Why PR agencies should stop doing timesheets and start charging for results
PR agencies can help to build and protect a brand, but are they working strategically? Phoebe Netto writes about why some PR agencies need to ditch the timesheets and focus on actual outcomes instead.
Throughout my years working in the world of PR, I have discovered an unspoken rule: the longer it takes, the better. The more people, hours and meetings it took to get a job done, the more the agency could charge their client.
Instead of providing efficient service and focusing on results, agencies were financially incentivised to take the longest possible route. This would result in meetings about meetings, WIPs about WIPs and more hours ‘researching’ than spent actually doing the hard work of getting stories published.
If work didn’t result in outcomes, that was simply the way it was. The client would be charged for the time regardless, even if that time was spent sending out an un-newsworthy media release to time-poor journalists who would never in their wildest dreams consider running a story from it.
Instead of only focusing on strategic work that mattered and would generate results, activity and outputs were always the goals – over and above actual outcomes.
Paying for experience, not time
In my own agency, we don’t do timesheets. Our clients don’t get timesheets and I don’t request them from my team. Instead, we focus on KPIs and outcomes. If I take 10 minutes to get a great result, that doesn’t downplay my ability or experience. In fact, speed simply reveals the years of experience spent getting really good and efficient at whatever task is at hand. And equally, if I have to spend three times what we scoped out for a client in the initial costing, then that’s my concern. The client shouldn’t be charged for a lack of speed.
A lot of agencies use timesheets because it’s easy. It takes the pressure away from results and towards the mentality of, ‘But look how long we spent trying.’ The problem is, this mindset doesn’t help the client’s bottom line and it certainly doesn’t build their credibility, reputation and awareness.
Instead of paying a PR agency for their time, clients should be paying agencies for their experience, expertise, ability to execute strategic advice, knowing what direction to take the work. They should also be paying them for knowing the best way to spend their time, which involves knowing when to say no.
With a timesheet model, saying no simply means reducing my billable hours and reducing my income potential. In that situation, what incentive do I have to say no, even if it’s clear that the idea is a bad one? With an outcomes-based model, saying no is part of the service.
The problem with ‘presenteeism’
Timesheets encourage people to see their value and worth in the hours they do. This eventually results in chronic presenteeism, where people try their very best to appear like they’re working longer days and sticking around far beyond their contracted schedule. Timesheets become more than a way to track costs for the client – they become a way for people to prove their worth to their boss.
At an extreme level, this can result in people coming to work when they’re sick, scheduling their emails so it appears that they’re working later and longer, or even heading out for dinner before popping back into the office at 9pm to prove they’re the hardest worker of them all. None of this does anything to improve client outcomes or achieve better results. It simply results in burnout and decreased productivity. People are prone to inflate their hours and round up, instead of simply focussing on getting the results they need.
Timesheets and presenteeism ignore the reality of the way human brains work. There’s a lot of creative thinking that naturally takes place outside of work hours, but how could an agency possibly timesheet an idea that came about on a run or in the shower or while watching TV? Humans are flexible and adaptable, but timesheets would have you believe that any and all ideas must be rigidly executed in the office during the workday. In a creative industry such as PR, that’s simply not how our minds work.
Advice for agencies making the switch
If you’re an agency looking to make the shift away from timesheets, first of all, take a step back and look at the ultimate outcomes you’re trying to achieve for your clients. Allow yourself to think about the time that’s involved, but don’t make that the client’s issue – that’s yours to think about.
Consider the level of experience and strategic advice that’s required to complete your work and put a value on that. You might factor your time into the calculations, but present it to the client based on outcomes and the results you’ll be bringing to the table.
Next, set the right KPIs for your team so that client success is their success. If it takes your team a mere 15 minutes to get a brilliant result, that’s not because it was a fluke or because they’re lazy. That brilliant result is actually a result of many years of hard work and experience to know how best to spend that 15 minutes.
Timesheets are useful for capacity planning and tracking, including making sure people are not over-servicing under servicing. They can also come into play in issues management, crisis comms or government relations-based comms. However, even in situations like these, there are still ways to charge the project based on milestones, projects or outcomes. You just need to find a way to ensure that the price is right and put clear boundaries in place.
No matter how you look at it, measuring out every single second of your day in seven or 15-minute increments to use as a billing arrangement for clients simply doesn’t make sense – especially if those hours don’t match up results. It’s high time we learned to rid ourselves of timesheets, presenteeism and the inability to say no. Let’s focus on results instead.
Phoebe Netto is the founder of Pure Public Relations.