Tag Archives: agency remuneration

What Is the Basis for Variable Commission Rates?

15 May

dreamstime_m_35343815Until the late 1980s, agency remuneration models that were based upon commissions charged on ad spend were typically universally applied across media types. As alternative media channels began to expand, agencies began to charge variable commission rates, based upon media type.

The question to be asked is “Why?” and, is this approach still appropriate?

Presumably, planning, buying, and monitoring certain types of media required more time on the part of agency personnel and or certain experience levels, thus the higher rates. It is fair to question whether or not that premise still holds true. The most obvious area to question is the higher commission rates charged for programmatic advertising, which utilizes automated technology to execute and monitor media buys as opposed to traditional, manual buying methods.

Unfortunately, advertisers that employ a commission-based agency pay-model typically don’t see agency staffing plans or time-of-staff reporting. Thus, the ability for an advertiser to assess the resource level required to plan and place its media mix is limited at best.

Another concern regarding the variable commission rate pay-model is the potential for the higher rates charged for certain media types to bias an agency’s media mix recommendations. The possibility that an agency would approach the allocation process with the goal of optimizing its revenue, rather than the advertiser’s media investment certainly exists.

So, what should advertisers do? The answer is straightforward. Require their media agency partners to submit formal staffing plans, with an estimate of hours and utilization rates by employee/ position along with their annual commission rate schedule… just as they would with a retainer or labor-based fee compensation method. Further, advertisers should require agencies to provide monthly time-of-staff reporting, so that both parties can assess the resource levels, staff seniority and experience required to execute the scope of work.

With clear insights into an agency’s staff investment, advertisers can now knowledgeably adjust their remuneration programs, if needed. The goal, as always, is to equitably compensate media agency partners to effectively plan and execute an advertiser’s media program, while eliminating bias and optimizing working media levels.

Advertisers would be wise to heed the words of Oliver Markus Malloy, the German American novelist and to analyze the impact and efficiency of their variable commission rate compensation programs more closely:

“We live in this bubble of ignorance. Most people know nothing about history, or the historical context of the traditions they still follow today. People do things without knowing why they’re doing them.” 

How and When Might the Remote Work Model Impact Agency Fees

29 Jan

costIt has been one year since the onset of the coronavirus and the rapid shift to remote work as stay-at-home orders were implemented on a global basis.

Companies in multiple industries, including advertising and media, moved quickly to adapt to this new reality. According to a 2020 study of knowledge workers sponsored by Slack and fielded by GlobalWebIndex, 44% of U.S. workers were “primarily working from home” by the end of the summer.

In the months that have followed, many organizations have announced plans to implement the remote work model for employees on a go-forward basis. Part of this transformation includes reconfiguring operations, consolidating locations, renegotiating office leases and embracing flexible employee schedules and distanced living arrangements.

An obvious bi-product of these moves is the potential for organizations to lower their expense base, whether in the context of reduced direct labor costs related to distanced living policies or the reduction in overhead costs related to items such as:

  • Indirect labor
  • Space and facilities management
  • Property taxes
  • Office equipment
  • Office supplies
  • Corporate insurance
  • Non-billable travel
  • Non-billable new business expenses
  • Professional fees

Given that direct and overhead costs are components of calculating marketing service agency fees, one would reasonably expect that as agencies reduce their cost base, the fees charged to their clients would also be reduced.

The operative question for a client to ask of their agencies is, “How and when will our rates be adjusted to reflect the savings related to your remote work model?” To be fair, even though a large percentage of agency personnel may be working remotely, the timing as to when and how much rates will be reduced will partially depend upon how quickly the renegotiation of certain financial commitments (e.g. office lease obligations) can occur.

Whether any reductions have been fairly calculated will be difficult to assess. The vast majority of client-agency agreements limit a client’s ability to audit agency payroll and overhead costs. True cost-plus remuneration plans, while quite rare, sometimes allow for an advertiser’s independent accounting and or financial audit firm to verify an agency’s actual overhead or require the agency to provide a letter of attestation from its CFO or audit firm.

Either way, establishing guidelines and maintaining an open dialog about the impact of a remote work model are an excellent way to shape expectations and maintain the requisite level of transparency.

Will Consolidation Play a Role in Creating the “New” Agency Model?

27 Aug

Consolidation 2It was a simpler time when advertising agencies began to “unbundle” in the 1980’s, separating media planning and placement from creative. This, along with the shift from remuneration systems predicated on commissions to direct labor-based fees, formed the basis for today’s advertising agency model.

