Overhauling the agency pricing model

Agencies are potentially losing out on beneficial and worthwhile commissions due to a fundamentally flawed approach to pricing their work.

(Note: My experience with pricing is almost exclusively tied to research agencies but I think this is broadly applicable to all industries).

Projects are commissioned when there is agreement between what an agency is willing to offer, and what a client is willing to pay.

My issue is that both of these components are based on cost.

Instead, they should be based on value.

£1 price tag

The agency side

The current model

Looking at the agency side first, it is clear that the focus upon cost makes the process far more transactional than it should be.

Using a dodgy equation (channelling John. V Willshire, who does this sort of thing far better).

P = d + αi + βt + p where P =< B

In English, Price =direct costs + a proportion of indirect costs/overheads + an estimate of the time spent + profit, where price is less than or equal to the client budget

(The alpha sign has arbitrarily been assigned to meaning a proportion, and beta an estimate)

d + αi + βt can be simplified to C for costs. Thus:

P = C + p where P =< B

Explaining the equation (this can be skipped if you trust me)

Of course, this is an oversimplification (though if agencies don’t use timesheets then the equation will lose the time segment and become even simpler) but it does explain the majority of the considerations.

Competitor pricing will be a factor. Market rates are to an extent set by those that have offered the service – an agency will seek to match, undercut or add to a premium to this depending on the relative positioning. This is reflected in the equation through time (premium agencies will generally spend longer on the delivery) and in desired profit.

An agency’s price will miraculously match the stated client budget (or in some instances, come in £500 under which I don’t understand since a) I thought psychological pricing had been phased out b) that spare £500 is not going to be able to cover any contingencies, expenses or VAT that aren’t included in the cost).

However, there are (at least) two things that aren’t yet factored in:

  • Opportunity cost – the cost in terms of alternatives foregone. This isn’t included since the only time you can really be sure that new requests for proposals appear is at the end of the financial year. Otherwise – for ad-hoc project work at least – there is no way to accurately predict the flow of work.
  • Competitive bidding – where profit is multiplied with expected success rate to give expected profit. While guesses can be informed by previous success rates, I don’t rate it as a) closed bidding processes mean competitor bidding strategies are unknown and b) perceived favourites are just that – perceptions (for instance, an incumbent may be secretly detested)

So what does this mean?

Ultimately, an agency will only submit a proposal if they think the profit they will make is worthwhile. The above equation can be reframed to reflect this:

p = P – C where P =< B

Or profit is price minus cost.

And this is where my main problem is with agency pricing. Profit is expressed purely financially.

Undoubtedly, finance is crucial. An agency requires cashflow to operate, it cannot survive solely on kudos. But it shouldn’t be the sole consideration

What I think should be included

Value should be added to the equation.

An agency should think not only about the financial margin, but about the business margin.

In addition to revenue, an agency can receive:

  • Knowledge – will the project increase knowledge of markets, industries, processes or methodologies that can be applied to other projects in future? This can be used to improve the relevance of business proposals, or be incorporated into frameworks of implementation
  • Skills – is the process repeatable, which can create future efficiencies? Does the project offer opportunities for junior staff to train on the job? If so, savings in training and innovation can be made
  • Reputation – will the results of the project be shared publicly – in testimonials, trade press, conference circuit or otherwise. If the agency is fully credited, there is PR value in terms of profile and attracting new business
  • Follow-up sales – will the project lead to additional work, either repeating the process for another aspect of the business or in up-selling follow-on work? Again, this can save on business development and can offer some future financial assurances (which will influence the amount of money borrowed and subsequent interest paid)
  • Social good – perhaps not as relevant for those in commercial sectors, but will the project create real and tangible benefits for a community – referencing Michael Porter’s concept of shared value

Thus, project gains are far more than financial. These intangible benefits should be applied as a discount to financial profit

Dodgy algebra (this can be skipped unless you want to pick holes in my logic)

Because while net gain would be:

N = p + β(k+s+r+f+g)

The net gains from a project are profit plus estimated gains in knowledge, skills, reputation, follow-up sales and social good (note that these factors can be negative or zero as well as positive). These can be simplified as intangibles:

N = p + I

These intangibles offer alternatives to financial profit. Increasing the amount can be gained effectively increases the budget:

P = C + p where P =< B + I

Assuming that an agency won’t offer psychological pricing, we can assume that P = B. This makes the equation

B + I = C + p

Substituting budget back in for price, and rearranging gives:

P = C + p – I

However, this assumes that the entire surplus is passed onto the client. Obviously, this shouldn’t be the case but equally the agency shouldn’t keep all of this surplus. Instead, I propose a proportion of the benefit is passed onto the client via a discount (in order to make the agency more competitive and improve chances of success).

Value is therefore a function of profit and discounted intangible gain:

V = fn(p – ɣI) where gamma is a discounted proportion

What this means – the conclusions bit

All of this long-winded (and probably incorrect) algebra effectively changes to equation

P = C + p


P = C + V

Financial profit is substituted for value.

