initiatives. In our experience, we have never seen an instance where the financial and operational benefits of an audit didn’t provide a return multiple times its attendant cost. Factor in the notion that compliance auditing actually incents agency contract adherence and it is easy to understand why “Right to Audit” clauses exists in client/agency contracts to begin with.

Interested in learning more about agency contract compliance auditing? Contact Cliff Campeau, Principal at AARM | Advertising Audit & Risk Management at ccampeau@aarmusa.com for your complimentary consultation on this topic.

Can AI Bots Solve the Agency Remuneration Issue?

21 Mar

Commodorergb1-243x300It 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 ccampeau@aarmusa.com for a complimentary consultation on this important topic.

 

 

 

4A’s Appoints New CEO/ President

26 Feb

4as_logofinalCongratulations to Marla Kaplowitz, CEO of MEC North America, who was recently selected as the Chief Executive Officer and President of the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4A’s).

An advertising industry veteran with 29 years of media and communications experience, she is also a member of the 4A’s Media Leadership Council and She Runs It.  Commenting on her appointment, Ms. Kaplowitz stated that; “As a passionate member of this industry for nearly 30 years, I’m thrilled to join the 4A’s at this exciting and pivotal time for marketing and communications.”

We certainly wish Ms. Kaplowitz success in her new role and thank outgoing 4A’s CEO Nancy Hill for her nine plus years of service.

Has France Solved the Media Transparency Issue?

24 Feb

dreamstime_xs_13261288Earlier this month the French government passed a new edict extending the coverage of Loi Sapin, their anti-corruption law passed in the early 90’s which made the process of buying media more transparent.

There are two key tenants of Loi Sapin, which afford French advertisers a level of protection related to certain non-transparent revenue sources which the Association of National Advertisers (ANA)/ K2 2016 media transparency study showed were prevalent in the U.S. (and elsewhere around the globe). Specifically, we are referring to the practice of media owners and publishers paying rebates to the agency and the use of media arbitrage, where agencies purchase inventory on their own to be resold to their clients at a higher rate.

Loi Sapin prohibits agencies from selling media to their clients that the agency had purchased in its name. In today’s parlance, it prohibits media arbitrage or “principal-based” media buys. Secondly, the law clearly stipulates that the ad agencies cannot derive revenue from a media owner, stating that agencies can only be paid by advertisers.

To France’s credit, the new decree, which will take effect in January of 2018, expands the coverage of the anti-corruption law to include digital advertising and digital advertising services. Of note, this includes agency trading desks, which sometimes buy and resell digital media to their clients. Yes, agencies will still be able to provide programmatic media buying services through their trading desk operations to advertisers, they will simply have to disclose to their clients, upfront, those affiliates or entities where they or the agency holding company have an ownership interest.

Interestingly, the decree will also require the media owner to direct bill the advertiser and compels them to provide detailed information about the services that they provided to the advertiser. This particular aspect of the law will further enhance advertiser transparency and virtually eliminates the ability of an ad agency to blindly mark-up said services.

As U.S. advertisers and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), continue to evaluate the most effective means of improving media transparency, France’s anti-corruption law and its new decree covering digital media services certainly provides some interesting food for thought.

How Well is Your Agency Compensated?

30 Jan

do advertisers get what they pay forThe answer to this oft discussed question is easy; “If you’re an agency CFO, not well enough. If you’re a client-side finance executive the answer is likely too well.” Thus it is no surprise that agency remuneration remains a hot topic as we enter 2017.

