Written by Oli Orchard, Partner – Fuel Media & Marketing, a specialist communications consulting company focused on advising clients in media communications.
With Publicis and OMG in the news this week (February 2022) with significant revenue increases year-over-year, now would seem a pertinent time to look ‘under the hood’ of the different revenue streams agencies have available to them.
Using the traditional commission method, still prevalent today, it is often thought that a media agency has a disincentive to save clients’ money or indeed manage lower budgets.
Because most media agencies are compensated on a percentage of media spend, if they negotiate the prices down, and potentially reduce total spend, they will earn less money.
In practice, the traditional ATL percentages involved stop this being much of a disincentive.
- A buy of $10,000 at 3% commission provides the agency with just $300 income.
- If the agency negotiates 25% discount on the media, the agency will only lose $75.
Obviously, the agencies are doing this at scale, and those $75 discounts start to add up, as a result the agencies have long looked elsewhere to bolster their incomes. So, in 2022, what other revenue streams are open to the agencies?
Agency income takes many forms, and too many to go through here, so we’ll stick to the top ten.
- Fees & Commissions – Whether Time and Materials based, or a percentage commission on media spend these should need no introduction to advertisers. At Fuel we hold data on innumerable best practice contracts, and always work with clients and agencies to come to the most appropriate basic remuneration package
- Bonus/Malus schemes – These programmes have become synonymous with best-in-class-advertisers, looking to reward their agency beyond the basic remuneration for exemplary work. The Malus scheme has gained more traction in recent years, as agencies look to differentiate themselves from the competition by having some ‘skin-in-the-game’, often putting part of their profit margin at risk
- Incremental services outside of Scope of Work – These are often the result of out-of-date contracts, and can commonly comprise things an advertiser might expect to be included in the contract, such as Quarterly Business Reviews, competitive monitoring, dashboards, post-campaign reporting and even out-of-home planning
- Deposit Interest on bank accounts – Historically agencies have taken advantage of bank interest rates and been fast to invoice and slow to pay. With rates on the increase again, albeit slowly, advertisers will need to become increasingly aware of this. Agencies deal in vast sums of money, and this revenue stream should not be overlooked
- Kickbacks from vendors – AVBs, rebates, Specialist Agency Commissions, the list goes on; kickbacks have many names, and they don’t always take the form of cash. Free Space that can be given to advertisers to bring the CPM down to hit bonus targets, or alternatively sold on to other clients is another common form these shapeshifting kickbacks can take. It is also imperative that the contract encompasses as much of the agency holding group as possible, often kickbacks can be routed through other parts of the group
- Unbilled media – It is not uncommon for a media vendor to forget, unintentionally or intentionally, to bill an agency for a media placement that the agency has already billed the client for. The agency should be reporting and returning unbilled media on a regular basis, though clients should be aware of the fiscal statute of limitations, meaning the vendor could invoice the agency within a specified period of time (it is currently 6 years in the UK) and demand payment, which will then be passed on to the client
- Agencies acting as the principal (rather than agent) – This is commonly known as inventory media, the agency takes a position on, or buys, a quantity of media directly from a vendor, with no specific client lined up for it. There will be NDAs in place with the vendor preventing the agency from disclosing the actual price paid to clients or auditors. This allows them to mark-up prices, generally by a very significant percentage when selling this space on to clients. The flip side of this is that an advertiser can get a great rate on something they may have bought anyway, though they may also be pushed into a buy that is sub-optimal for their strategy just to meet the agency’s internal need to offload inventory
- Subcontracting to related 3rd Parties – Agency holding groups are vast and have many complimentary disciplines. It is not uncommon for a specific task to be subcontracted (attracting an additional fee) within the holding group
- OOH commissions – It is worth listing these separately to those above because OOH often has a unique commission structure where both the advertiser and vendor routinely pay the poster buying specialist for placing the media. This is frequently dealt with in agency contracts as an additional ‘Disclosed Commission’ tucked away in a schedule at the back of the document as Specialist Agency Commission
- DSP usage – Programmatic has long been the poster child of non-disclosed fee structures further down the digital value chain but there is one significant agency revenue stream that crops up near the top of the chain in non-disclosed White Label mark-ups. The DSPs allow their clients (in this case the agency, not the advertiser) to add an additional CPM into the net media cost, meaning that it doesn’t show up in any of the auditable invoicing trails, and is passed back to the agency
- As you can see from above, agencies constantly evolve income streams, seeking out new ways to profit, and let’s not get the intent of this piece wrong, agencies should be able to profit from their great work for clients. However, many advertiser clients are becoming cash cows, based on the agencies’ opaque trading practices.
At Fuel, we work with the agency and advertiser to produce the optimum contract for the situation, one where transparency around agency income is openly discussed, and the advertiser can make an informed, supported decision about the relationships they forge with their agency partners.
Here’s our checklist for advertisers:
- Check that your contract is up to date – does it cover the entire scope of business transacted between you and your agency? The very best contracts are reviewed and revised annually to take landscape shifts and revised media strategies into account
- Make sure that your agency is obliged to ‘call out’ and seek approval for inventory media and use of subsidiaries/sister companies
- Have a frank discussion with your agency about the non-disclosed White Label mark-up that the DSPs allow them to add into the platform costs, and consider requesting to be part of the conversation around DSP selection
- Undertake regular audits of performance vs. pitch or year-over-year guarantees, and tie the buying results to a bonus/malus scheme in tandem with service scores and achievement of business objective KPIs
To find out more on how Fuel can help, contact Oli on +44(0) 7534 129 097 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.