The first decade or so of my career was spent in large, traditional, global agencies, in which I endured a painful week at the end of every month arguing with clients over billable hours. Then I went client-side for the next few years and endured the same painful week at the end of every month arguing with agencies over billable hours!
The following familiar refrains, or similar, will likely echo in the minds of anyone from either side of the client/agency fence:
“We’ve overserviced the account and need to cut hours next month to compensate.”
“Yes it really does take us six weeks to write 250 words of copy.”
“We’ve been overservicing your account due to the number of client revisions and need to review the fee.”
“What have the hours I’m paying you for actually bought me?”
“How have you burned through the year’s billable hours in just 5 months?
The traditional agency model has long relied on the concept of billable hours to measure agency productivity, allocate costs, and calculate client invoices. But much like casinos, the odds are always stacked in favour of the house!
It’s precisely this imbalance and associated frustration that led to the birth of our agency and Early’s All You Can Eat (AYCE) Marketing & Creative proposition. It’s a paradigm shift from the norm: no timesheets, no clocks a ticking, no invoice shocks, and no month-end arguments. Just a fair, honest, delivery-led approach that generates stunning creative, results-driven marketing, 100% client satisfaction scores, and peace and love all round.
Let’s let the cat out the bag on the rigid, inflexible agency billable hours system and why it’s at best unfair, at worst downright scandalous, and by extension, totally obsolete.
And then we’ll look at the fairer alternative.
- Timesheets are fatally flawed!
The entire concept of recording time is bunkum. It reliably fails to accurately reflect the actual hours spent. So much so, you could set your watch by it!
I’d like to bet you, the last 15 minutes of every Friday afternoon in every agency up and down the land is spent doing timesheets. Teams of individuals rushing as the clock ticks down to the pulling of the first pint of the weekend. Individuals struggling to remember and record the hours they’ve spent on client work since Monday, and then throwing in a load of hooky hours to justify their existence and the client fee. It’s like treading a tightrope, precariously balancing the need for agency profitability with client believability.
Even with so-called ‘real-time’ digital timesheet software, human input is required and intervention is always possible to get the numbers to add up in the agency’s commercial favour. And believe me, they always will!
- Even if timesheets were accurate (which they rarely are), there are drawbacks to counting hours, because creativity just takes time.
The billable hours model, once hailed as a reliable way to quantify effort, is showing its limitations in today's dynamic and fast-paced business environment. It tends to reward quantity over quality, units of time over value, promoting an assembly-line mentality where employees are encouraged to bill as many hours as possible, rather than focusing on delivering the best possible outcome.
Creativity requires time. Simple. There I said it.
It’s often thinking time, time in the shower or at the gym. Sometimes at the desk or around a boardroom table. Sometimes alone. Sometimes collaborating or brainstorming with others. And the amount of time needed to come up with that Cannes Lion Award-winning concept is very unpredictable.
Limits on thinking time are often strictly controlled in larger agencies, not because of client deadlines, but purely to hit productivity and profitability metrics, given their organisational overheads. And when the timesheet clock is ticking, creativity and innovation get stifled, the casualties of billable hours as employees are pressured to conform to rigid time constraints rather than nurturing their creative processes.
Demanding an agency team to be creative instantly in the next 2 hours of allocated billable time, is like saying to an off-duty comedian in the supermarket: “Be funny. NOW!”
- “We’re just naturally creative” (…said every agency, especially at the pitch stage.)
Creative is a process that starts with human thinking. Yes, AI may have an emerging role to play, but machines don’t have the emotion and lived experiences that result in great creative thinking. But, all too often, agencies are either too scared to ask clients, or clients are unprepared to have a line on their budgets called “Thinking time”. After all, as already discussed, we rarely know how much time it will take. As a result, thinking – the most invaluable agency commodity and critical part of the process – is often notoriously loaded into the billable hours system in other, more scurrilous ways.
And in our digital era of instant gratification and competitive climate, agencies pitching for new business will often try to convince clients that their brilliant, natural creative minds can deliver world class ideas at the speed of a TikTok video being posted. They can’t.
- The iteration sponge.
Creative can take multiple rounds of revision for a client to be truly, and justifiably satisfied. By its very nature, creative is an iterative process. In an agency world awash with billable hours, it actually makes commercial sense for the agency to do as many iterations as possible, rather than getting it right early doors. After all, the client is paying, and iteration soaks up lovely billable hours like a sponge. Revision time provides yet another deep dark corner for agencies to ‘hide’ billable time, to justify fees.
In many cases, clients are left feeling frustrated when they receive invoices that are disconnected from the outcomes achieved. The perceived value of those 129 billable hours at £325 per hour, may be seriously at odds with the client’s perspective on the value generated. This misalignment can erode trust and seriously strain or even destroy client-agency relationships, something I witnessed time and time again in my ‘big agency’ days.
At Early, we don’t have a single timesheet. Never have. Never will. (cue choir of singing angels)
We like to think we’ve been around the block enough to know how to price work in ways that are fair, affordable, deliver stunning results for our clients, and still make us a modest margin to continue growing a successful agency, doing world-class work, with clients we love.
