Paying the ad agency
Warc Best Practice
Paying the ad agency
Traditionally, advertising agencies were paid a commission by the media on the value of the ads they placed for their clients.
This commission was 15% of the gross (commission-inclusive) cost, or 17.65% of the net cost. A few individual media paid
less than this, and it was the custom to increase the rate to 20% for international business.
The system had the apparent merit of simplicity and transparency, and as agencies became progressively more involved in the
physical production of the advertisements, they successfully extended the process to cover production costs, too, on the same
basis. When commercial TV became widespread, the economics of agency operations changed dramatically.
Where it had been the case that a press campaign required several ads, each of which cost relatively little to produce, and
which individually had quite small media money put behind them, a TV commercial might cost substantial sums to produce (at
2005 prices, an average commercial might cost $380,000 in the US), and could be backed by very substantial media
expenditure. It became extremely easy for an agency that could push its clients into TV to earn large commissions and a
greatly enhanced profit margin. This, it has been suggested, acted as a force to distort agency media recommendations (7, 9).
Pressure on commissions
After a time, advertisers began to recognise this situation, and started to insist on reduced commissions. At the same time, the
process of ‘unbundling’ both media planning and buying into specialist agencies began to develop, so that it became
necessary for agencies and advertisers to price media and creative operations separately.
What had been a monolithic 15% commission to a full-service agency became (broadly) 1.5-4% for the media specialist and
perhaps 7-9% for the creative agency (14). Aggressive negotiators among advertisers could obtain an advertising service for
as little as 7-8% in total, and 12% became quite normal.
Many agency contracts allowed for commission on a sliding scale - the higher the aggregate spend, the lower the rate of
commission, and unilateral reductions by client companies became more widespread (5, 18, 20), with the media sometimes
joining in (19).
Agencies’ reaction to this was to try to change the rules, in order to protect their revenues and margins. Over the last 25 years
or so, a number of different models of how to pay the agency have evolved.
A good overview of the various methods used in the UK and their pros and cons is published by ISBA (1). In the US, the ANA
Title: Paying the ad agency
Author(s): Roderick White
Source: Warc Best Practice
Issue: February 2007
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has published a series of surveys (2).
The main approaches now in use
1. Fees: there are a number of ways of formulating fee payment systems, some including incentives or payment by results
elements. Most fee systems are based effectively on time, as are those of many other professional services.
For large operations, it is by now quite standard practice for advertiser and agency to agree a basis for charging the work of
each significant member of the agency team, and on this basis to negotiate an annual fee, usually subject to regular review.
However, it has been widely observed that this mechanism may encourage the agency to waste, not save, time (3), nor does it
reflect the actual time that may be required to solve a particularly difficult problem (8).
A more modern approach is to assess fees on the basis of the value provided by the agency - a rather broader approach than
a (rare) refinement, which is to set a fee specifically for achieving a creative solution to the advertiser’s problem (13).
This approach is, in fact a ‘hybrid’, since it usually includes a ‘base’ fee to cover the agency’s costs of servicing the account,
with the creative fee as, in effect, a preagreed ‘bonus’ or reward. A number of mostly smaller agencies operate a fixed-cost,
menu-driven fee structure, with prices fixed for different types of task. This has been refined in great depth by one small UK
2. Commission: fixed, usually below 15%, or variable. Variable commissions typically operate in steps, depending on the size
of the budget, with successive tranches over a base level attracting lower rates of commission. Pure commission systems are
disappearing rapidly from the marketplace (7), in spite of their simplicity and transparency (8). Even media is beginning to
move away from commissions (7, 10).
3. Incentives and payment by results (PBR): a growing number of advertisers are building incentives into their agency
agreements (11). These typically provide for an extra fee (or an increase in commission) when agreed targets are achieved.
The basis for these incentives varies widely, and each has its pros and cons.
l Sales/share (etc.) targets: this reflects the ultimate objective of the advertising, but the targets need to be set realistically
- where a brand’s marketing objective is to maintain share, it is unrealistic to reward the agency only if the share
increases. Further, advertising - or all the various parts of the communication mix within the agency’s remit - is not the
only force affecting the market. The agency would be (justifiably) displeased and demotivated if targets were missed
because of a price change only announced halfway through the campaign period.
l Client-agency evaluation: well-run agency relationships usually include regular reviews of the agency’s performance on a
variety of criteria. These are used by the client both to monitor the individual agency’s contribution to the business and to
provide more or less objective comparison with other agencies used, or between international offices in the agency
network. While these typically involve ‘soft’ measures, a well-designed scheme enables both client and agency
management to develop the relationship, and the scores on these evaluations can be - and are - used as the basis for
PBR schemes. The process is vulnerable to possible distortion if individual relationships go awry in the short term, and
the periodic nature of the assessment means that the agency risks being ‘only as good as its last ad’. Agency evaluations
seem particularly common in international operations (6).
l Brand prosperity: Procter & Gamble in late 1999 announced that it proposed to remunerate its agencies on the basis of
‘sharing in the success of its brands’ (17). It was unclear precisely how the proposed scheme would work, but it seemed
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that it would be based more on growth in brand equity (however measured) than on specific sales or share targets. This
was an early example of the development of so-called ‘value-based’ incentive schemes (3), and has since been widely
A more general criticism of PBR schemes is that they are, almost inevitably, relatively short term in nature, while effective
brand building may take (and last) for years (14). Key to the success of these schemes is that they are sufficiently large, as a
proportion of the agency’s potential income, to be motivating, but not too large to lead to potential damage to the agency’s
financial stability (4).
4. Hybrid schemes: with 40% of US advertisers already using PBR as an element in their agency remuneration by 2004,
according to the ANA (2), many systems are automatically ‘hybrid’. Traditionally, the main hybrid format was a mix of fee and
commission - for example, where an agency is working on a new product launch, which may require many months’ work before
an ad appears.
In this case it is common to pay fees for the development period, and then to switch to commission once the brand is being
advertised. More recently, advertisers and their agencies have negotiated remuneration packages that consist of a base level
of fees plus a variable bonus related to the achievement of specific targets - specifically, fee + PBR.
In addition to charging for the main business of planning, creating and executing advertisements for their clients, agencies
have begun to try to develop ways to circumvent the quite severe squeeze on their margins that has occurred during the past
20 years (4).
These fall into two main categories.
1. Charging for elements of their service that were previously ‘given away’, within the 15% commission. This applies especially
to elements of the planning process: increasingly, agencies are packaging analysis processes and selling them as ‘brand
audit’, or the like.
2. Negotiating additional payments for creative ideas: an extension of the system described by Rainey (13), by which a
successful idea is charged for in each new medium or market in which it is used - in effect, a sort of creative ‘royalty’, since fee
systems tend not to reward the very best ideas adequately (3, 7).
One final note: as client purchasing managers (procurement departments) have increasingly become involved in agency
relationships (15), a spotlight has been shone on the lack of transparency in the ways in which agencies traditionally have
costed and charged for various aspects of production (3, 4). For some agencies, discounts from production houses and
studios have been a disproportionate part of revenue, and proper understanding and control of production processes has
become an area of substantial cost saving for some large advertisers.
In the last resort, the agency has to be able to make a profit on a properly run piece of business, and the advertiser need to
recognise that. As Phillips (8) points out, the key to a successful remuneration agreement is mutual trust and partnership,
entered, ideally, for the long term (16).
1. *Paying for Advertising IV, ISBA/ARC, London, 2006.
2. *Trends in agency compensation, 13th edn, ANA, New York, 2004.
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