While there were certainly variations on the aforementioned theme, this approach served both advertisers and agencies well for the next thirty years. However, as the advertising business became increasingly more nuanced and fragmented, the industry saw a rise in the level of specialization resulting in an increased number of agencies with highly concentrated service offerings. In turn, agency holding companies went on an aggressive acquisition binge gobbling up traditional and specialized agency brands. While there were some efficiencies gained by the holding companies in consolidating back-office functions, the acquired shops were allowed to continue to operate under their individual identities. In so doing, there was little to no cultural acclimation across the holding companies’ agency brand portfolios.

One of the notable consequences of this movement was that marketers saw an expansion in the number of roster agencies, which swelled beyond their ability to effectively manage their now far-flung agency networks. According to Manta Media, in 2020 over 57,000 agencies were operating in the U.S. alone, creating a highly fragmented and competitive marketplace for marketing services providers.

Concurrently, a once stable and manageable business sector was now having to deal with increased levels of complexity stemming from an expansion in the number of media types and outlets, the rapid adoption of changing technologies, the emergence of “Big Data” and an ever-evolving set of consumer media consumption behaviors.

Fast forward to the present and it is easy to understand the position shared by many who feel that the “agency model” is no longer effective and needs to either be fine-tuned or perhaps completely overhauled. These pundits believe that talent constraints, eroding margins, expanding scopes of work, a shift from retained to project-based relationships and the emergence of management consulting firms as viable competitors in the marketing services space have led to the demise of the traditional agency model.

While there have been numerous questions raised, there has been little progress made on client-agency relationship improvements, compensation schema and or agency positioning, let alone ideation around creating a new marketing services delivery model.

There clearly is no “silver bullet” and while we don’t portend to have the answer to remedy all of the challenges facing the industry, we predict that the ultimate solution may involve some of the following actions:

  • Advertisers will streamline their marketing services agency networks with a goal toward eliminating redundant resources/competencies, clarifying agency roles and deliverables, establishing a “lead” agency and providing a framework for long-term, collaborative relationships.
  • In-housing will continue as advertisers seek to improve their controls, gain line-of-sight into the disposition of their spend at each stage of the marketing investment cycle, better assess their return-on-marketing-investment and to drive working dollars. This will involve managed service models where the client takes ownership of the technology and data and engages the agency to plan and execute select components of their communication programs.
  • Compensation programs will blend a balance of direct-labor and or project-based fee methodologies with gainshare and painshare components that link a portion of an agency’s remuneration to the advertiser’s in-market performance.
  • Agency holding companies will “right-size” their brand portfolios, combining and or shedding redundant service providers, consolidating agency brands and developing “centers of excellence” to gain scale efficiencies and improve client delivery within key functions (i.e. broadcast production, digital production, programmatic trading, trafficking, etc.).
  • Agency service delivery models will evolve to simplify advertiser access to the range of agency holding company resources through dedicated relationship management teams that can tap the entirety of a holding company’s offering.
  • Management consulting firms and advertising agency holding companies will co-exist, and in fact, will be called upon to collaborate in providing their clients with integrated end-to-end solutions focused on both building brand and driving in-market performance.

Experience suggests that the best way to solve complex professional services challenges is to focus on the common denominator and craft solutions that ease the burden of the client organization in accessing those services. Thus, consolidation will play a key role for all stakeholders (advertiser, agency, intermediary, publisher) as the advertising industry considers how to evolve its current business models.

The more you drive positive change, the more enhanced your business model.”

                                                                                                          ~ Anand Mahindra

 

Adjusting Marketing Budgets is Multi-Dimensional

5 May

budget cutAs we began 2020 no one could have predicted the level of upheaval the economy would experience as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The changes forced on businesses as a result of government mandated shelter in-place policies, while critical for curtailing the spread of the virus, have been devastating. According to consulting firm, Brand Finance “America’s Top 500 Brands could lose up to $400 billion” due to COVID-19’s impact on the economy.  

Organizations have sprung into action, many slashing advertising spend, along with other expenses as they seek to offset dramatic reductions in revenue and to deal with mounting cash flow challenges.

As marketers approach the mid-point of the second quarter it is clear that the changes to their fiscal budgets will be significant and potentially lasting. In a recent poll of marketing and advertising executives, by Advertiser Perceptions, 77% of those surveyed expect ad spend to be soft through the first-quarter of 2021.

Thus far, many companies have taken a wait and see attitude with some of their advertising and marketing commitments as they rightly weigh options related to modifying, rescheduling or cancelling advertising commitments. Moving forward, decisive action will be required to safeguard and recall funds pre-paid to agencies, production resources, events management companies and media sellers for creative that will never come to fruition, media that will never run and sponsorships that will be postponed or cancelled.

