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Advertising Delivery Models Are Evolving. How Will the Holding Companies Respond?

12 Jan

dreamstime_xs_127777381When agency holding companies were birthed, they did nothing that directly impacted client businesses. They were corporate entities that owned a number of smaller agencies and the attendant portfolios of real estate, trademarks, copyrights and licenses attached to those agencies. Their primary role was to create shareholder value through structural leveraging.

As time progressed, three things happened that form the basis of the challenge faced by agency holding companies today.

Firstly, aided by low barriers to entry, there was a proliferation in both the number of agencies and the types of functional specialist shops that came to be. In the early days there were “above the line” full-service agencies and “below the line” shops such as sales promotion, direct marketing and PR. Over time, specialists in diversity advertising, shopper marketing and digital media have come into vogue. Highly focused agencies continue to emerge today, as witnessed by the arrival of Amazon “specialist agencies” that assist marketers seeking to do business with or sell goods online via Amazon. Along the way, specialization led to fragmentation and full-service agencies fell by the wayside. Marketers in turn saw their agency networks expand in size as they added specialist firms to their rosters creating a range of agency stewardship and coordination challenges.

Secondly, the holding companies continued to acquire marketing services and advertising agencies. Part of their acquisition strategy involved bringing on specialist firms across a range of competencies to fill out their service offering. Another part of their strategy involved the acquisition of branded agency networks to consolidate activity within select clients (e.g. WPP’s acquisition of Ford agencies J. Walter Thompson, Ogilvy & Mather and Young & Rubicam) and to create walled silos that would allow them to handle competitive advertising accounts. Financial benefits were realized by consolidating functions and paring expenses in areas such as human resources, legal and finance while allowing the acquired agencies to operate independently in virtually every other area.

Finally, along the way the holding companies began to compete as agencies, creating stand-alone client service entities such as; Enfatico (Dell), Team One (Toyota), GTB (Ford) and We Are Unlimited (McDonald’s). The value proposition with these dedicated agency teams was to provide larger advertisers with scalable, seamless solutions served up by the most talented personnel from across the holding company’s portfolio of agency brands. While the premise was certainly compelling, the holding company model did not readily lend itself to a blended workforce concept and often suffered from the lack of centralized business platforms.

Fast forward to 2019 and advertiser preferences remain unchanged. Advertisers desire breakthrough, transformational business solutions served up on an integrated basis and of course, they want them faster, better and cheaper.

In their search for a better “mousetrap” advertisers have begun to take certain aspects of their advertising in-house and or have engaged non-traditional partners including management and technology consulting firms to augment their traditional agency rosters. Of note, the consulting firms, represented by global monolithic brands, blended workforces, common processes and centralized business platforms have made significant inroads with CMOs. This has raised speculation among many industry pundits with regard to whether or not the consulting firms would supplant advertising agencies. Fueling the speculation has been the management consulting firms’ pursuit of agency acquisitions to round out their marketing/ advertising service offerings, it will be interesting to see how well they fair integrating those acquired firms into their organizations both structurally and culturally.

Many in the industry are waiting for the revelation of a new “agency model” that will emerge to magically address advertiser desires and resolve agency holding company challenges. It is our belief that these pundits will likely be waiting for some time.

Advertisers, for their part, will continue to seek out and retain responsive, agile marketing partners that can provide breakthrough, scalable business enhancing solutions. While the idea of an integrated, end-to-end provider is intriguing, it is likely not feasible. Rather, assembling a team of specialists, albeit narrower marketing agency networks, with the advertiser serving as strategist and integrator across the “marketing ecosystem” as Martin Sorrell, Chairman of S4 Capital refers to it is the most likely solution.

As for agency holding companies, we believe that Arthur Sadoun, Chairman of Publicis Groupe got it right when he stated that “the old holding company model is dead” in April of 2018. Advertisers will not embrace a one-stop solution from any of the holding companies. Thus, the holding companies will likely continue their recent focus on right-sizing their networks through the consolidation of both brands and functions and the divestiture of redundant and non-core entities. After all, how many agencies that place or distribute digital media or in-house studios does a holding company need? There may also be a subtle shift from a focus on cost reductions to enhancing the holding company’s ability to cost efficiently scale operations. This could include an expansion of the old “shared services” model, looking beyond HR, Finance and Legal to create centers of excellence around functions such as Data Sciences, Technology, Media Procurement and Production to provide clients across their network with faster, better and cheaper solutions in these areas.

