Advertisers 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 we’ve come across are in the context of an agency knowingly investment spending to assimilate a new client and or on a particular aspect of 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 setup 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 real-time basis. Finally, even if the agency does have the proper tools and is aware of any shortfalls, agencies often aren’t comfortable engaging their clients in meaningful discussions surrounding project burn rates, inefficient processes, demands exceeding the original agreed to scope, or variances in planned staff mix and 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 at least 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 any 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.