The ad industry needs to spend head hours thinking about head hours

Years ago, I was sitting in a briefing with my art director and the account director. Both are amongst the finest I have had the privilege of working with. My art director pointed to the section of the creative brief marked ‘Creative Head Hours’. Next to it was the number 10. To this, he asked the account director, ‘How do you know how long it will take us to find a solution?’

I knew what he meant. One of the most stressful parts of being either a copywriter or art director is you have no idea how long it will take you to crack a brief. You might find a great solution in 10 minutes, or 3 weeks later you might still be coming up empty-handed. And it’s not as if it’s ‘pens down’ when you reach the time allocated to a job – you simply keep going ’til you find an answer.

The account director replied to the question by saying it’s only an estimate, based on similar jobs in the past.

I guess the real problem here is the word ‘similar’. The work a creative ad agency prides itself on is bespoke. And the best work is always truly original, rather than ‘similar’. As we progress further into using new mediums and technologies as part of commercial communication, this imperfect model of remuneration will only be exposed with more faults.

However, ad agencies have a long history of problems charging a fee for its true product. Few would argue that the core product of an agency is its ideas. But in the past we were happy to give them away for a cut of the media spend. Then media went out of house. Since then, most agencies have tried to plug the hole by clawing back money through things like studio hours or the growth and higher involvement of planning departments.

So what’s the answer? Well, I don’t have one (at least not yet, anyway), but I’m sure there are sharper minds than mine thinking about it. In fact, I’m sure it keeps some CFOs awake at night.

There’s been plenty of remuneration models bandied about such as incentive/performance-based ones, retainer ones, project-based ones, hybrid models of all these, and more. Each have their pros and cons.

The real problem is that charging for intellectual property is difficult. It’s hard for a client to buy anything truly original because, at that stage, they’re unsure about what it is they are actually buying. The perception of value is usually only realised once the idea takes on a more tangible form. And if we’re at that point it means that the work has been done and the project is complete, or it’s at least in the later stages of development.

As I’ve said , nobody has found the perfect answer yet. But if you do happen to find it, make sure you charge more than ‘head hours’ for it. A couple of years ago, MDC – the holding company that counts Crispin Porter & Bogusky, 72 and Sunny and Anomaly amongst its many agencies – put out a bounty. They were willing to put up US$1 million to partner with anyone who successfully pitched a new agency model to them.

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