What are these firms doing? Tracking billable hours. Why? Because time and material based compensation remains the predominant method of billing for professional services firms and this includes advertising agencies. In fact, according to the Association of National Advertisers’ 2017 “Trends in Agency Compensation” study, labor-based fees remained the “most used” method of remuneration for marketers of their ad agency partners.
There are many inherent benefits to direct labor based compensation systems from both an agency and advertiser perspective including simplicity and clarity, particularly for marketers utilizing multiple agency partners that may be collaborating on overarching campaigns or playing specific roles on comprehensive, integrated projects.
We believe there are four key steps to successfully implementing and managing direct labor based remuneration systems:
- Establishment of a clear, concise Statement of Work (SOW), with specific deliverables and estimated timelines.
- An agency Staffing Plan that identifies the individuals that will be assigned to the client’s business along with information detailing their department, title, bill rate and utilization rate.
- Build-up detail supporting the agency’s suggested billable hourly rate (i.e. direct labor, overhead, profit margin) to accompany the agency’s annual fee proposal.
- Timely, accurate time-of-staff reporting to facilitate the monitoring of burn rates and to support the fee reconciliation process.
While there are contractual language considerations that will also help to insure transparency and establish client and agency expectations, including limiting agency revenue to that which is agreed upon as part of the remuneration program, we want to focus our thoughts and recommendations on tracking billable hours.
Aligning advertiser expectations with agency resource requirements is the basis for any compensation system. Thus collaborating on an annual Statement of Work, complete with detailed deliverables and timelines is a critical first step in the process. The resulting document will inform the agency’s efforts to construct its Staffing Plan, which in turn will form the basis for its fee proposal.
Experience suggests that conversations should be had in advance of the agency’s development of its Staffing Plan. Specifically, the parties will need to agree upon the basis for the annual full-time equivalent (FTE) calculation and the rules related to the application of agency employee time in excess of the FTE standard for fully-utilized employees and how utilization rates are impacted by an employee’s “total” annual recorded time. As it relates to FTE standard, there is no normative data for the advertising industry. That said, an 1,800 to 1,875-hour standard (35 hours per week, multiplied by 50 weeks per year) represents a typical FTE range.
Once the SOW and Staffing Plan have been agreed to, reviewing and coming to agreement on the basis for the proposed billable rates is the next step in the fee negotiation process. The basic formula for calculating a billable hourly rate is as follows:
Billable Rate = (Direct Labor Costs + Overhead + Profit) / Total Projected Annual Hours
Ideally, billable hourly rates would be calculated by employee or by function, without revealing specific employee salary detail. As a fall back, calculating billable hourly rates by department are clearly preferable to a blended hourly rate for the agency as a whole. Thus for an agency associate with direct labor costs (salary + benefits) of $100,000 per year, an overhead factor of 1.0 x direct laborpunch clock, a target profit percentage of 15% and an 1,875 FTE standard, the billable hourly rate calculation would look as follows:
Billable Hourly Rate of $114.67 = ($100,000 + $100,000 + $15,000) / 1,875
From a reporting perspective, monthly time-of-staff reports detailing “actual” versus “planned” hours by individual are ideal to serve as the basis for regular discussions between client and agency on burn rates and what, if any, course corrections are required. The goal of the reporting and resulting conversations are to ensure that there are “no surprises” that would adversely impact either party. A formal time-of-staff reconciliation should be conducted annually, preferably by an independent third-party to validate that the time reported by the agency is consistent with the time in the agency’s time-keeping system.
Following the aforementioned steps will help protect the interests of both client and agency and will lead to a compensation program that is both transparent and fair.