Make no mistake, both agencies and advertisers alike want to address this topic in a manner that works for both sides. So why is this such a difficult item to resolve? There are three reasons:

  1. There are no industry norms in this area and haven’t been since the days of a standard 15% commission. The net result of this is that there are few benchmarks for advertisers when establishing remuneration guidelines. No standard commission rate ranges by media type, no normative data on agency overhead rates and no clear standards for assessing agency direct labor rates by position and little insight into agency direct margins. This makes it difficult for advertisers to gain a comfort level into the relevance and competitiveness of the rates that they are paying their agency partners.
  2. While agencies want to be compensated fairly, they remain hesitant to fully disclose the financial dynamics that drive their businesses and impact account profitability. This may have something to do with the contribution of non-transparent revenue sources and or the fact that actual direct labor and overhead costs simply don’t allow agencies to optimize their fee income.
  3. Agencies generate revenue by selling time-of-staff. Assembling a team, calculating utilization rates and full-time equivalent standards and applying a multiplier to direct labor costs to cover overhead and a desired profit margin. Whether these variables are transparent to a client or not, this is the basic approach for the pricing of agency services. It is important to understand this dynamic, because very few, if any, client/ agency relationships are able to directly link remuneration to SOW outputs or deliverables.

As an aside, the one collaborated piece of information that we do have specific to compensation relates to acceptable profit margin ranges. The 4A’s and ANA’s compensation surveys have suggested that an acceptable profit margin range to both clients and agencies is between 14% – 17%.

So, without an industry guideline to follow, advertisers and agencies will likely continue to negotiate remuneration schema the same way that they have over the years. Both parties will look at the relevancy of the prior year’s billable rates and SOWs, fine tune those items and adjust the overall fee up or down accordingly.

If both parties are looking for a better balanced, more transparent approach to establishing a remuneration program, we would suggest the following steps:

  • Negotiate a tight, descriptive statement-of-work (SOW) which clearly identifies client expected agency deliverables. An obvious, but oft overlooked component to crafting a fair and balanced remuneration program.
  • Allow the agency to establish a staffing plan, reflecting the resources required to execute the SOW. Review, discuss resource levels in the context of hours by department/ function and the level of experience necessary (junior vs. senior level staffer) based upon the deliverables.
  • Independently review and validate the agency’s direct labor costs for the agreed upon staffing plan. This will give clients confidence in the accuracy of the agency’s labor expense, without divulging employee salaries.
  • Negotiate a definition of overhead and those items that should be included as part of these indirect costs/ charges.
  • On a periodic basis, have the agency’s financial accounting firm verify the overhead charges specifically attributable to the management of the client’s account.
  • Negotiate a profit margin to be applied to the sum of the agency’s direct labor costs plus overhead assessment.
  • Negotiate a bonus/ malus incentive compensation program if desired. The goal should be to maintain a simple, straight forward set of criteria that allows both parties to efficiently track progress against goal attainment.
  • Reconcile fees based upon actual agency direct labor costs at the end of each contract year.

In this context, we believe that advertisers should focus on operating agency account level costs and profitability and not focus on agency holding company financials.

Why? Because at a holding company level, profit represents the difference between agency client revenues (from media commissions, mark-ups, fees or other forms of client compensation) and holding company operating expenses. As we know, the level of centralized support provided to each operating agency will vary from one agency group to another, from one year to the next. Further, agency holding company expenses include items ranging from merger and acquisition expenses to re-branding costs, technology development and business development… categories that don’t directly benefit a client.

In so doing, while it may be difficult for advertisers to assess how “competitive” their agency compensation program is relative to the market, they will have the peace of mind in knowing that they have secured a fair and transparent remuneration program that works for their organization and for their agency partners. As American educator, Michael Pollan once said:

“I think perfect objectivity is an unrealistic goal; fairness, however, is not.”

What is Missing in Client-Agency Relationships Today?

28 Dec

What's Missing Question Words Puzzle Holes Gaps Incomplete PictuOne can’t help but marvel at the length of some of the most enduring and successful client-agency relationships. Unilever and Lowe & Partners have been together for 117 years, Unilever and J. Walter Thompson for 114 years, General Electric and BBDO for 96 years and FCB and Levis Strauss for 43 years. In an age where the average lifespan of client-agency relationships is less than 4 years, you certainly have to tip your hat to these partnerships.

What is it that they know or are doing differently that has eluded others in their pursuit of long lasting, stable and productive relationships?

