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How to Calculate Project and Client Profitability for Agencies – The 2023 Guide

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Marcel Petitpas

Marcel Petitpas

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Last updated Jul 7, 2023

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How to Calculate Project and Client Profitability for Agencies – The 2023 Guide

Last updated Jul 7, 2023 | 4 comments

Marcel Petitpas

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If you’re running an agency but are struggling to figure out if you’re as profitable as you should be, then you’ve come to the right place. In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about how to measure project profitability for your agency and clients.

Also, learn how you stack up against industry benchmarks and how to improve agency profitability going forward. Let’s get started and learn how to calculate profitability for your agency clients and projects.

What’s in this guide

Why is it so hard to figure out how to calculate profitability in an agency?


I want to start by making it clear that if you’re reading this post because you’re confused on how calculate profitability – you’re not alone.

Many agency owners find themselves with larger businesses than they’re really comfortable running. Often, they find themselves there almost by accident. I call it the “curse of competency”. When you’re doing amazing work for clients so they keep asking for more and telling their friends about it.

Next thing you know you’ve got a team of people on your payroll, overhead to cover, and more clients than you ever thought you’d have.

You’re busier than ever and clients keep coming in the door. The number in the bank account at the end of the month always seems to be lower than it should be. Your conuslting or marketing agency profit margins never seem to be worth it.

Sound familiar? It’s the reason why people wonder – are agencies profitable at all??

The truth is that service businesses like agencies and consulting firms have few barriers to entry. But they’re one of the more challenging business models to scale. They are complex in nature and aren’t as straightforward as most other “product” focussed businesses.

In order to scale, it’s critically important to solve profitability issues and take control of your efficiency when it comes to earning revenue. If you’re not managing and calculating profitability correctly, selling more services can actually make cash flow problems worse, and even become the reason you have to shut things down.

That’s why we wrote this detailed guide to demystify the nuances and walk you through exactly how to track your performance and profitability as an agency.

The Industry is Changing – The Switch to Flat Rates & Value-Based Pricing

Value-Based Pricing
Courtesy of Wordstream

The era of the billable hour is largely behind us. Most agencies have moved away from billing clients for a time in favor of fixed-rate, flat retainer or value-based pricing models.

While these models generally lend themselves to ultimately bringing in higher fees for the same work, they introduce a new level of risk to providing services that the billable hour often helped mitigate.

If a project wasn’t scoped properly, the client made additional requests or an unforeseen expense came up – it was often passed on to the client as extra hours billed.

Profitability in this world was pretty straightforward:

It was about setting rates that set the company up for a healthy margin at the onset and making sure billable utilization stayed high and those billable hours were paid for by the client as often as possible.

However, in a flat fee world, the importance of measuring what it takes to deliver outcomes to clients has become even more important. We have to make sure your marketing agency profit margins are protected, and the benefit of pricing on value is actually achieved.

It doesn’t help that most of the information on the internet is informed by this era of charging for time – which makes it hard to discern what is relevant in alternative and flat fee-based pricing models.

So with all of that said, how profitable should you be, and where do you start when it comes to calculating and protecting profitability?

Profitability Benchmarks

I – Net Profit (EBITDA) Benchmarks for Your Agency

The first place for us to start is at the bottom line.

We generally like to benchmark profitability for the entire agency using EBITDA (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation & Amortization)

This is a fancy way to say, money left over after all the expenses are paid, and before tax.

We mostly look at it this way because it levels the playing field as different parts of the world have different tax systems, and when the accountants start optimizing for tax efficiency, the books can get extremely convoluted.

So, how much profit should you have in your agency at the end of the year?

The industry average is right around 10%

What has traditionally been considered healthy is 15-20%

What is generally required to cash-flow explosive growth is 25-30%

I always encourage my clients to shoot for 25% – 30% or more

Note:
These are net profit targets AFTER paying the founders/owners a market rate (which should be no less than $100,000) but BEFORE paying out any additional bonuses that are not a part of regular compensation for the team and owners.