I believe that the price an agency charges should be a reflection of their costs and the overall value that is received from the profit – both in tangible revenue and intangible benefits. Some of these benefits should be passed on to the client in the form of a price reduction, in order to make the bid more competitive and improve chances of success.

This also works in the converse. If there is a project that an agency isn’t enthusiastic about – it might be laborious or for an undesirable client – then the intangibles are negative and so profit needs to increase in order to make the project worth undertaking (in a purely financial equation, this means costs will need to fall within a fixed price/budget).

I should also make it explicit that I am not advocating a purely price-driven approach to bidding. Other factors – communicable skills and expertise, vision and so forth – are still vital. The reality is that markets are highly competitive, and price (or more accurately, the volume of work that can be delivered within a fixed budget) will be a large factor on scorecards used to rate bids.

The client side

This section doesn’t require algebra (fortunately).

My main issue with client budgeting is that it only concentrates on purchasing outputs. While these are tangible, these outputs (at least in research) are a means to an end. A client may want eight groups and transcripts, or a survey and a set of data tables, but the client doesn’t want these for the sake of it. They are purchased to provide evidence to validate or iterate a business process.

Therefore, I believe the client budget should be split into two.

  • The project budget – the amount that a client is willing to pay for the tangibles – the process required to complete the delivery of the project. These outputs are outcome-independent.
  • The implementation budget – which is outcome-dependent. The complexity or implications of a project are often unknown until completion. A project could close immediately, or it could impact critical business decisions in nuanced ways. If the latter, additional resource should be assigned to ensure the business can best face any challenges identified.

The majority of costs are incurred in the project, but the real value to the client comes in the implementation. This needs to be properly reflected; it currently isn’t.

Effectively, I propose a client should commission an “agency” to manage the project and a “consultancy” to manage the implementation. These could be the same organisation, they could not.

Wrapping up

There are undoubtedly things I have overlooked, and I’m pretty sure my algebra is faulty.

However, I believe my underlying hypothesis is valid. The current agency pricing model is flawed and needs overhauling because

  • Agencies ignore non-financial benefits
  • Clients ignore implementation requirements
Both of these are easily correctable, and these corrections can only improve the process.


Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisinplymouth/3222190781


6 Responses

  1. I love the algebraic approach! Very clever. Researchers, as you know, have been debating changes to pay basis for a year…especially since some high porfile clients have been saying they are changing how they will pay. I wrote about this here as well, with information from CocaCola’s VP of research bit.ly/aPXHqh

  2. Algebra aside, I think you’ll find that media and ad agencies at least take most of your factors into consideration. Certainly knowledge, reputation, future prospects, social good and sometimes the sheer pleasure of working with delightful clients can lead to them accepting lower margins.

    The reverse is also true ie insisting on a high margin when a client is known to be a bastard is a more polite way of turning down work.

    But all your examples are about discounting on cost plus models. It’s really important for the business that agencies are brave enough to embrace fee structures that are about value delivered. Too many agencies are either unsure of the value they might add or know that they do not have access to the data that would prove the value. But increasingly payment by results, either for the whole fee or part, is creeping into the industry. This puts a huge responsibility on proper analytics and econometrics, which must be good for companies like yours, Simon.

  3. Kathryn – thanks for the link. There are some interesting discussion points there.

    Tess – appreciate the additional perspective. Most of my knowledge is linked to research agency briefs and pitches. While these considerations can take place, I don’t think they have enough prominence and I don’t see either a) firms being aggressive enough when a prestige project is announced and conversely b) firms turning down or pricing themselves out of work they don’t really want to do (money on the balance sheet is a powerful motivator to bend principles).

    I totally agree with the point on value-delivered fee structures, and would welcome more moves into this area. The mechanics of how this would work in practice would be complex but this has to be be initiated by the client and not the agency (as per Kathryn’s link referring to Coca Cola). Once clients embrace or part-embrace these principles, they can identify agencies that are willing to engage.


  4. Want to try and write a proper comment, but in the meantime, this post from Dave Trott touches on cost+ vs value approach. It’s a post I really like.

  5. Hi Simon

    If I’m reading you right (algebra was never my strong point), I think you might be underestimating research agencies. I know I have adjusted the price of projects based on the ‘intangible’ benefits you describe…

    • Knowledge
    • Skills
    • Reputation
    • Follow-up sales

    (If I’m honest, I don’t remember ‘social good’ ever affecting my pricing, but I live in hope.)

    Plus, I’ve turned down the opportunity to pitch for work, because terms were too onerous or it didn’t fit with what we are, or where we are heading, as a company.

    I don’t think we’re alone.


  6. Andrew – thanks for the link. Very good, as always.

    Jon – that’s good to know. Of course, these issues have factored into pricing decisions of project I’ve worked on as well. My main issue is that these tend to be the exception, rather than the norm. I would like to see these value-based benefits being given the same weight as financial benefits when weighing up a pricing decision. This might never happen – short-term finance keeps businesses afloat and helps targets get met while intangibles don’t – but I live in hope.


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