Earlier this week Digiday, a media company serving digital media, marketing and advertising professionals ran an interesting article regarding agency compensation and the “tricks” played by agencies to boost their bottom lines.
In short, the article asserts that; “For ad agencies, it’s harder than ever to get paid. Their services are becoming increasingly commoditized, and their margins are getting squeezed as a result.” According to the author, Jack Marshall, this in turn is “driving some to get creative with the ways they bill clients, as they exploit loopholes and tricks in an attempt to maximize their rewards.” Examples of the bad practices employed by some agencies in this particular area include:
- Artificially inflating the salaries of their employees when developing compensation programs
- Double-charging clients by including items such as medical expenses in both salary costs and overhead calculations
- Slow rolling projects and or throwing more people at a project than is required to boost billable hours
Andrew Teman, one of the agency executives interviewed by Digiday for the article suggested that;
“The problem with big agencies is they don’t make money being efficient; they make money billing more hours.”
For practitioners within advertising industry, the aforementioned revelations are not newsworthy. Attempts to game the system have been ever present and serve as a reminder of the decades long struggle clients and agencies have had in structuring mutually beneficial agency remuneration programs in a post “15% commission” world.
Ironically, advertisers and agencies want the same thing… a fair and efficient compensation program which incents extraordinary performance, good behavior among the stakeholders and which leads to a solid client-agency relationship. To that end, neither party’s needs are being effectively served by the games and subterfuge described in the Digiday article. The solution to the issue, which seems elusive, is actually rather straightforward:
- Development of detailed scope(s) of work (SOW) to serve as the basis for agency resource investment modeling. This is an important first step, since it is the SOW which will drive agency staffing and the resulting schedule of charging practices.
- Completion of a comprehensive agency staffing plan, with personnel names, titles, functions, utilization percentages and billing rates.
- Implementation of an agency remuneration program which aligns the client’s goals with the agency’s resource investment. Of note, there should be full transparency into the various cost elements used to calculate agency fees, overhead and profit levels.
- Reporting and control mechanisms to monitor agency time-of-staff investment, performance and outputs to protect the financial interests of both clients and agencies.
Unfortunately, as straightforward as the solution may appear, few clients and or agencies have effectively implemented the four steps suggested above at a sufficient level of detail as part of their continuous relationship management processes.
Some would suggest that the real challenge has been in effectively scoping the work required on behalf of an agency. According to Michael Farmer, Principal of Farmer & Company which specializes in assisting advertisers and agencies in developing and implementing accurate, effective Scope of Work practices and tools, “New metrics are required to track and measure workloads, prices and resource productivity. That’s the only way agencies can evaluate and negotiate changes in the fees they are paid in today’s marketplace — and halt the erosion in agency operational health.”
We would suggest that putting in place an effective monitoring program in this area is long overdue at most advertisers. If not addressed, the institutionalization of the bad behavior referenced in the Digiday article sets a dangerous precedent for treating relationship ailments with trickery rather than frank dialog between clients and agencies.