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Agency Compensation: The “More for Less” Trap

31 Aug

More for LessFor many marketers, cutting agency fees is an obvious target when it comes to meeting budget reduction goals. The reasons are understandable given the need to balance achieving in-market results and preserving or improving working media levels, while achieving the desired savings target.

A factor which clouds this issue, is the general level of uncertainty among marketers as it relates to the overall competitiveness of the fees being paid to their agency partners. Are we paying our agencies too much? Or are we already at a competitive remuneration rate? Without being able to objectively address this item, there will likely be internal pressure brought to bear from finance and or procurement to reduce agency fees as part of the budget right-sizing initiative.

It should be noted that we believe in regularly reviewing agency fees, assessing their competitiveness vis-à-vis the market and in looking for ways to optimize a marketers return on its agency fee investment. That said, we also firmly believe in compensating agency partners fairly and in proportion to both the agreed upon scope of services and the agency’s ability to contribute to the attainment of an organization’s marketing and business goals.

Experience has taught us that organizations which focus solely on reducing agency fees, without adjusting the scope of work and or the agency staffing plan upon which those fees were based, can negatively impact agency relations and jeopardize the quality of the work generated by the agency. Further, we have found that when an advertiser involves its agency partners in the budget reduction process there is a greater likelihood of successfully addressing the near-term goal, with the least risk of negatively impacting brand sales.

While it should go without saying, we will say it any way, advertisers must adjust their expectations downward with regard to key agency deliverables in the wake of a budget reduction. It is not an agency’s responsibility to fund the advertiser’s savings goal. As it is, budget reductions create financial challenges for agencies in the form of reduced levels of revenue, which in turn create staffing and resource constraints that they must deal with. Thus, asking an agency to reduce its negotiated overhead rate or to lower its profit percentage to preserve planned deliverables (e.g. do more for less) is simply not appropriate.

There are specific areas that an advertiser might consider, in addition to right-sizing the scope of work to align with the revised marketing budget, which can reduce agency time-of-staff requirements and therefore fees:

  • Review the creative briefing and approval processes. Streamlining and reforming current practices in these areas can reduce the number of steps and therefore the number of agency personnel involved in the creative development process. This in turn can lower the level of “re-work” required, yielding meaningful time savings.
  • Extend current campaigns, rather than developing new approaches, leveraging current creative assets and forgoing the investment in both hard costs and agency fees required to conceive of and launch new creative campaigns.
  • When it comes to the creation of regional versions of creative or the production of collateral materials, embrace an “adapt” versus an “origination” mindset, optimizing existing content, rather than spending time and money to re-create the wheel. The age old acid test of “nice” or “necessary” is the best filter to apply in this area.
  • Reduce the number of media plan revisions over the course of a year. Establish clear goals, implement compelling and relevant strategies and tactics and “work the plan,” rather than revising and re-selling plans.
  • Assess the number of meetings, their frequency and the number of agency personnel required to attend. Attendance, travel time and expense and meeting prep time reductions can yield meaningful savings for both client and agency.
  • Work with the agency to adjust its staffing plan, evaluating both the number and level (e.g. experience) of personnel required to deliver against the revised scope of work.

Finally, once the planned reductions have been identified, consider adding or enhancing the agency’s performance bonus, with a large portion of the incentive compensation tied to in-market results. This is an excellent way to let the agency know that your organization understands both sides of the “share the pain, share the gain” partnership mantra. Taking this approach will deliver on the budget reduction mandated by the organization, without negatively impacting relationships with the organization’s agency network.

 

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.

 

 

 

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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