Why it’s time to scrap timesheets and focus on producing great work

Simon Hankin, Exposure Digital

The only value in timesheets is not using them. For too long they have been seen as a credible and robust source of billable data, when in fact they’re are anything but. Let’s be honest, everyone sees them as an annoyance that they are forced to do; and as such just arbitrarily fill them in.

By stopping time sheets at Exposure Digital we have given precious time back to our staff. However it’s had a much bigger impact than you’d first think. We have become much more transparent with our pricing for clients. Staff churn is at an all-time low – just 10% (this is in stark contrast to previous years where we have seen 20%+ churn) and we’re attracting the best talent in the business to work for us.

One of the things I’ve noticed especially in the big agencies, is that operating a timesheet model encourages bad habits and bad work. Too often it’s used as an excuse to get as many people and job titles in a room as possible, as often as possible – all of which draws out the process and leads to a culture of ideas by committee, and bloated solutions.

This obviously creates a level of unease in the client-agency relationship, as I’m sure we’ve all heard clients question, “do we need all these people to attend the meeting?”. Sometimes you may need all those people but the worst outcome for any client is being footed with a bill and having little to show for the investment. And all that does is foster a feeling of mistrust on both sides.

This can only lead to, and has, a rise in the number of accounts going up for pitch and this is where timesheets really do their damage. Procurement is having a bigger role in agency selection and it can sometimes come down to a game of who’s the cheapest – with decisions based on price rather than quality of output.

In that scenario to ensure cost effectiveness agency-side, it can mean putting the cheapest resource possible on an account. Working in the creative industry where time is sold rather than talent means that the level of work will slowly decline. I see numerous articles asking why the industry is less creative, but not once do they mention timesheets being a culprit – maybe they should.

Being free of timesheets enables you to ensure cost-efficiency for your clients whilst allowing your top level talent to not just oversea a project, but actually get stuck in. If you’re delivering a ‘world first’ it will be more expensive. But as time goes on and you’re working on similar needs for that client, practices should become more efficient, enabling you to invest resource elsewhere.

So what’s stopping you?

To operate a timesheets-free model you need to really know how your business works – what projects are making money, where you are losing money and which clients are taking advantage of you.

You then need to empower everyone in your agency to focus on output – and the experts in each field to give a true estimation of how long a piece of work might take.

Finally you need to be willing to swallow any miscalculations and overspend – assuming it’s within the pre-agreed scope of work. If you want to build long-term relationships with clients, backing them into a corner with a bill at the end of a project won’t do that. As the head of my business it’s my responsibility to charge accurately and fairly. If I get it wrong, it’s my fault.

The old model is dead. Timesheets kill off trust, honesty and creativity, the key ingredients for a healthy long-term relationship – and for me, you can’t put a price on that.

Simon Hankin is chief executive of Exposure Digital

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