While many lament the decline of the agency holding company, other than the world’s top advertisers, most organizations hire agency brands. While some of the agencies they hire may be owned by the same holding company, more often they are not. Thus the challenge of finding “integrated” solutions for the development of relevant, quick, agile and engaging solutions has been the purview of marketers… at least since the days when the full-service agency model was the standard. As such, the evolution of the advertising delivery model will more than likely be driven by advertisers and less so by agency holding companies.

 

 

 

2018 | Articles That Piqued Our Readers Interest

31 Dec

WTop 5ith 2018 now in our rearview mirror and all of our attention focused on the coming year, we thought that you might be interested in learning what our “Top 5” blog posts were over the past twelve months, according to our readers.

While familiar issues such as; trust, transparency and brand safety continued to be at the fore of advertisers’ attention, new topics including programmatic audio, AI-powered personalization and federal privacy regulation crept into our field of view. Click below to access 2018’s top posts.

  1. 3 Keys to Strengthening Client-Agency Relationships
  2. 4 Keys for Optimizing Direct Labor Based Remuneration Systems
  3. Agency Compensation: The More for Less Trap
  4. Advertisers: What Does the DOJ Know About the Ad Industry That You Don’t?
  5. Will Programmatic Ever Address Advertiser Concerns?

One Hundred Years Later. Has Anything Really Changed?

27 Dec

Sears Catalog CoverWe’re all familiar with the old adage: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Strange as that may sound, the notion behind this saying is simple. No matter how complex a situation may appear, nor the rate or nature of changes that we may be dealing with, there tends to be an underlying corollary that remains constant.

To test this hypothesis, I spent some time browsing through the archives of Duke University’s John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History to gain a perspective on what marketers were dealing with at the beginning of the twentieth-century. As importantly, I wanted to compare their reality with the environment in which we operate today.

Surely the fundamentals facing marketers had to have changed, I reasoned. There have simply been too many advancements and technological improvements for the aforementioned adage to hold true. However, a quick review of some key events then and now might suggest otherwise… you be the judge:

Then

  • 1915 – Millions of dollars are spent on advertising and public relations to stimulate consumer demand
  • 1915 –  Modern market research begins, resulting in ads being increasingly targeted to specific audiences
  • 1915 – The first transcontinental telephone line opens from NY to San Francisco
  • 1916 – Self-Service retailing is invented by the Piggly Wiggly chain of grocery stores
  • 1916 – U.S. automotive and truck production exceeds one million new units
  • 1918 – The New York Times begins home delivery
  • 1918 – Ad legend James Walter Thompson sells his namesake agency to Stanley B. Resor and partners
  • 1918 – The Federal Government takes control of the nation’s telephone and telegraph systems
  • 1921 – Badly hurt by the depression, Sears, Roebuck & Company Chairman Julius Rosenwald pledged $21 million of his own funds to bail the company out

Now

  • 2018 – Billions of dollars are spent on advertising and earned media to stimulate consumer demand
  • 2018 – AI aided market research and predictive analytics allow marketers to better chart the consumer journey
  • 2018 – Number of worldwide mobile phone users expected to pass 5.0 billion
  • 2018 – Amazon Go unveils revolutionary check-out free convenience stores
  • 2018 – U.S. Plug-in-Electric Vehicle sales estimated to eclipse 400,000 units
  • 2018 – The New York Times achieves 2 million digital only subscribers
  • 2018 – The J. Walter Thompson brand is merged with Wunderman to form Wunderman Thompson
  • 2018 – The Federal Communications Commission repeals net neutrality rules
  • 2018 – Sears files for bankruptcy, closing 140+ stores, Chairman Eddie Lampert submits $4.4 billion bid to buy the chain and stave off closure

While the size and scale of the issues that our industry was dealing with are certainly different, the fundamentals are actually more similar than not. Whether in the context of advancements in retail models or modes of media distribution to the impact of emerging product sectors and government regulation or even developments related to changes in agency ownership, there is a certain “sameness” to our industry… even after an eventful 100 years.