So, at Early, our clients agree a set, fixed fee for a piece of work or, in the case of retainers, a monthly Scope of Work. After that, the time risk becomes ours, with a firm commitment to adhere to all deadlines.
Whether it takes 3 hours or 3 days for creative juices to flow, the fee stays the same. Whether we strike gold with a winning concept on day 1 or with revisions, by day 30, the fee remains the same. Whether the brief remains intact, or the client tweaks it a few times during the process, the fee remains the same. And we apply this principle across our full-service spectrum of capabilities, from strategy to execution, one-off marketing projects to entire campaign management, and every creative medium and format imaginable.
Or as we like to call it, All You Can Eat (AYCE) Marketing & Creative.
Our AYCE mindset and the shift from hours to results, fosters a stronger sense of collaboration, partnership and shared success for both parties, and it’s what’s led to senior client testimonials like this from Michael Bayle, VP of Marketing, Product Marketing and Pre-Sales for Cytric Easy, Amadeus’ new business travel innovation with Microsoft:
“The Early team has helped us push our thinking, challenge the status quo and reach into new and engaging creative spaces for Cytric Easy. Early has consistently delivered the level of thinking, creativity and high-quality execution normally expected of larger agencies, but with lightning speed. Our relationship is marked by professionalism and expertise, underpinned by great client service, true collaboration and good humour.”Michael Bayle, VP of Marketing, Product Marketing and Pre-Sales for Cytric Easy
The era of agency billable hours has to come to an end. If you’re not getting the value you think you deserve from your marketing and creative spend, or you simply want to learn more about Early’s refreshingly honest AYCE Marketing & Creative model, we’d love to have a chat.
Feel free to give us a shout.
If you thought branding was all pretty pictures and fancy words, think again. The art of logos, colours and sexy phrases matter for sure, but there’s lots of clever science & psychology sitting behind these creative decisions that branding professionals like us use every day to entice, seduce and lock-in customer loyalty.
Here are the top ten neuroscience secrets every branding professional should know:
- Neural Engagement: Neuroimaging studies have shown that strong brands can increase neural engagement by up to 60%1 compared to weak or unfamiliar brands. Neural engagement happens when something strikes a relevant chord and creates pathways in the human brain. And nothing screams, “You want me”, more than your brand promising to solve a problem. This is why we work forensically at the start and throughout our client relationships on understanding what makes the audience tick, through research and data-driven insights that inform our creativity and storytelling. Our agency mantra: "Always fall in love with your customer problem, before you fall in love with your product or service."
1 Source: Martin Lindstrom, "Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy"
- Emotional Impact: Effective branding can lead to a 31% increase in emotional response2, which is a crucial factor in influencing consumer decisions. It’s a cliché to say that we buy with our hearts, but in terms of brand, no truer words have ever been spoken. Our work aims to have customers fall head over heels in love with our client’s brands. And once they're in love, it’s half the battle won in getting them to buy the products that solve their problem(s).
2 Source: Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience
- Memory Retention: Branding elements that are congruent with the content can improve memory retention by 89%3. Nobody enjoys that familiar let down of watching an ad, only to ask, “What the hell was that all about?” And how many times have you found yourself confusing one brand with another? So, think, what’s different, what’s unusual, exciting or unexpected, what could be truly memorable and stand-out about your brand? These are the questions we help Early clients answer every day.
3 Source: Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics
- Neural Activation in Different Brain Areas: OK, let’s go real science nerd for the next few. Exposure to a well-branded logo can activate the brain's ventral striatum (associated with reward) by 10%, and the medial prefrontal cortex (associated with self-identity and personal relevance) by 5%4. That means that great branding actually makes us feel good! They give us a sense of value, a sense of ownership, and help to shape who we show up as.
4 Source: Journal of Marketing Research
- Visual Processing Speed: Brands we recognise are processed 20% faster5 in the brain's visual processing areas compared to unfamiliar brands. That’s not an excuse to spam the life out of your audience until you become memorable (our brains are also wired to reject inputs we perceive as threatening). Nor does it necessitate the need to spend millions projecting your logo onto the face of Big Ben! Creating familiarity comes in many different forms of marketing and creative strategy. Let’s just say for now, it’s critical to look, sound and feel different to your competition in an authentic way your audience will connect to and love.
5 Source: Various Scientific Reports
- Dopamine Release: Branding experiences that trigger a dopamine release can lead to a 20% increase6 in intent to purchase. Not only does dopamine make you feel good, in biochemistry terms it helps nerve cells send messages to each other. So, a happy brain, really is a receptive buying brain. In much of our campaign creative, and in some of the most unlikely of scenarios, we aim to elicit a smile, a chuckle, or an outright LOL. That’s often all it takes to release the happy juice.
