Running an Agency Means Living in Parallel Universes

Balancing the Billable Day vs. the Creative Way

By Published on .

Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
Our creative service manager brought his kids to the office recently, and apparently his 12-year-old made the comment that it didn't look like anyone was doing any work. Like they say, out of the mouths of babes. As far as this youngster was concerned, people spent a good part of the day playing video games, IMing each other, updating Facebook pages and shopping online. That's what agency life might look like to the casual observer, but the truth is that we produce a tremendous body of work every month. Sometimes, it's just hard to see how the work is getting done.

A strange truth about the agency business is that it's very difficult to define productivity. An hour on Twitter may lead to a breakthrough idea. Half a day storyboarding a concept may yield nothing useful. These contradictions have led me to conclude that creative agencies operate in two parallel universes. One universe is made up of billable hours and completion of tasks mapped out on a schedule. The other universe looks more like a chaotic playground where people's actions don't seem to add up to anything productive. I've concluded that the art of running an agency is learning how to inhabit both worlds at the same time.

Once you grow beyond half a dozen employees, you need business-minded people to bring order and rational behavior to the agency model. That's why we need controllers and bookkeepers to demand that we fill out time sheets, to study staff utilization, and to report on agency productivity. There's definitely valuable intelligence in those numbers that informs budgeting, staffing and productivity. Especially during uncertain times, a good grasp of this rational information allows you to project revenue and workloads and avoid huge shocks to the system. We also owe it to our clients to maintain these systems that help us spend their money wisely and report on our progress.

That's one universe. Yet try to run an agency by those rational measures alone and you will stifle all the qualities that make you a creative and innovative organization.

Don't despair. There is another agency universe where time sheets and financial analysis are meaningless. In this other universe, rational information tells you almost nothing about how work gets done and yields little knowledge about creative productivity. To live in this world, you need to accept that this is a messy business where ideas emerge from unlikely sources. Sometimes lightning strikes quickly and a creative concept flourishes in just hours, or minutes. Or the process may be laborious and go through one painful round after another. This is true for every agency function from the development of marketing strategies to program design, not to mention traditional creative activities like copywriting and art direction. You cannot regiment these activities and prescribe how to get them done, or always predict how long they will take. Creative people, in all disciplines, develop their own idiosyncratic ways of working which takes place outside the confines of time sheets and reports. This creativity needs to be nurtured and allowed to flourish according to its own logic, even if it drives your CFO insane.

Enlightened agency management needs to live comfortably in both universes. On one hand, you need to respect the data. I've been tempted to throw the whole time sheet business out the window, but there's valuable information in those reports that can help you plan and anticipate the road ahead. Sometimes it feels like a thankless job but it's worth it to keep that information in front of people and show how it can be useful.

On the other hand, remember that all the data in the world is meaningless without an environment that breeds creativity. If you're lucky enough to attract great talent, give them the conditions to succeed. That includes the physical space to collaborate. It means time to let ideas germinate, and it means mental space to explore without a lot of anxiety. Most important, you've got to have faith that the creative process will prevail, and that good work will get done, even if that means a few hours on Facebook along the way. The next time you see your creative staff goofing off, thank them for all the hard work.
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