Equally as important is the need to review and likely revise annual agency scopes of work, staffing plans and remuneration programs that have been impacted by the reduction in marketing spend.

These can be challenging and complex conversations to have with your agency partners and in turn, with third-party vendors, particularly because their organizations are dealing with comparable business and financial issues. For the purposes of this article, we want to focus on the client/ agency portion of the ledger, rather than external commitment and resource reallocation reviews that are likely currently underway.

A disciplined approach, focused on contractual terms and current financial facts, will yield the greatest return as you seek to right size your marketing budget in a fair, responsible and expeditious manner. This approach also recognizes that in addition to the goal of reducing costs, companies are seeking to improve financial flexibility and limit risks and exposures. Stephen Covey wisely suggested, it is best to; “Begin with the end in mind.” Same applies now, it is best to begin with a review of current governing documents between advertiser and agency, and any year to date agency financial reporting, in order to answer this handful of straightforward questions:

  1. Does the Agency Agreement afford you the right to modify your Scope of Work and or retainer fee? If so, what is the notification requirement in your agreement?
  2. What Scope deliverables have been completed to date?
  3. Where is the Agency on their Staffing Plan commitments?
  4. What P.O.s have been issued to the agency? For open P.O.’s what is the open balance on each P.O.?
  5. Do you have a detailed Job History Report, that provides financial details for all jobs, open or closed? Can you identify which jobs have been completed? Of those that remain open what are your options to postpone, modify or cancel any of them?

Answers to questions such as these will assist in facilitating productive interactions with all stakeholders, across multiple fronts ranging from informing budget reduction and reallocation decisions to the potential impact of internal or agency-side staff reductions on financial management processes and controls and the corresponding risks.

One area that must be addressed is agency remuneration. Reductions in overall spend, scaled back Scopes of Work and revised agency Staffing Plans necessarily impact agency compensation, whether commission or fee based.

For their part, agencies have rightly taken steps to address the impact of client ad spend reductions. To date, each of the major holding companies have announced plans to reduce expenses. These reductions include; employees being furloughed or laid-off, involuntary salary reductions, the waiver of bonuses and 401k contributions, executive management taking massive pay reductions and a freeze on non-billable expenses… all designed to lower their cost base.

If your agency is on a direct labor-based remuneration program, the reduction in the agency’s direct labor and overhead costs means that the fees which you pay should be reduced accordingly. With this compensation schema, even a modest change in an agency’s cost structure can have a meaningful impact on the fee calculation.

It should be noted that the goal of the compensation review is not to wring out savings at the expense of the agency, but to adjust the fees to reflect the reality of the revised 2020 marketing and advertising budget and corresponding changes to the Scope of Work.

Marketers have a fiduciary obligation to their organizations to account for, safeguard and recall funds targeted for reduction. This can best be done working in collaboration with their agency partners, while affording those partners a high level of respect and empathy. Once the budget right sizing process has been successfully completed, all stakeholders can refocus their attention on the future, perhaps drawing motivation from retired 4-star U.S. Army General, Colin Powell who once said: “Always focus on the front windshield and not the review mirror.” 

 

 

Are You Overpaying for Convenience?

30 Dec

sign with the words Stop Over PayingMarketers are under a lot of stress with increasing demands on their time, constant pressure to deliver results and the seemingly never-ending challenge to accomplish more with restrained budgets.

In this context, what marketing team wouldn’t be open to turnkey solutions provided by existing agency partners, including the ability to easily access specialized skills and secure additional resources for quick-turn projects – rather than onboarding a new agency partner?

Put yourself in this situation… your external agency roster is already too broad, budgets are locked, and expanding current agency scopes of work is a challenge. Even if a new agency/ vendor might be desired it is disruptive and time consuming to work through procurement, vet possible candidates, on-board a newly selected vendor, negotiate a new statement of work, and move forward. Sound familiar?

Therefore, out of necessity Marketers in this situation often turn to a current agency partner and seeking to shift dollars from one project to another or increase staffing in order to alleviating pressure. In the process, it wouldn’t be unusual if the agency suggested engaging the services of an in-house studio/ department or an affiliate agency. The suggestion may come with the enticing proposition of being able to self-fund incremental work through savings generated by the affiliate’s involvement, or via the affiliate’s mode of remuneration (e.g. principal based media buying). Best of all, the agency may offer to handle billing for the related party and will offer to treat related party billings as though they were coming from a third-party vendor (as pass-through costs).

Problem solved. Right? Be wary.