Net profit is generally something you’re going to look at in your accounting software at an agency-wide level, as it’s difficult to accurately get there working backward from averaged hourly costs and time tracking data and to do the accounting necessary to narrow in at the client or project level.


In fact, net profitability at the client or project level isn’t something we generally recommend trying to measure. Instead, we like to focus on Delivery Margin (often called Gross Margin or Contribution Margin) on projects as it’s a better reflection of delivery efficiency and allows us to benchmark subsections of our business against each other and against the industry. It’s also much easier to track accurately, and more often.

Why measuring Net Profit on projects and clients doesn’t make sense

As I recently mentioned in a popular LinkedIn post, one might initially consider measuring “Net Profit” on a per-project basis, assuming that greater precision leads to increased accuracy. However, this approach is fundamentally flawed for several reasons.

Firstly, it requires a significant amount of additional work and often results in a substantial delay in obtaining feedback on project performance. Additionally, numerous variables involved in the calculation constantly change, and these variables are unrelated to the profitability of a specific project. These variables include overhead spending in relation to projects, utilization rates, and shared delivery expenses.

Consequently, it becomes challenging to compare projects or measure performance changes over time when exclusively measuring net profit on a per-project basis, as well as identify the factors contributing to improvements in project profitability.

Determining whether a project is more profitable than the previous one becomes complicated because it is unclear if changes in overhead allocation to projects have occurred since the last measurement, or if a change in utilization has changed the basis of someone’s cost-rate or payroll allocation.

Therefore, we strongly recommend that agencies adopt alternative methodologies for assessing the profitability and performance of individual projects, considering these limitations and more.

Enter – Delivery Margin:

II – Delivery Margin (Gross Margin) Benchmarks for Your Agency, Clients & Projects

Delivery Margin is a much more accurate way to measure project profitability that both reduces the cost and complexity of measurement, and solves for all the variability issues that show up in Net Profit measurement. This is often thought of as Gross Margin (although we’ve adopted different language to avoid semantic arguments with accounting teams)

It’s an important profitability metric to track because it tells a story about how efficient our agency is at earning revenue, which is a reflection of how good our processes are for delivering work to clients without going over budget. It’s also the foundation for a profitable agency. Your accountant might want to call what we’re about to describe here “Gross Margin or Contribution Margin”, that’s cool, just know what we’re talking about is essentially the measure of how efficiently you earn revenue using your team’s time.

If you can’t consistently achieve a healthy Delivery Margin – it’s extremely hard to have a healthy bottom line.

We calculate Delivery Margin by looking at our revenue and subtracting all of the costs required to earn that revenue.

At the Client or Project Level, this means figuring out your AGI by subtracting Pass-Through Expenses (often called COGS) from revenue.

  • Examples of Pass Through Expenses (often called COGS) are:
    • Contractors
    • Equipment rentals
    • Print/Ad Spend
    • Travel related to production
    • Any other hard marked up or pass-through expenses.

This should help you understand the AGI (Agency Gross Income) on a project or client, which is the actual revenue that client represents for your agency, and the revenue you need to earn with your operations.

Once you understand AGI for a given project, client or time period, you can then figure out your Delivery Margin relative to AGI by subtracting the cost of earning that revenue.

On a project or client level, that’s usually going to be done by calculating your Labor Costs as a function of Time * Cost-per-hour

At a broader agency level, you’ll be looking at:

  • Payroll expenses associated to delivery
  • Shared delivery expenses like:
    • Design software (figma, canva, adobe suite)
    • Stock footage libraries
    • Shared Hosting
    • etc.

Notes:

  • Delivery Profitability at the Client or Project level can be looked at in accounting software, but generally requires some highly detailed (and potentially costly) accounting practices to do on a regular basis.
  • It’s generally more efficient to model this in a spreadsheet, or use a much easier agency metric like ABR (Average Billable Rate), see lower in this blog post for more info on ABR.

Notes:

  • Delivery Margin at the agency-wide level, like net margin, can be looked at in your accounting software and shouldn’t be too hard to achieve.
  • When looking at Delivery Margin at the client or project level, you’re going to be setting the target slightly above what you expect to achieve at an agency-wide level. You can expect to lose 10-20% of that gross margin annually to non-billable time, time-off and shared production expenses.