While there are certainly many contributing factors, I believe that the most important ingredient in these long lasting relationships is the principal of “fidelity.” In short, these organizations obviously share a commitment to the quality of being faithful to one other. This can be evidenced by their ongoing loyalty and mutual support for one another, an intangible but valuable trait that has served them well. As the late German actress, Lilli Palmer once said; “Fidelity is a gift, not a requirement.” But as can be evidenced by the length of these unions, this gift can yield meaningful benefits.

Experience has taught us that successful client-agency relationships are more often than not predicated on marketplace performance… building enduring brands, driving revenues and expanding market share. Great work and great outcomes are clearly an integral part of achieving success when it comes to enduring partnerships. Such work is also a byproduct of one of the keys to achieving and maintaining fidelity, a shared sense of purpose. This shared sense of purpose is truly the glue that holds relationships together. Whether that is between an organization and its associates or between advertisers their agencies and their third-party vendors.

In a complex, ever changing global marketplace the best way to instill a shared sense of purpose is to gain alignment on five key components of a client-agency relationship:

  1. Client Business Goals – For an agency, understanding the client’s overall objectives is a necessity for generating break-through ideas and developing work that will move the proverbial needle. It is also a pre-requisite to earning the respect of the C-Suite when providing strategic counsel and advice. The client organization also benefits exponentially when its personnel and business partners have a clear line of sight into the enterprise’s goals. Thus, client-side CEOs might benefit from the wisdom of George F. Burns, who said, “Define your business goals clearly so that others can see them as you do.
  2. Agency Deliverables – Establishing the agency’s role and overarching responsibilities is a necessary first step in identifying a specific set of deliverables, which in turn are designed to support the marketing objectives that will contribute to the attainment of the business goals. In turn, these deliveries will also provide the impetus for both the agency and the client to assess what level of resources they need to allocate to satisfy these expectations during the fiscal year.
  3. Resource Requirements – While we normally think about resource commitments in the context of agency time-of-staff, technology, data resources and the like, both the agency and client must ask themselves what level of resource investment is required to execute these deliverables in an efficient manner. Too often, client organizations may not be adequately staffed to provide timely and or relevant feedback on day-to-day decisions or in the context of providing sound strategic direction at the onset of campaign planning. Thus, both parties must carefully assess the amount of time and level of subject matter expertise each will require to support one another.
  4. Communication Protocols – One of the realities of client-agency relationships is the constant grind of daily tasks and unforeseen activities that sap resources, energy and potentially creativity. However menial these tasks might be, they are necessary. That said, it is equally as important to establish client-agency contact plans that allow for periodic contact between executives of both organizations to discuss business performance, opportunities and exchange ideas on how the agency can better assist the client in pursuit of its goals. Similarly, outside of the weekly status updates, monthly performance tracking discussions and financial management reporting it can be very helpful to establish regular quarterly business reviews (QBRs). These QBRs should be attended by cross functional representatives from each parties marketing, finance and procurement teams and should address both year-to-date status updates (i.e. project tracking, budget management, agency time-of-staff/ fee tracking) but also allow for meaningful discussion on potential shifts in strategy or tactical support to address competitive actions or market opportunities.
  5. Performance Measurement – Simply put, what criteria will the client use to assess the value of the agency’s contribution to the attainment of the organization’s goals… and the timely, efficient execution of its deliverables. Discussing these expectations upfront, monitoring progress on a monthly basis and making the requisite course change decisions if and when necessary can be helpful in driving consensus on how the agency and client teams are performing.

Focusing on these components of client-agency relationships will not only instill a sense of shared purpose and fidelity, but will strengthen the level of respect both organizations have for one another. In the end, this is the key to transcending the organizational changes that will inevitably occur on both sides of the aisle and nourish a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship.

When one considers the strains on today’s client-agency relationships there may be no truer words than those spoken by the 35th president of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy, when he said;

“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”

 

 

 

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