“What is right is often forgotten by what is convenient.” ~ Bodie Thoene

Having your agency partner(s) tap an in-house resource or affiliate on your behalf, knowingly or unknowingly, as easy as it may seem, comes with serious financial risk and control issues. What is the mode of remuneration? How much is the affiliate being compensated and by whom? What mix of staff is actually being deploying on your behalf? How many hours or value is being delivered for the fees? What level of transparency do you really have into “actual” versus “estimated” affiliate fees and expenses?

If you cannot readily provide answers to these questions, your organization runs the risk of overpaying for services, and or not understanding “what you are actually buying and receiving.”

As it is, few client/ agency agreements have adequate controls to govern the appointment and utilization by an agency of an in-house, affiliated, or holding-company-owned resource. The lack of contractual guidelines leaves marketers open to negative financial impact that can weigh heavily on working dollars and expectations.

Common risk areas associated with agency use of a related party include:

  • Lack of a formal client notification/ approval requirement
  • No competitive bidding requirement
  • No rate sheet or billable hourly rate detail
  • No time-of-staff reporting
  • No job reconciliations
  • Non-transparent pricing/ margins
  • Application of unauthorized mark-ups

We certainly understand the desire by the agency community to engage their affiliates on client work and appreciate the potential benefits to the advertiser when it comes to tapping these diverse resources.

That said, experience suggests that the practice should be regulated and carefully monitored. Importantly, rules and requirements must be clearly documented in the client/ agency agreement when it comes to agency use of an in-house studio or any other related party or agency. Further, the affiliate must understand that they are subject to the same terms and conditions documented in the agreement.

Once full transparency is guaranteed, remuneration and billing rules are documented and understood, appropriate authorization practices are put in place, then tapping an agency partner’s extended resource network makes good sense.

 

 

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.

 

Advertisers Beware: Agency Margin Optimization Efforts

19 Apr

Traffic LightIt was with great interest that I read an article on Digiday dealing with “key issues” facing ad agencies and, ostensibly, the “agency model” ranging from transparency to in-housing.

Masked behind the author’s perspective that transparency comes at a high cost was the reality that marketers remain at risk to the predatory non-transparent revenue practices applied by certain agencies.

Why? With marketers demanding more transparent ad buying practices and transitioning certain tasks and or ownership of elements of the tech stack in-house, agency gross margins are under pressure. In turn, this has created an environment where agencies attempt to make up for the margin shortfall from clients that don’t actively monitor agency contract compliance, financial management or media performance.

Of note, one anonymous agency executive went so far as to suggest that some agencies use a “traffic-light system to determine how knowledgeable the procurement teams at clients are.” This guidepost allows the agencies to assess how much margin they can make on a given account.

This certainly reinforces the reality of the old adage; “Where there is mystery, there is margin” and signals the importance for all marketers to get up to speed on both the potential benefits and the pitfalls related to their digital and other advertising investments. For client organizations, most of which do not have the bandwidth or subject matter expertise in-house, engaging an independent contract compliance or media performance auditor or consultant could greatly help to mitigate risks in this area.

In spite of the potential for efficiencies that fueled the rise of programmatic media buying, what we have all come to realize is that the costs related to algorithmic, machine-to-machine buying have far outweighed these efficiencies. One dynamic, which drives costs is the number of agent firms involved in a typical programmatic digital media buy and the fees that each charge for their role. Below is an overview of typical fees or mark-ups that are charged by those on the demand-side of a programmatic transaction.

Digital Dollar

Source: Industry Experts

As is readily apparent, the dollar dissipation that occurs between the advertiser’s initial investment and the money that actually ends up with the publisher is significant. Industry studies have consistently shown that less than forty cents of each digital dollar invested makes its way to the publisher.

To combat this trend, rightly or wrongly, marketers have focused on reducing the number of intermediaries and the fees charged by each, with the goal of improving working media ratios and ultimately the performance of their digital campaigns. Thus, the agency margin squeeze.

That said, the agency practice described in the aforementioned Digiday.com article of taking advantage of unsuspecting, less knowledgeable clients to make up for the margin lost on those that have moved to transparent buying models, is neither appropriate nor sustainable. Agencies conducting themselves in this manner may want to reflect on the words of the renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking:

Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

This is particularly true given the competitive inroads being made by the management consultant and tech consultancies that are focusing on the digital media segment of the market. The best path forward for agencies is to actively engage their clients in an open dialog about mutually beneficial remuneration methodologies.