III – Benchmarks

Benchmarks for Delivery Margin will vary depending on your business model.

For example, if you run a more traditional agency with a team of full-time employees and an office – you might have a higher gross margin target (40-70%) since your overhead will be higher (20-30% of your Agency Gross Income AGI)

If you run a more distributed agency and use freelancers or contractors, you might have a lower overhead rate (14-24%) which allows you to compensate for a potentially higher cost-per-hour (paying freelancers instead of full-time employees) still be highly profitable with a lower gross margin target (40-60%)

The way to think about this is to set your Net Margin target, assess the amount of overhead required for your business model and add them together.

For example, if your target is 25% Net Margin, Your overhead is 20% of Agency Gross Income, then you’ll want to target at least a gross margin of 55% (100% – 45%) to make that goal attainable.

When looking at Gross Margin at the client or project level, you’re going to be setting the target slightly above what you expect to achieve at an agency-wide level. You can expect to lose 10-20% of that gross margin annually to non-billable time, time-off and shared delivery expenses. This is because your calculation for Employee Cost Per Hour should be based on Gross Capacity, not adjusted or billable capacity to keep things simple, and consistent over time.

Now that you know what to target, how do you actually go about calculating these things in your agency in an accurate way?

Part 1:  Calculating Costs and Delivery Margin on Projects & Clients

The foundation of agency profitability lies in the ability to be efficient in earning revenue and setting projects up for success from the get-go.

What often gets overlooked is that in a service business, revenue needs to be earned after it’s sold. That means people need to spend time doing the work and delivering things to clients, which means that earning revenue costs money.

How much money it costs you depends almost entirely on how much time needs to be invested.

The formula for Delivery Margin is as follows:

Delivery Costs/AGI = Delivery Margin

Where Delivery Costs = The cost of earning revenue, usually in terms of labor
And where AGI = Total Revenue minus Pass-Through Expenses (often called COGS)

So we need to know two things in order to calculate gross margin:

  1. Pass through Expenses
  2. Direct Labor Costs

This is probably a good time to mention that if you’re looking for a quick and easy way to model the profitability of your clients and projects, we have a Project Profitability Report Template included in our Agency Profitability Toolkit, which you can download free right here:


Now, let’s break down how to figure both of those things out

I – How to Calculate Pass-Through Expenses and Agency Gross Income (AGI)

The first step in this process is to subtract Pass-Through Expenses from your revenue – this will show you the Agency Gross Income (AGI) on your clients and projects. This is the amount of revenue from a project that actually belongs to you, and is earned by the work your team is doing.

It’s an important number because it allows you to better understand how efficient you are at earning revenue and benchmark healthy spending ratios in your business. We’ll use it elsewhere, so It’s good practice to start calculating it.


Examples of Pass-Through Expenses would be:

  • Stock images
  • Outsourced Work (contractors/freelancers)
  • Website Builder Templates
  • Equipment rentals
  • Travel costs related to production
  • Any other cost that passes through you and into another vendor in order to deliver work to the client. (These may or may not be marked up – either way, it doesn’t affect this math)

Example of Agency Gross Income (AGI) calculation:

Total Project Revenue $100,000
Camera Rentals $10,000
Freelancers $5,000
Ad Spend $20,000
AGI $65,000

II – How to Calculate Labor Costs on Project & Clients

Next, we want to figure out how much it costs to earn our AGI based on the labor costs incurred on the project.

We do this simply by taking all of the time logged against the project or client and multiplying it by the Cost-Per-Hour of the employees involved.


Example:

Employee Cost Per Hour Hours Total
Samantha $57.50 120 $6,900
James $24.25 165 $4,001.25
Luis $42.80 75 $3,210
Total 360 $14,111.25

You might be asking yourself, how do I figure out my Cost-Per-Hour?

For details on that, check out this blog post we wrote on exactly how to calculate that the right way.