Hopefully we can find comfort in the aforementioned adage and confidence in the fact that our predecessors were able to successfully navigate the challenges which they faced to help create what has become one of the world’s most stimulating and dynamic business sectors, advertising and marketing.

As we reflect on the passing of another year and contemplate the challenges and opportunities that will present themselves to us in 2019 all of us at AARM would like to offer up an old Irish toast to each of you:

May the best day of your past be the worst day of your future. May your troubles be less and your blessings be more and nothing but happiness come through your door.

2 “Year-End” Practices That Will Boost Agency Performance

30 Nov

end-of-yearTo be sure, the end of the calendar year is a hectic time for advertisers and agencies. Tasks such as wrapping up ongoing initiatives, closing out jobs, addressing last-minute out-of-scope projects and readying for year-end financial reporting take on a sense of urgency and seem to consume more time than either party has available to invest.

Then, seemingly without warning (but never too soon) the holiday season is upon us and co-workers, suppliers and client-personnel scatter to the wind as companies close down for the holidays and individuals use up remaining comp time. This is followed by a “return to normalcy” the first week in January when we close-out any remaining prior year tasks and turn our attention to implementing the new year’s plans.

Sound familiar? Probably so.

Thus, it comes as no surprise to anyone that certain intended actions fall by the wayside as people adjust schedules for the December/January timeframe in order to balance hectic and often stressful workplace and personal schedules.

In our experience, there are two Client/Agency activities that often fall victim to this re-prioritization:

  1. Undertaking year-end agency financial reconciliations (i.e. time-of-staff, agency fees, expenses); and
  2. Conducting annual 360º agency evaluations.

On one hand, it is easy to understand how and why these activities get moved down the priority list, receive a lower-than-desired level of scrutiny or simply get passed over. On the other hand, these are incredibly valuable practices that yield a wealth of financial, process improvement and relationship management insights and opportunities, well in excess of the time and energy invested in their undertaking.

Sadly, missing these annual end-of-year activities once, significantly increases the odds of annualizing their omission from the standard operating procedures “playbook” moving forward. Further, human nature being what it is, people then begin to rationalize why it is appropriate never to reconcile and review. Perhaps Paul Harvey, the noted broadcaster, got it right when he quipped:

Ever since I made tomorrow my favorite day, Ive been uncomfortable looking back.”

From a practical perspective, our experience would fully support Mr. Harvey’s lack of comfort with “looking back,” particularly when clients and agencies forgo these important annual oversights and relationship management practices. Why? The lack of oversight can beget poor record keeping, which in an estimated billing system carries huge financial risks. Additionally, forgoing a 360º evaluation and the opportunity to discuss how to address open issues, correct performance shortcomings and leverage those things that are working well is not only costly, but can sow the seeds of discontent in the Client/Agency relationship, which is not healthy for either party.

Therefore, we believe that these two “year-end” practices should never be forgone or given short shrift. The most practical approach to prevent this is to create project work plans for these practices, complete with timetables and milestones, the assignment of task level responsibilities to specific individuals and locking-in calendar placeholders for progress updates and report-out meetings.

In the end, everyone benefits from the enhanced levels of transparency, solid two-way communications and ultimately, improved performance.

Who Says Advertisers Don’t Want Transparency?

26 Nov

transparency“No one wants full transparency.”

It was alleged that this intriguing pull quote echoed the sentiments of agency buyers at a gathering of agency executives dealing with the topic of “Transparency in Media Buying.” The event, hosted by Digiday in London, provided participants with complete anonymity with regard to their name and or company affiliation in order to encourage an open exchange of information on the topic. Understood.

Participants shared a range of thoughts as to why advertisers weren’t truly interested in media transparency. The ideas proffered by this group included:

  • A belief that advertisers were concerned about the costs associated with revamping how digital media is purchased.
  • Advertiser concern related to the impact of “overhauling how much” they spend on media.
  • A general lack of advertiser interest in the “mechanical” detail that underlies the media acquisition and delivery process.

