Clients have complained about it for decades. Agencies have been wrestling trying to find a new model for years, but yet it still exists. Partly because they know that abandoning it will require them to move to fixed fees, and most likely fixed timelines, and that is more risk than they can, or want, to stomach.

Before I start highlighting why the billable time model doesn’t work, let me tell you when it does — with a caveat. In my seven years working in this environment, I can say I have only seen the model work effectively for the client once. Here’s what it took to make it work.

  • The client had a pipeline of projects – the client went through a process of consolidating marketing budgets to move to a single agency retainer. They then identified enough projects to fill the agency capacity and smalls one off efforts to cover production gaps when the priority projects were delayed.
  • They put the basics in place – knowing that efficiency is essential for optimizing a retained relationship they had the foundational building blocks for developing campaigns. The client had their audiences defined, value proposition and messaging tested, and an approved media budget with CTAs. You want as much of your marketing dollars going to execution as possible. Don’t burn agency fees on the basics.  
  • Quarterly reviews – they set clear priorities each quarter and conducted quarterly reviews. Learning what worked, what didn’t and why/how to improve in the next quarter. Typically, no month goes according to the plan so they had budgets rollover month to month and a defined point to reconcile fees.   
  • Built in flexibility with “on demand” resources – a core client team was defined with “specialized” skills that were “on-demand,” not dedicated. They used contracts/freelancers on their team to pick up work that may come in “over the transom.”
  • Strong management of the relationship and retainer – they took an active role in managing the relationship with the agency, with a dedicated agency team that included ex-agency people. One person prioritized and managed the work internally before it went to the agency. That person was the central point of communication, consolidating feedback and restricted others from contacting the agency with requests or changes.

If this doesn’t sound like your organization, let me share with you what you’re up against and why the billable time model is not in your favor.

  1. The production process – flexibility gives agencies problems once you’ve committed to a retained team and defined work. Think of it this way…let’s say you hire an organization to build a car. The company gives you a price to build it. Sticking to the production schedule the car will cost you exactly what you contracted. The problem in marketing is that few things go according to the production schedule. Issues with approvals and getting content or legal feedback within the defined time is often the exception rather than the rule. So, let’s say your car is making its way down the production line and it gets to the person who is handling the windshield install but the windshield isn’t there because the size and shape wasn’t approved. As a result, the entire production line is now slowed, or the car is taken off the line so other cars can progress. Either way, costs are now being incurred due to the delay. This is what happens when marketing assets are being created. A client doesn’t approve an image on time so when the agency production schedule has the image retoucher scheduled to work on the image, it’s not there. The image retoucher is then reassigned to other work and this task goes back into the scheduling pool, causing delays further down the line.
  2. “Microspecialization” – perhaps you’ve noticed that your team has blossomed with “specialists.” For example, content development; long form, short form, digital, technical writers, etc.  A good writer is a good writer, or at least one would think. If you are working with a large agency they will have the luxury of having broad skill sets in house or contracted. These “specialist” are assigned to work on multiple projects. Their time being divided among 5-7 or more projects during the week. Let’s go back to the production line analogy. The work is progressing down the line, now there are twice as many stops as in the past because of the microsegmentation of the work and skill sets needed to complete it. This means we have twice as many people to schedule, coordinate calendars and manage handoffs. Let’s say the main copywriter creates the campaign content that moves to the digital copywriter to chunk it up for the website. Then, it’s off to the short form writer for emails, and the technical writer for the sales sheet. You get the picture. Each step is a handoff, an opportunity or risk to come off of message, change the tone, or lose the intent, etc.  All which result in burning more hours to fix.
  3. Efficiency and creative – speed is the enemy of the good, not always, especially in a billable time model. Being more efficient is not necessarily aligned to a billable time model. There is no incentive (beyond due dates) to move work quickly or efficiently. If a creative is assigned to spend a half day working on a banner ad and can complete the task in a hour…“work expands to fill the time for its completion” as they say. Agency folks have to meet a certain threshold of billable time, similar to attorneys. This is not all bad. To be fair, you want to allow the creative team to have the time to well, be creative. Rushing the creative process can produce poor outputs but it is often times at odds with  efficiency. More on this later…
  4. Revenue recognition – for an agency to recognize revenue they have to have time billed against it. If you have a $100K a month retainer, for example, you will get a large team. It starts out with good intentions. Agencies will assess the work to be done and then assemble a team to do it, that’s how the pricing model is built. But the model is built in a vacuum based on previous client engagements. It allows agencies to assign and/or hire resources. Once the team is constructed and the real work begins, the team may or may not be aligned to capacity needed. However, it is aligned to the capacity needed to fill out timesheets to justify the fees.
  5. You, the client – yep, you are complicit in this problem. To get the most out of your relationship (and money) you need to take an active part in managing and partnering. Consolidate feedback internally, force internal stakeholders to make decisions and tradeoffs. Stick to and/or set realistic timelines and expectations. Do your homework and have as much of the prep work done prior (more on this below) to selecting or working with an agency partner. You know that time is literally money (your money) so be active in finding ways to be more efficient. Agencies do their best work when there is clarity on goals/objectives and communication.

Here’s the funny thing — the billable time model doesn’t really work for agencies either. It restricts growth, creates rigidity, causes inefficiencies and counterproductive employee behavior. So why do they keep it? Because it protects them from you.

Marketing can be messy and managing clients can be challenging. You miss a deadline or change a deliverable, and here comes the change order. To abandon it would require discipline, analytic rigor, and STRONG client and project management skills, which few possess. The billable time model is the devil they know, but unfortunately, can’t kill.  

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