6 Source: Neuron
- Preference and Decision-Making: Research has confirmed that the brain's preference centre (ventromedial prefrontal cortex) is more active when consumers interact with preferred brands, influencing decisions and leading to a 10-15% increase in purchase intent7. At Early, we aim to engage the brain in diverse ways along the customer journey. We first need to gain attention and engage, getting the synapses firing, ready for messages to land successfully and help in the consideration phase and decision-making process later on. We then deploy desired-action techniques to make the decision happen in favour of our client’s brands. Finally, we want customers to feel good about those decisions, to retain their loyalty, repeat business and promote brand advocacy. Good branding is a carefully crafted process, not a one-time event.
7 Source: Journal of Consumer Psychology
- Price Perception: Neuroeconomics studies have revealed that strong branding can influence the brain's valuation system, leading consumers to perceive a product's value as up to 30%8 higher. So that’s the pure bottom-line effect of influencing what happens inside our heads. But when price is in play, it’s deeper than that still. You need look no further than ‘own-brand’ discount retailers such as Aldi, to see how subtle and nuanced the psychological impact of branding actually is. They call themselves ‘own brand’ retailers when what they really are is ‘brand copycats’. Like the most famous masters of forgery, they know that were they to turn the colour palette for their version of Lurpak Butter green with pink spots, the illusion and warmth created by the original brand would be lost entirely.
8 Source: Journal of Marketing Research
- Trust and Brand Loyalty: Effective branding can increase trust and brand loyalty by up to 10%, driving repeat purchas and long-term customer relationships. In today’s world, customers actively seek brands they can trust, brands they feel are aligned with their own values, brands that are authentically on their side. Of course, a reliable product is critical as well, but it’s often an expertly crafted brand that gets them to trust, try, buy and come back for more.
9 Source: Psychology & Marketing
- Attention and Recall: Strong branding increases visual attention and recall by 13%10, contributing to better brand affinity. So, what is it that makes your customers notice, believe and act? Well, simply put, see all the above.
10 Source: Marketing Science
It's important to note that the impact of branding on the brain can vary based on factors such as individual differences or neurodiversity, cultural context, and the specific elements of branding being studied. The above provides a glimpse into some quantifiable effects of branding on the brain, highlighting how brand strategies can leverage neuroscience to create stronger connections with consumers. And this is what we do, day in, day out at Early (as well as creating the fancy pictures and sexy words).
About the author:
Neal Fullman is Co-founder and CEO of Early Marketing & Creative. He has worked with brands as diverse as O2, Sony, The FA, Tetley Teas, The International Tennis Federation, GetTaxi and Castlemaine lager, as well as multiple B2B brands looking to differentiate themselves and stand out from the competition.
To talk to us about using the science behind your brand to deliver unforgettable creative that improves commercial performance, feel free to give us a shout.
The FA launched FA Playmaker in association with BT, announced a revamp of its education programme for football coaches and unveiled its new online community for grassroots football. Launch videos and marketing assets produced by Early:
Caterpillar equipment’s global distributor Finning took on a whole new cheeky look for its industrial machinery ad campaigns and web content in the UK, Ireland and Canada......designed and delivered by Early:
Perfume brand, Miss SO, launched a new in-store campaign for its ranges in Europe and US retailers.......range promo videos designed and produced by Early:
Early brought in Thomas Coupland from the FA to run its Sports business, cryptically called Early Sports.....
Flora Hopewell also joined the Early crew, following an internship at Canon, to project manage some of our biggest client accounts.
2020 made everyone think. Really think. It reshaped our audiences, relationships, lifestyle, and social lives. It was the year of the digital revolution.
So, what does this mean for 2021? Will the virtual necessities of 2020 become permanent?
What we do know is that there are already trends you need to be aware of. Here are our top three.
1. Online events will thrive
Virtual classrooms, conferences, gigs, and pub quizzes have become such an important way of accessing education, culture, and live entertainment. It’s our new norm.
We’ve seen the flexibility, accessibility, and economy of taking everything online. There’s no travel required. They’re not expensive to run or attend. And they come with features and interesting perks that cater for higher participation, not just from guests but also from speakers.
These aren’t just great benefits for your existing audiences, they are great for opening up your events to entirely new groups.
If you haven’t invested in this space, why not start now?
2. Personalise, Personalise, Personalise
Without the option of physical consumer experiences, customers are demanding greater personalisation with their digital ones.
Personalised recommendations and communications are standard now, and any brand lacking is falling behind.
Expertise creates trust and credibility, in any form. If you haven’t already, you need to look into capturing and utilising consumer data. You need to understand your audiences’ habits perhaps more than they understand themselves.
Amazon is – obviously – a leading example. How they suggest products to buy and explore, know exactly where you are in your buying cycle, and use this information in meaningful and personal ways leads the way in using data to shape a truly personal shopping experience.
3. Extending shopping experience to social media
It’s already begun in some cases, but 2021 will see the rise of in-app purchasing on social media.
Like Instagram Shops. Users can move through the buying cycle from awareness to purchase without ever leaving the app.
It can be a great way to shop – everything’s in one place. But they need to be careful.
Instagram were first criticised for monetising the platform after introducing ads, and now many see the Shops feature as just another money grabber.
Design your presence as a natural extension of your customer’s social media experience. Rather than the hard sell, it’s more of a casual suggestion thing. When it’s done right, it can be huge.