There are two major problems with this perspective.

The first is the belief among digital media supply chain participants that advertisers should bear the financial burden related to the poor decisions made by agencies, ad tech vendors and publishers with regard to how media buys were executed, tracked and reported on. For years these intermediaries knowingly shirked their fiduciary responsibility to serve the advertiser’s best interest and to safeguard their media investment. To come back now and suggest that if advertisers want a return to normalcy it will cost them more in fees and the actual rates paid for media inventory is preposterous. Did these firms reduce their fees and costs to advertisers while they were participating in media arbitrage and purchasing low quality, high risk inventory (often without the advertiser’s knowledge)? Of course not. They padded their respective bottom lines at the expense of advertisers.

Secondly, the notion that advertisers aren’t interested in the mechanics and science behind the planning, buying, stewardship and performance analysis of media buys seems to be misguided. Or at the very least, not representative of the views held by a majority of advertisers, many who have cited media transparency as one of their most important concerns in industry survey after industry survey. Additionally, Gartner Research recently released the results of its “CMO Spend” survey and noted that chief marketing officers at advertiser organizations in the U.S. and UK were focused on areas such as email marketing, online media management and digital analytics as their top tech priorities. This further underscores advertiser interest in leveraging technology to improve transparency and drive media performance.

Perhaps the clients represented by the agency personnel at the Digiday event are different than those with whom we interact with on a regular basis or those who participate in industry surveys.

Or perhaps the more accurate sentiment is that no one on the agency, ad tech or publisher side wants full transparency. Either way, if the media supply chain doesn’t recognize and begin to address client concerns and the corrective actions that advertisers are already taking the risk of revenue contraction and ultimately disintermediation is real.

One only needs to read the Association of National Advertiser’s (ANA) October, 2018 study; “The Continued Rise of the In-House Agency” to understand the cost to intermediaries of not taking advertisers’ best interest to heart:

  • 78% of ANA members surveyed had an in-house agency in 2018 versus 58% in 2013 and 42% in 2008.
  • 90% of the survey respondents indicated that the workload of their in-house agencies had increased in the past year, including 65% for whom the workload had increased significantly.

Media supply chain stakeholders may want to heed the words of 20th century Russian-American writer and philosopher Ayn Rand:

“We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”

 

Never a Wrong Time to Do the Right Thing

27 Sep

DoTheRightThingDoing right by others is certainly a core value and one that many of us subscribe to. For me personally, as a former ad agency account director, I have always been fond of the quote by Victor Hugo, the nineteenth-century French author: “Initiative is doing the right thing, without being told.

In the professional services business sector this credo was once considered “cost of entry.” Today, however, having one’s advertising agency and or intermediaries “do the right thing” isn’t a given and, in the current environment, very likely will come at a cost.

As an example, Forrester recently interviewed thirty-four media agency clients and found that “transparency” was a key priority for marketers. However, many of the media agencies that they spoke with indicated that they “are only transparent if clients require it in their contracts.” Nice to know.

Perhaps you’ve been following the trend among influencer marketing agencies and their vendors who are now charging clients incremental fees for conducting content reviews or brand-safety checks to safeguard advertisers’ placements. For years, influencers have been paid largely based upon the number of followers that they had. Sadly, many influencers had engaged in buying followers to boost their appeal to advertisers and, in turn, their revenue. Now that advertisers are savvy to this practice and are looking for assurances on the influencers utilized and the nature of their followers, influencer agencies want to incorporate an upcharge to advertisers.

What about those instances where trading desks and DSPs are now charging premiums to access content from exchanges that will ensure proper placement, safeguarding brands and minimizing the incidence of media fraud? Whoever said that it was okay to purchase high-risk, low return inventory to begin with?

Maybe you’ve experienced abnormal delays with regard to your ad agency partners closing and reconciling projects to actual costs or in receiving post-campaign media performance recaps. Or perhaps you were expecting your agency to competitively bid your production work, only to find out that they were relying on the same vendor(s) that they’ve always used (maybe even an agency affiliate). Or, you were of the belief that your media campaigns were being monitored and that audience delivery guarantees were being negotiated in-flight, only to find out that there was no such stewardship of your media investment.