In our opinion, it is right and just to eliminate the potential for media arbitrage, non-disclosed fees, no charge media weight and volume-based rebates that often accrue to agencies, and much of the time without the advertiser’s knowledge. Further, we also don’t believe that clients are obligated to make up the gap in lost agency revenue tied to transparency reforms. That said, we are fully supportive of an agency’s right to earn a fair and reasonable profit and to have the potential for incremental gains tied to extraordinary performance.

Near-term, the best way to balance an advertiser’s quest for transparency and an agency’s ability to generate a reasonable profit will likely be a compensation schema that incorporates a base fee using a direct-labor or cost-plus methodology with an outcome-based performance incentive. This approach is particularly apropos for advertisers that are leaning toward a managed-service model. With this approach, ownership of the tech stack and or tech platform licensing agreements transition from agency to advertiser; and the agency is then engaged to oversee the digital planning, buying and ad operations chores associated with programmatic media.

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.

 

 

 

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.”

Do Advertisers Value Their Agencies?

4 Aug

client - agency relationshipsThis question came to mind when reading the results of a recent survey conducted by the Institute of Advertising Practitioners in Ireland (IAPI) dealing with the state of the advertising industry.  One of the survey respondents expressed an opinion that clients were “much more aggressive and much less loyal.” Further, the representative from a creative agency stated that clients were “aggressive on cost and expectation and less committed to supporting their agency in their efforts to deliver excellence.” 

Subjectively speaking, many of us involved in the advertising space would likely answer this question with an unqualified “no, not as much as they once did.” 

The reasons for holding such an opinion may be many and varied, but the evidence manifests itself in the fact that client/ agency relationships simply are not as enduring as they once were.  There have been a number of studies conducted over the last half-dozen years which have pegged the average relationship length in the 3 – 5 year range.  If advertisers truly valued their agencies surely this would manifest it in longer, more productive relationships.  Wouldn’t it? 

Once full-service ad agencies “unbundled” this set the stage for advertisers to expand their agency rosters to address their “specialized” marketing needs.   In turn, this created bench strength and ultimately allowed advertisers to more readily re-allocate brand assignments across their stable of agencies, which certainly accounts for some percentage of client/ agency change.  Over time, the notion of transitioning work from one network partner to another became more acceptable and perhaps led advertisers to view going outside of their current agency rosters as less of an issue. 

Change costs.  Whether measured in terms of the time required to effectively transition an agency or the opportunity costs tied to a “new” agency’s learning curve on the business.  This in turn creates risks with regard to an advertiser’s demand generation and market share accretion efforts.  Yet in spite of the cost of change, advertisers continue to change out agencies at an alarming rate.  

One cannot place blame for this trend solely on advertisers.  The actions and behaviors which precipitate the termination of a client/ agency relationship both parties have a shared responsibility.  Similarly, clients and agencies each hold the keys to extending both the length and productivity of their relationship.  It begins with a simple, but powerful concept… mutual respect.  After all “respect” is an important proof point of the extent to which one organization values the contributions and support of another. 

Advertisers can take the lead in this area with a series of simple, yet meaningful processes which will demonstrate the extent to which they value their agency partners:  

  • First and foremost, advertisers can and should align agency compensation with desired agency outputs, measured both in terms of detailed statement of work outputs and the resource commitment required by the agency to deliver on those expectations.  
  • Minimizing project reworks and the number of start / stops in the planning and execution phases of creative and or media development will go a long way to demonstrate the regard in which advertisers hold their agency partners.
  • Look for opportunities to improve the briefing process.  Advertisers who can effectively and succinctly prepare their agency partners at the start of a project provide a huge morale boost for their agencies and greatly enhance the odds of producing great work.
  • Reinforce the fact that as a client, you value the input of your agency partners.  Encourage candid, two-way communication among all stakeholders involved in the Client/ Agency relationship.  To be effective, this concept must extend beyond the annual 360° performance review process.
  • Encourage full transparency when it comes to agency reporting and financial management.  Supplement this with periodic (i.e. quarterly) business reviews so that both sides have a clear understanding of where everything stands, both as it relates to budgets/ project completion as well as with the relationship itself. 
  • Consider rewarding successes with incentive programs tied to the efficacy of the agency’s marketing efforts, using brand relevant milestones as the guideposts (i.e. awareness, sales, market share).

As Henry Ford once said: “Coming together is a beginning.  Keeping together is progress.  Working together is success.” 

Taking these proven steps will go a long way toward demonstrating the extent to which advertisers value their agencies, as well as the respect which they have for the art of crafting and delivering effective marketing communications.  In the end, they can also represent an important building block in extending the length and productivity of their agency relationships. 

%d bloggers like this: