Commissions from Media

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The traditional method of compensating agencies is through a commission system, where the agency receives a specified commission (usually 15 percent) from the media on any advertising time or space it purchases for its client. (For outdoor advertising, the commission is 16% percent.) This system provides a simple method of determining payments, as shown in the following example.

Assume an agency prepares a full-page magazine ad and arranges to place the ad on the back cover of a magazine at a cost of $100,000. The agency places the order for the space and delivers the ad to the magazine. Once the ad is run, the magazine will bill the agency for $100,000, less the 15 percent ($15,000) commission. The media will also offer a 2 percent cash discount for early payment, which the agency may pass along to the client. The agency will bill the client $100,000 less the 2 percent cash discount on the net amount, or a total of $98,300, as shown in Figure 3-8. The $15,000 commission represents the agency's compensation for its services.

Appraisal of the Commission System Use of the commission system to compensate agencies has been quite controversial for many years. A major problem centers on whether the 15 percent commission represents equitable compensation for services performed. Two agencies may require the same amount of effort to create

Figure 3-8 Example of commission system payment

Media Bills Agency

Agency Bills Advertiser

Costs for magazine space Less 15% commission Cost of media space Less 2% cash discount Agency pays media

Costs for magazine space Less 2% cash discount Advertiser pays agency

S1QQ,QQQ -15,QQQ 85,QQQ -1,7QQ

S 83,3QQ Agency income

S1QQ,QQQ -1,7QQ S 98,3QQ

S 15,QQQ

and produce an ad. However, one client may spend $2 million on commissionable media, which results in a $300,000 agency income, while the other spends $20 million, generating $3 million in commissions. Critics argue that the commission system encourages agencies to recommend high media expenditures to increase their commission level.

Another criticism of the commission system is that it ties agency compensation to media costs. In periods of media cost inflation, the agency is (according to the client) disproportionately rewarded. The commission system has also been criticized for encouraging agencies to ignore cost accounting systems to justify the expenses attributable to work on a particular account. Still others charge that this system tempts the agency to avoid noncommissionable media such as direct mail, sales promotions, or advertising specialties, unless they are requested by the client.

Defenders of the commission system argue that it is easy to administer and it keeps the emphasis in agency competition on nonprice factors such as the quality of the advertising developed. Proponents argue that agency services are proportional to the size of the commission, since more time and effort are devoted to the large accounts that generate high revenue for the agency. They also say the system is more flexible than it appears because agencies often perform other services for large clients at no extra charge, justifying such actions by the large commission they receive.

The commission system has been a highly debated topic among advertisers and agencies for years. Critics of the system have argued that it provides an incentive for agencies to do the wrong thing, such as recommending mass-media advertising when other forms of communication such as direct marketing or public relations might do a better job.18 They argue that the commission system is outdated and must be changed. This does indeed appear to be happening. A recent study of agency compensation conducted by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) indicates that agency compensation based on the traditional 15 percent commission is becoming rare.19 The survey found that only 21 percent of advertisers paid commissions to their agencies and only 16 percent paid the standard 15 percent. The clients who have stuck with commissions do so either from inertia or from administrative simplicity. However, the survey also found that most clients and agencies use the 15 percent commission standard as a starting point for determining other compensation agreements such as labor-and performance-based plans.

While the use of the 15 percent commission is on the wane, many advertisers still use some form of media commission to compensate their agencies. Many advertisers have gone to a negotiated commission system to compensate their agencies. This commission structure can take the form of reduced percentage rates, variable commission rates, and commissions with minimum and maximum profit rates. Negotiated commissions are designed to consider the needs of the clients as well as the time and effort exerted by the agency, thereby avoiding some of the problems inherent in the traditional 15 percent sytem. Some of the leading agencies now receive a commission based on a sliding rate that becomes lower as the clients' media expenditures increase and end up receiving average commissions of 8 to 10 percent versus the traditional 15 percent.20 Agencies are also relying less on media commissions for their income as their clients expand their integrated marketing communications programs to include other forms of promotion and cut back on mass-media advertising. The percentage of agency income from media commissions is declining, and a greater percentage is coming through other methods such as fees and performance incentives.

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