What is going on? What happened to doing the right thing? When you query your agency partners they suggest that the Scope of Work (SOW) didn’t specifically call for those activities nor did the agency Staffing Plan allow for providing that support at the frequency or within the time frame that you had come to expect. This obviously begs the question, “When did the agency stop providing the level of service and oversight support that it once did?”

The message is clear, advertisers can take nothing for granted and certainly cannot assume that their agency, adtech, production and media vendors have their back. Simply stated, we are operating in an era when advertisers must incorporate legal terms and conditions, which provide the requisite safeguards and controls that govern the behavior and service levels that they expect, into their agency agreements in order to have each vendor in the advertising supply-chain do the right thing.

As importantly, having solid contract language and tightly written scopes of work in and of themselves does not guarantee that agents and intermediaries will fall in line and comply with advertiser expectations. Experience suggests that adherence will typically only be achieved through performance and accountability monitoring. As the old adage goes; “What is inspected is respected.”

Please note, that we are not suggesting that an advertisers shouldn’t pay for the level of coverage and service that they expect to receive. That said, advertisers can no longer take it for granted that certain service standards, which historically have been part and parcel of agency standard operating procedures and hadn’t been necessary to be called out in an agreement or an SOW, are still being followed. If a service provider drops or alters the nature of a service being provided, it should be incumbent to at least communicate those decisions to the advertiser and engage in discussions to ascertain if the changes are acceptable or negotiate additional fees to cover the desired level of support.

In the end, successfully aligning advertiser expectations and supply-chain member service delivery standards comes down to all parties committing to a policy of open, honest, two-way dialog to ensure that there are no surprises and to incent an environment of initiative taking.

 

 

Iconic Ad Agency Brands Continue to Disappear

25 Sep

Y&R logoI was struck with both a twinge of disappointment and nostalgia when I read the news that WPP is considering folding the Young & Rubicam agency into VML, renaming the entity VMLY&R.

Born in the 1920’s at a time before television and digital media even existed, Young & Rubicam was truly an iconic agency brand that went on to produce memorable work for clients such as Jell-O (“Bill Cosby with Kids”), Lays Potato Chips (“Betcha can’t eat just one”) and Bristol-Meyers (“Excedrin headache”) during the 1960’s and 70’s. A cutting-edge agency that produced the first color TV commercial perhaps it is only fitting that it is being merged into an agency which specializes in leveraging emerging technologies and digital media to help brands forge and manage consumer connections in the twenty-first century.

For sentimentalist, however, who remember the golden era of advertising, when full-service agencies ruled, serving their clients’ as valued, trusted strategic partners and when remuneration was straightforward and transparent (15% commission rate) Young & Rubicam’s transformation into VMLY&R is but another sign of an industry in search of a new identity. Thus the Y&R nameplate will join the likes of other legendary shops that have become distant memories of a bygone era:

  • Ted Bates
  • N.W. Ayer
  • Marsteller
  • Needham Harper & Steers
  • Wells, Rich, Greene
  • Kenyon & Eckhardt
  • Papert, Koenig, Lois

The decade of the sixties ushered in the rise of the agency holding company, courtesy of Marion Harper and his Interpublic Group of Companies and a turn to Wall Street for public funding to fuel three decades of merger and acquisition activity, the likes of which we will probably never see again.

This ultimately led to the decoupling of agency services and the emergence of specialist agencies. Initially, this was a tenable situation when there were a limited number of agencies including, creative shops, media agencies, diversity firms and direct marketing agencies. But as the number of areas of specialization continued to mushroom, so too did advertisers’ agency rosters as shops focusing on disciplines such as; experiential marketing, digital media, social marketing and brand activation were born.

The industry’s move toward specialization led to fragmentation, increased competition, margin erosion and talent acquisition and retention challenges for the agencies themselves. Some have argued that this scenario, coupled with the emerging role of corporate procurement in the marketing arena, and the downward pressure on agency fees that resulted, fueled the growth in non-transparent revenue practices implemented by many agencies.  