III – How to Calculate Delivery Margin on Projects and Clients

The last step is to subtract Labor Costs from Agency Gross Income (AGI) to get to our Delivery Margin.

Example of Delivery Margin calculation:

Total Project Revenue $100,000
Agency Gross Income (AGI) $65,000
Labor Costs $14,111.25
Delivery Profit ($) $50,888.75
Delivery Margin (%) 78.2%

Note:

  • Notice that Delivery Margin is being calculated relative to AGI, not topline revenue. This makes it a viable way to measure earning efficiency across multiple projects, and actually compare them fairly to one another regardless of how much of the work is being outsourced to external vendors.

Bonus Metric: Average Billable Rate (ABR)

Now that you know how to calculate your Agency Gross Income AGI on a Project or Client, you can calculate some other useful metrics like Average Billable Rate (ABR) to figure out what types of engagements you’re most efficient at earning revenue at, and how closely you’re hitting budgets overall.

We like using Average Billable Rates (ABR) because, like EBITDA, it helps level the playing field compared to Delivery Margin, and is also much easier/faster to calculate across different parts of your agency.

It’s also a really useful metric to use when trying to model out revenue capacity, or breaking down your sales pipeline into hours.

How to Calculate Average Billable Rates (ABR)

To calculate your Average Billable Rate (ABR) on any given client, project or area of your agency, for any given period of time, just divide your Agency Gross Income (AGI) by all the hours worked on in that given time period.

Example of Average Billable Rate (ABR) calculation:

AGI = $65,000

Hours Worked = 360

ABR = $180.55

Average Billable Rates (ABR) can be an extremely helpful metric when assessing which types of work are consistently hitting or missing budgets, and by how much.

They’re also useful for forecasting and modeling functions, like taking revenue from our pipeline and working backward into the capacity we need to service incoming deals.

For more on Average Billable Rates and forecasting in your agency, check out this blog post we wrote.

Bonus #2: Estimating Delivery Margin on Clients & Projects using ABR & ACPH

Expanding on the ABR metric, you can enhance your understanding of potential profitability and performance by estimating the Delivery Margin for a specific area of work.

To accomplish this, you simply need to determine the ACPH (Average Cost per Hour) for that particular area of work. By doing so, you can obtain a more comprehensive assessment of your performance and the level of profitability achieved:

Estimated Delivery Margin = (ABR – ACPH) / ABR

This effectively acts as an extremely inexpensive and quick proxy for Delivery Margin that can be used to look at more specific areas of the business without being held up by accounting and finance data and workflows.

If you want to compare two service offerings and can measure the respective ABRs and ACPH figures for each, you can perform a quick calculation to determine which one requires improvement, for example:

Service OfferingABRACPHEstimated Delivery Margin
Content Writing$145$4569%
Website Copywriting$167$7853%

Infographic

How to Calculate Profitability FAQs

How can I make my agency more profitable?

Increasing your delivery margin is the key to making your agency more profitable. This can be done in three ways: 

1. Increasing your Average Billable Rate (ABR) while maintaining or improving your Utilization Rate
2. Improving your Utilization Rate while maintaining your Average Billable Rate
3. Decreasing your direct labor cost and/or Average Cost-Per-Hour while maintaining your Average Billable Rate and Utilization Rate

How do you determine profitability?

There are two main measures of profitability. The first is Delivery Profit, which is measured by subtracting Delivery Costs from Agency Gross Income (AGI) the second is Operating Profit, which is measured by subtracting Overhead or Operating expenses from Delivery profit.

What factors affect profitability?

Profit is primarily affected by two main factors:

1. Delivery Margin – which measures how much it costs your agency to earn revenue. It’s a function of (Agency Gross Income less Delivery Costs) / Agency Gross Income. Delivery Margin should (generally) be above 50% for the agency, and above 60-70% for projects and clients to ensure strong profitability.
2. The second is Overhead Expenses relative to AGI. Overhead expenses generally should not exceed 30% of AGI.

What is the difference between profit and profitability?

