What the Hell is NPV?‘ the marketer cried

Accountants seem to love to baffle with jargon, but that is not, usually, what they set out to do.

Rather , they use terms as a shorthand to describe what to them makes absolute sense, but to the rest of us, mere marketing mortals, seems like gobbledygook.

One of the ones that commonly causes headaches is ‘Net Present Value’  or NPV.

Guaranteed to put most marketers to sleep.

However, you should not sleep, way better to understand the idea in simple  terms so you have an understanding of the conversation, and can contribute in a meaningful way.

NPV  is simply one of the common methods of calculating the relative value of a number of investment choices. It recognises that money you have today is worth more than money you may have tomorrow because it can be invested,   used now, while the ‘future money’ is subject to inflation and risk.

Often the term ‘time value of money’ will be used.

It is one of a suite of calculations that can be used when sorting out which projects to pursue from a range of possibilities. It provides an objective measure that enables you to make better choices, that management challenge in a world of subjectivity, conjecture and bullshit.

Marketers should understand the principal, if not necessarily the formula, which is readily available in just about every spreadsheet application since  Visicalc. Remember that? I do, it became a marketers best friend, years before excel emerged.

The formula is relatively simple, it just looks a bit complex.

The discount rate is the rate of inflation used, plus the amount you choose to add to allow for risk.

Most businesses use a consistent discount rate that reflects their return on investment hurdle rates. For example, if the current inflation rate is 1%, and the business requires an 8% ROI, the discount rate will be 9%

The great benefit of NPV to marketers is that it uses the cash flows derived from a proposal to sort out the priority, not just the quantum of the initial investment, so  it reflects the forecast cash success over time.

For example, you want to invest $3 million in gear to launch a new product, that is forecast to deliver a net profit of $1.3 million/year for 3 years, with a discount rate of 9%.

There are a number of sequential steps to take.

  • Calculate the present value of each years net profit by dividing the net profit by (1+discount rate). In year 1, that is 1,300,000/(1+.09) or 1,192,661. The ‘1’ in the formula being the current inflation rate
  • Repeat the exercise for each subsequent year, in year 2, it would be 1,192661/(1+.09) or 1,094,184.
  • In year 3 1094,184/(1+.09) 1,033,838
  • Add the present values calculated, 1,192,661 + 1,094,184 + 1,003,838 = 3,290,683 to give you the total forecast present value of your money in three years, then subtract the initial investment to give you the net present value of the investment.  $3290683 – 3,000,000 = $290,683.

The larger the positive number the better, a negative number would indicate that the project will drain cash from the business, a positive one adding cash.

To make the choice between investment options, repeat the exercise for  each, and pick the one with the highest positive value.

Clearly, the calculation is based on a series of assumptions and forecasts, so there is a lot of room for error, but when used in a consistent manner it is a good tool to assist making difficult choices, and offers the flexibility to do some informed scenario and ‘what if’ planning.





The easy way of course is just to go to excel, and look for NPV in the formulas tab, which will give you the numbers, but not the understanding of what they mean.

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