Ironically, while these practices satisfied the holding companies short-term profit motivations, the revelation of these non-toward initiatives, which belied what advertisers believed to be an agency’s fiduciary responsibilities ultimately cost them the trust and confidence of advertisers. This, in turn, has opened the door for management and tech consulting firms to challenge ad agencies traditional market position.

Interestingly, the approach taken by the consulting firms is more reminiscent of the old “full-service” agency model, than the multi-brand specialist approach, which epitomizes today’s holding company model. Monolithic, global consulting brands delivering strategic, end-to-end, integrated solutions through a team of diverse, highly trained consultants steeped in their firm’s culture, processes and tools.

It is likely that WPP’s move to merge Y&R and VML signals the beginning of the next wave of holding company consolidations and potentially divestitures as they seek to pare their agency brand portfolios in an effort to eliminate redundancies, reduce overhead costs and streamline service delivery. Wave one this effort led to the disappearance of many of the great names in the agency world, either dropping them from their respective company nameplates or opting for acronyms, which resulted in Ogilvy, Benson & Mather being shortened to Ogilvy, Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn becoming BBDO and Doyle Dane Bernbach adopting the DDB moniker.

In the end, agencies can only hope that their consolidation and repositioning efforts boost their position with advertisers and assist them in defending their core business. After all, the challenge, as the legendary Bill Bernbach once intoned, is; “Getting your product known isn’t the answer. Getting it wanted is the answer.”

 

 

Don’t Start There

25 Jul

contract complianceMost would agree that the days of conducting business on a handshake are long gone. Make no mistake, honesty, forthrightness, trust and respectability are still qualities that we look for in our professional relationships. However, when it comes to transacting business the protection afforded to all parties is greatly enhanced with the use of a contract versus a verbal agreement marked by a handshake.

A verbal contract isnt worth the paper its written on.” ~ Samuel Goldwyn

The good news when it comes to the advertising industry, most client-agency relationships are governed by a contractual agreement. That said, there is one common mistake made by many advertisers when it comes to contracting with their agency partners… they start with the agency’s base contract.

Unfortunately, this creates a handful of challenges beginning with the fact that by its nature, agency contract templates are not client-centric. Then, when the advertiser turns the draft agreement over to counsel for review the document will likely require major modifications or, depending on counsel’s degree of advertising industry knowledge, there is a risk that key terms and conditions, which safeguard the advertiser’s interest will not be included in the agreement.

For advertisers, getting the contract “right” is important for two reasons. Firstly, the client-agency agreement establishes the legal nature of the relationship (e.g. principal-agent), while clearly articulating both stakeholders’ roles, responsibilities and rights. Secondly, the agreement establishes expectations and guidelines related to key aspects of the relationship, including; agency performance, staffing, remuneration, reporting, audit and record retention and intellectual property and data rights.

Over the course of the last several years the nature of client-agency relationships has certainly evolved with the advent of emerging technologies, changes in the regulatory environment and a move away from principal-agency relationships, which once held agencies to a much higher fiduciary standard. Thus it comes as no surprise that the complexity of the legal agreements that govern these relationships has increased dramatically.

Larger advertisers certainly benefit from working with marketing procurement departments and in-house counsel that are adept at contracting with a myriad of marketing vendors. Many organizations have developed standardized marketing vendor Master Services Agreements (MSAs) that can be used across their agency network, with some modification. These are typically “evergreen” agreements that don’t need to be renegotiated on an annual basis. Complimentary annual Statements of Work (SOW), which include key deliverables, agency staffing plans and remuneration program details are designed to be reviewed every year.

Additionally, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (ISBA) have both developed comprehensive, client-agency contract templates for use by their members that reflect industry “Best Practice” trends in this area. For small advertisers, or relationships with smaller, independent agency partners, the ANA and ISBA contract templates may not be wholly appropriate, but will provide a worthwhile guide for key terms and conditions that will certainly be applicable.

In our experience, advertisers will be much better served by taking this approach as opposed to accepting or attempting to retro-fit an agency’s base contract.