Profit is the absolute measure of profitability. For example, if I have $100 in AGI and my expenses are $80, I have $20 in profit. Profitability is the measure of that represented as a percentage. In the above example, I have $20 of profit left over from $100 in revenue, therefore my profitability is 20%

Next Steps

Understanding your profitability is the first step to improving it. As the old adage says “You can’t manage what you can’t measure”. That’s certainly true about profitability.

If there’s one takeaway you get from this in-depth blog post it’s that having a way to measure earning efficiency across your projects, even if it’s something as simple as Average Billable Rate is extremely important. Simply having visibility into that metric across all your clients. and projects will open your eyes to some of the most significant opportunities to improve your profitability.

If you’re looking for free resources to help you start tracking these kinds of metrics in your agency, be sure to check out our Agency Profitability Toolkit which outlines our process and provides free tools and resources to help you implement it.


Have questions? Leave us a comment, we’re here to help.

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Show/Hide Comments (4 comments)
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4 Comments

  1. David Doran

    Hello,

    Great post! Very informative and helpful, thank you. I wanted to point out that one of your links is broken. It’s in the How to Calculate Labor Costs section: “For details on that, check out this blog post”

    Thanks again!

    Reply
    • Marcel Petitpas

      Thank you David!

      We’ve updated that link 🙂

      Reply
  2. Nick

    Hi there!
    I have a question about the calculation of the ABR.

    1: AGI / Delivery Hours (= all hours worked on clients)

    or

    2: AGI / Total Hours (= all hours work billable and non-billalbe)

    Case:
    If an employee clocks 1 hour on a project for $500
    Then the ABR of the employee will be $500. (Like calculation 1)This gives a wrong perception of the actual true
    The ABR of calculation 2 will be $500 / 176 (22 days) = 2,84

    Which one would you use and why?

    Reply
    • Marcel Petitpas

      Hey Nick,

      Great question, the correct answer is number 1. There are a number of reasons why.

      #1 – ABR is intended to measure how efficiently your team earns revenue on a direct basis. If it takes you one hour to complete something worth $500, that is an accurate representation of the efficiency with which you earn revenue. The concern you’re expressing is related to the utilization of your team, which does affect profitability for the agency, but has no bearing on how efficiently revenue is earned on a direct basis. It’s important to remember that ABR is not meant to be a compound metric that tries to assess the profitability of your entire business over broad time horizons. It’s sole purpose is to evaluate the earning efficiency of the business at different levels. As such, it should only look at time spent earning revenue (not time spent on things that don’t earn revenue, like administrative or marketing work, for example)

      #2 – In order for ABR to be a useful measure of earning efficiency that can be used to compare changes over time, we need to isolate it from externalities. The formula you describe as option 2 is problematic because it changes the value of ABR based on the teams utilization rate. This makes it impossible to compare ABR from one time period to another because utilization will never be the same. Therefore, we can’t really tell if a project from October was more or less profitable than a project from November, because ABR would be changing based on Utilization (which is not related in any way to the direct profit of that project) That same issue exists at every level that ABR can be measured at, from the agency as a whole all the way down to an individual unit of work. This is the same reason we don’t try to measure the “net profit” of clients or projects on a direct basis. The same issue exists, which is that Overhead will fluctuate from one period to another and as the number of projects it’s being spread across changes. This can lead to the perception of a change in the direct profitability of a given piece of work that is not actually reflective of reality. While the business may have been more or less profitable at a given point in time, that doesn’t impact how profitable an individual project or client was. It’s very important to create separation between those two concepts.

      #3 – It’s important to look at ABR alongside other operational metrics like Utilization rate and Average Cost Per Hour. To your point, if we have a 1 hour project that pays us $500, but that’s the only work we have coming in this month, it’s unlikely our agency will be profitable. That’s a Utilization problem, though, not an earning efficiency problem. The issue isn’t that we’re not charging enough to have good margins, the problem is that we’re not bringing in enough work to keep our team utilized. Those are two different insights that require two different responses, measured by two different metrics. They are related in terms of how they impact the Delivery Margin of the business, but they are independent in terms of their impact.

      Does that help clarify things?

      Reply

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