Can an ad agency be successful on a 30-hour week?

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This one’s from the archives. Ben Wren’s September 2016 rumination on an ad agency working a 30-hour week. Enjoy. 


Times are changing and the notion of an 8-5 workday, Monday to Friday, is being contested. Across industries, businesses are beginning to see the value of a shorter 30-hour workweek where staff work in concentrated bursts.

Amazon is the latest firm to investigate the merits of the idea and I firmly believe the advertising industry could benefit from a similar mindset.

With over 20 years spent in the advertising business, I have long held the belief that a long workday not only hampers productivity but produces inferior work. There’s no reason staff can’t work 6 hours a day and contribute to a massively successful agency.

So, why do agencies work long hours? That’s easy: the business model is inefficient. A lot has been written about its core failings, but the bottom line is that only roughly 60% of the workday is actually invoiced to clients (staff spend the rest of the time on coffee breaks, lunch, socialising or having work rejected internally). Billing creative time is a hit or miss affair and clients are wary of being overcharged. Agencies double workloads to make sure they extract value from the relationship as a result.

No one is necessarily at fault. The fact of the matter is that staff drag their feet when faced with the prospect of a long day. But if you flip it around and put the focus on fewer hours but increased productivity, the difference is night and day.

So, what are the main points to consider to make this model work for agencies?

Encourage staff to manage their time better

They’ll end up producing more work. In turn, you’ll bill hours that clients not only don’t contest, but extract real value from.

Forget the notion your staff needs to bill 9 hours a day

Clients won’t buy it. Plus, it hurts productivity and it’s flat out unrealistic.

Choose your clients carefully

Some clients completely understand the importance of a strong relationship and put the correct reward structures in place – other clients dangle financial carrots and promise to buy award-winning work, but always net the agency a large financial loss.

Control your overheads

We all love fancy offices but they come at a cost. With most meetings taking place at the client and increased use of Skype/Google Hangout, consider moving your premises further out of town and making it more employee-focused. The money spent on meeting rooms and an expensive reception can be better utilised elsewhere.

Increase the freelance ratio

Most agencies work with a 10% freelance ratio. That ratio needs to increase to closer to 50%. With a smaller full-time team, you’ll reach internal goals faster while freelance help will enable you to scale a project. (Admittedly, it’s more difficult for larger multinational agencies to accomplish this – they naturally have larger work and global work isn’t always inherently profitable – but a rigorously streamlined approach still holds merit.)

Pay a fair salary – but don’t overpay

There’s a lot of competition in the industry and sometimes you have to get the cheque book out to get the person you want. This is great, but don’t be held to ransom. Attract talent with your big-picture thinking and reward employees with a bonus structure based on performance and agency success.

Choose your employees carefully

A focused and self-motivated person can deliver more work in 6 hours that an unfocused staffer can in 12. But not everyone will buy into this way of thinking, so don’t try and push the idea onto them. Concentrate on finding talent who see the importance of a healthy work/life ratio and will maximise their output when they’re in the office.

Steer clear of “always available” attitude

Unless you’re a corner shop, why should you be open all the time? Make sure your clients understand the hours of the day they can contact your firm and stick to it.

Remember: productivity declines the longer the day drags on

With any luck, your staff will not only be more productive – they’ll be happier too.

In the end, you’re paying people not only for their time in the office but also for the ideas you can extract from them when they’re doing anything but work.

I believe agencies can be successful on a 30-hour work week. In fact, I believe we should strive for the goal. Agencies are only as good as the people in them and to attract the best people, the industry needs a better work/life balance. Some people get a buzz off working 12-hour days, but for a great many young talent, spending all their lives at the office seems counter-productive and downright unappealing.

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