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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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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.”

 

 

 

Ready to Embrace Full-Service Agencies Once Again?

24 Aug

full service advertising agency“Back in the day” is a catch phrase that many of us who came up in the ad business during the full-service agency, 15% commission era are accustomed to using when discussing the state of affairs within the industry today.

Things were simpler then for both marketers and ad agencies. Agencies were valued strategic partners, with C-Suite access that were tasked with developing brand positioning architectures, target segmentation schema and the creation and stewarding of brand communications across customer touchpoints. Marketers managed one full-service agency to handle all of the “above the line” branding and activation activities and maybe one or two “below the line” shops to handle tasks such as sales promotion and yellow pages advertising.

Fast forward to the here and now and the concept of “generalist” agencies, as full-service shops are often derogatorily referred to, has given way to specialization. As a result, marketers have seen the depth of their agency rosters swell in number to represent several to several dozen shops, each responsible for some, but not every aspect of a brand’s interaction with some, but not all segments of that brand’s target audience.

In the current “specialization” model, the challenges for marketers, particularly for those with limited staff resources, that don’t employ a full-service agency-of-record, are many. There are critical tasks and hand-offs which need to be addressed within the client organization and across their agency network, such as:

  • Who is responsible for marketing communications strategy development?
  • Who is on point for the integration and coordination of the communications program across touchpoints? Across media? Across target segments? Across geographies?
  • Who owns the agency relationships?

Factor in the challenges caused by evolving dynamics including organizational silos (i.e. digital versus traditional media), cross-channel marketing and attribution, big data and ad technology and the level of complexity, which marketers face grows to an almost dizzying height.

As to “who” is responsible, the obvious answer is that ownership of these tasks clearly resides with the client-side marketing team. This might help to explain why marketers are feeling stressed out, with many actually expressing a lack of confidence in their team’s ability.

Two short years ago Adobe conducted a survey of 1,000 U.S. marketers and found that only 40% of those surveyed felt that their company’s marketing efforts were effective. This same survey indicated that 68% of marketers were feeling “more pressure to show a return on investment on marketing spend” (ROMI). Earlier this year, Workfront surveyed 500 marketers and found that 25% felt “highly stressed” and 80% stated that they felt “overloaded and understaffed.”

It should go without saying that this is not a healthy dynamic for marketers and doesn’t seem to bode well for organizations seeking to optimize their ROMI.

One might realistically ask the question, are such organizational and or workload challenges impacting brand/ customer relationships? Some industry experts, such as Liz Miller, SVP of Marketing at the CMO council have suggested that consumers in fact have a disjointed perspective of certain brands, resulting in part from inconsistent experiences across touchpoints. In a recent interview with Marketing Daily, Ms. Miller suggested that the key issue facing marketers was delivering a “holistic, connected customer experience.”

Thus it would seem that in this era of specialization, deep agency rosters, headcount pressures on both client and agency organizations, rapidly evolving ad technologies and an empowered consumer, with a wide array of choices a return to “simpler” times would be welcome.

In our experience, advertisers that are successfully navigating this complex, rapidly changing market have done three things that are contributing to their success:

  1. Reduced the size of their agency rosters.
  2. Deputized an Agency-of-Record partner to share in the responsibility for developing strategies and orchestrating marketing activities to deliver a holistic brand experience.
  3. Placed a high premium on effective, collaborative communications with their agency partners and internal stakeholders to gain buy-in to the organization’s marketing communications efforts and to provide regular performance updates.

While a return to the “good ole days” may be nothing more than a fanciful wish, the concept of simplification remains a viable means of steadying the ship and allocating both advertiser and agency resources in a more efficient manner.

As American computer scientist Alan Perlis, once said;

Fools ignore complexity. Pragmatists suffer it. Some can avoid it. Geniuses remove it.”

 

Building a Relationship and Managing to Scope Are Not Mutually Exclusive

4 Aug

project scopeAdvertisers are comfortable paying their agency partners for services performed and the work product which they deliver. Conversely, agencies are comfortable billing for the services provided and work which they complete. More often than not, advertisers and agencies have contractual agreements, which specify how the agency is to be remunerated for such work.

So what is the root cause contributing to continued industry concerns over agency compensation and profitability?

Consider that, most agency compensation systems establish guaranteed profit ranges of between 10% and 20% with the opportunity for additional incentives tied to performance. Further, most client-agency relationships begin with fairly well defined “Scopes of Service” and “Agency Staffing Plans” which serve as the basis of the agency remuneration program. The obvious answer has to be that regardless of both parties good intentions, actual practice must not mirror the agreed upon contractual terms.

From our perspective, the answer comes down to one key aspect of any professional service provider’s business model… the ability to align staff investment with the scope of services required by their clients. As a contract compliance auditor and marketing accountability consultant we have had the good fortune to analyze a broad range of client-agency relationships, across industries and around the globe. In virtually every scenario where an agency asserts that they are not being adequately compensated on a given client these two items are misaligned. The only acceptable instances that we have come across are in the context of an agency knowingly investment spending to assimilate a new client or a particular aspect a client relationship.

The primary issue for ad agencies is that their time-keeping practices are less than optimal and their systematic ability to accurately track time at a project or task level is often times poorly set up or woefully lacking in capabilities. This is frequently compounded by inadequate controls and reporting, making it extremely challenging for agency management to have the proper information necessary to course correct on a timely basis. Finally, even if the agency does have the tools and is aware of a shortfall, they often aren’t comfortable engaging their clients in meaningful discussions surrounding; project burn rates, inefficient processes demands exceeding the original agreed upon scope or variances in planned staff utilization levels. Consequently, these issues are often left unresolved until the year-end relationship evaluation meeting, leaving the only option for the agency but to approach their client with a plea for additional remuneration to offset its over investment of time. Not surprising, the timing of these discussions are such that it is often too late for the client to even consider such a request. In the words of Roman statesman and philosopher, Seneca:

“When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.”

Fortunately, this scenario is easily remedied through improved controls and good communications. 

For starters, agencies must educate their employees and contractors on the purpose and importance of accurately tracking their time by client, project and or task, in fifteen minute increments and the need to submit their time sheets on a weekly basis. Ideally, these guidelines along with any other agency or client specific requirements should be published and reviewed periodically with the agency staff.

Secondly, time-of-staff reports should be issued to clients on a monthly basis and should incorporate staff investment detail by person, by department and should be compared back against the total hours and utilization rates identified in the staffing plan along with an explanation of noteworthy variances. This should be supplemented with a quarterly meeting between agency and client executives to review progress against the contractual Scope of Services and to discuss the agency time-of-staff investment to-date and, if necessary, any actions required to realign the two going into the next quarter.

While the agency will usually be the direct beneficiary of this approach, clients will genuinely appreciate and respect the timeliness and thoroughness of this “no surprises” process.  Simple? Yes. Straight forward? No doubt. Who’s responsible for taking the first step… the agency. This methodology is part and parcel of every professional services provider’s responsibility to their clients and shareowners. Importantly, it allows agencies to effectively build rapport and manage their client relationships on a profitable basis.

 

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