What Is the Basis for Variable Commission Rates?

By May 15, 2021 June 1st, 2021 Agency Compensation

questionUntil 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.” 

Author Cliff Campeau

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