Of course, once the contract has been executed, marketing and advertising team personnel have an obligation to their organizations… monitoring contract compliance and financial management across each of their agency partners. The first step in this process, one which is often overlooked, is to socialize the agreement. Since an agreement is intended to serve as the basis for the client-agency relationship, it is important to share a summation of this agreement with those client-side individuals responsible for managing these important relationships.

As it relates to ongoing contract compliance monitoring tactics, these can include the tracking and reviewing agency time-of-staff commitments, retainer fee “burn” rates, budget control and project status reports and annual fee reconciliations. Progressive advertisers compliment these efforts with periodic business review meetings (i.e. quarterly or semi-annually) and by conducting independent agency contract compliance audits every year or two.

Good contracts can be the building block for great relationships. The time and effort invested in fashioning them and insuring compliance to them will yield dividends and across an advertiser’s agency network.

 

 

 

 

4 Keys for Optimizing Direct Labor Based Remuneration Systems

9 Jul

punch clockAttorneys do it. So do accountants, consultants, architects and engineers.

What are these firms doing? Tracking billable hours. Why? Because time and material based compensation remains the predominant method of billing for professional services firms and this includes advertising agencies. In fact, according to the Association of National Advertisers’ 2017 “Trends in Agency Compensation” study, labor-based fees remained the “most used” method of remuneration for marketers of their ad agency partners.

There are many inherent benefits to direct labor based compensation systems from both an agency and advertiser perspective including simplicity and clarity, particularly for marketers utilizing multiple agency partners that may be collaborating on overarching campaigns or playing specific roles on comprehensive, integrated projects.

We believe there are four key steps to successfully implementing and managing direct labor based remuneration systems:

  1. Establishment of a clear, concise Statement of Work (SOW), with specific deliverables and estimated timelines.
  2. An agency Staffing Plan that identifies the individuals that will be assigned to the client’s business along with information detailing their department, title, bill rate and utilization rate.
  3. Build-up detail supporting the agency’s suggested billable hourly rate (i.e. direct labor, overhead, profit margin) to accompany the agency’s annual fee proposal.
  4. Timely, accurate time-of-staff reporting to facilitate the monitoring of burn rates and to support the fee reconciliation process.

While there are contractual language considerations that will also help to insure transparency and establish client and agency expectations, including limiting agency revenue to that which is agreed upon as part of the remuneration program, we want to focus our thoughts and recommendations on tracking billable hours.

Aligning advertiser expectations with agency resource requirements is the basis for any compensation system. Thus collaborating on an annual Statement of Work, complete with detailed deliverables and timelines is a critical first step in the process. The resulting document will inform the agency’s efforts to construct its Staffing Plan, which in turn will form the basis for its fee proposal.

Experience suggests that conversations should be had in advance of the agency’s development of its Staffing Plan. Specifically, the parties will need to agree upon the basis for the annual full-time equivalent (FTE) calculation and the rules related to the application of agency employee time in excess of the FTE standard for fully-utilized employees and how utilization rates are impacted by an employee’s “total” annual recorded time. As it relates to FTE standard, there is no normative data for the advertising industry. That said, an 1,800 to 1,875-hour standard (35 hours per week, multiplied by 50 weeks per year) represents a typical FTE range.

Once the SOW and Staffing Plan have been agreed to, reviewing and coming to agreement on the basis for the proposed billable rates is the next step in the fee negotiation process. The basic formula for calculating a billable hourly rate is as follows:

Billable Rate = (Direct Labor Costs + Overhead + Profit) / Total Projected Annual Hours

Ideally, billable hourly rates would be calculated by employee or by function, without revealing specific employee salary detail. As a fall back, calculating billable hourly rates by department are clearly preferable to a blended hourly rate for the agency as a whole. Thus for an agency associate with direct labor costs (salary + benefits) of $100,000 per year, an overhead factor of 1.0 x direct laborpunch clock, a target profit percentage of 15% and an 1,875 FTE standard, the billable hourly rate calculation would look as follows:

Billable Rate of $114.67 = ($100,000 + $100,000 + $15,000) / 1,875 hours                                                                                                                                             

From a reporting perspective, monthly time-of-staff reports detailing “actual” versus “planned” hours by individual are ideal to serve as the basis for regular discussions between client and agency on burn rates and what, if any, course corrections are required. The goal of the reporting and resulting conversations are to ensure that there are “no surprises” that would adversely impact either party. A formal time-of-staff reconciliation should be conducted annually, preferably by an independent third-party to validate that the time reported by the agency is consistent with the time in the agency’s time-keeping system.

