The 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”