Following the aforementioned steps will help protect the interests of both client and agency and will lead to a compensation program that is both transparent and fair.

Media Agencies on Edge as Management Consultants Take Aim

1 Jun

Contract SigningIt came as no surprise to anyone in the industry when Accenture recently announced the launch of its programmatic ad unit. After all, weeks before Accenture had completed the acquisition of Meredith’s digital media unit MXM. Further, over the course of the last few years many of the large management consultancies, including Accenture, had acquired creative, design, digital, CRM, Social and full-service agencies as they looked to expand their presence in the marketing services sector.

The row over Accenture’s announcement, at least within the agency community, was focused on its Media Management practice and the work that they do globally in the media auditing and agency review space. The argument proffered by agencies and their associations, specifically the 4As and the UK’s IPA, was that it was inappropriate for Accenture to provide media auditing and search consulting services and programmatic media buying due to the potential for conflict of interest. In short, the agencies expressed concern that Accenture would utilize the data that is accesses in its media management practice to inform its work in the programmatic buying area.

Many would argue that the “conflict of interest” defense raised by the agency community rings hollow. This is due to the fact that Accenture and other management consulting firms routinely implement firewalls and processes to separate and protect data from one client or practice being co-mingled or misused intentionally or not by another.

Further, the agency community has had its share of “conflict of interest” challenges in the recent past ranging from its acceptance of AVBs to media arbitrage to ownership interests in intermediary firms not disclosed to clients that have served to undermine their credibility and the level of trust clients are willing to afford them. Thus, while Accenture’s announcement may be a sensitive topic for agencies, clients will likely have little concern.

Let’s face it, the world is changing and the media landscape has become more complex thanks in large to the growing impact of technology, accelerated levels of media fragmentation and fundamental shifts in consumer media consumption habits. Marketers in particular have become more highly focused on the effective use of data and insights to better target select audiences, geographies, behaviors, etc. Thus, organizations looking to boost their performance and to optimize their marketing investment, are seeking partners that can provide holistic, objective, strategic insights to guide their decision making.

Management Consultants are well positioned to provide the requisite marketplace, competitive and consumer assessments along with strategic recommendations and tactical implementation support across the evolving marketing funnel. Global in scope, the large consultancies have hundreds of thousands of employees, serving in a variety of specialized practices that can be tapped to work with marketers in the identification of problems and opportunities and the pursuit of strategies to achieve their business objectives. The addition of programmatic media capabilities to encompass planning and buying is a logical extension of the consultants service offerings.

Media agencies were long the profit engines for agency holding companies and the onset of digital media and the meteoric growth of programmatic buying represented a boon for media agency margins. Unfortunately, revelations about certain buying practices and growing advertiser concern over the lack of transparency surrounding their digital media investment ushered in a period in which advertisers began to actively evaluate new media agency partners, tighter client-agency contracts and new digital media models. It should be noted that among the new models that advertisers have pursued has been bringing aspects of the programmatic media buying process in-house, often with the counsel and assistance of management consulting firms. These trends have allowed the consultancies to curry favor with CEOs and CMOs and to expand their toe hold in what had been space traditionally dominated by ad agencies.

Given the size of the global programmatic marketplace, measured at $14.2 billion in 2015 and estimated to be $36.8 billion in 2019 (source: MAGNA Global, June, 2016), it is easy to see the appeal for the management consulting firms in general and Accenture in specific. As an aside, the market potential in this sector dwarfs the size of the media auditing and review market by a wide margin.

The media agency community would best be served by focusing on what it can do to leverage its position of strength to protect its share of the media planning and buying business. Time spent focused on “conflict of interest” claims as a defense against incursions from consultants or other non-traditional competitors will likely garner little support outside of the agency community and will therefore not be productive.

 

 

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