We heard an interesting fact from an agency principal not long ago. He said that his ad agency had been losing about $100,000 per year in billable hours through downtime. Understand, he wasn't talking about mistakes or creative people spending more time than could be billed, or time lost through bad input by account executives. He was talking about time his people were not billing because there was nothing to bill. It’s a real shame. Agencies should prepare for downtime, because it happens to all of us to some degree… and that time can be used in a number of productive ways. Following are some tips you may want to consider.
Always have an agency project or two in mind and on the boards that can be worked on during downtime. Most agencies don’t even think of such projects until they are faced with downtime. Develop strategic input for several agency projects in advance so that creative people can move seamlessly into agency work during downtime situations. These could be anything from agency promotional materials to writing an agency blog entry to developing a product idea.
Form a new business committee in the agency. Having a designated committee, with rotating participation, allows everyone to have a vested interest in the new business process. During downtime situations, your people will be more likely to move into new business speculative work than if you spring it on them unannounced. Include “we can start on these new biz efforts” items in your pipeline discussions, and prompt development at each meeting. Record all new business development time, of course! You may be able to bill some of it when you win the account.
When it seems that you are entering a down period, you should make it a habit to do extra work for clients. Instead of allotting, say, four hours to do a comp, let the art director have six hours instead. Clients get the benefit of the extra work on their projects, and it also gives your agency a chance to do something valuable to your ongoing strategic partner relationships… turn projects into programs. The client gives you a project to do and, through asking questions, understanding the business issues around the project and doing a little research, you offer the client an integrated, more complete and effective marketing program. Maybe the client won’t buy the full program from your agency this time, and maybe they’ll buy a part of it—or, they may buy the whole shooting match! One thing is certain: regardless of what the client may accept, you have just worked your way into being perceived as a smarter agency. Next time, they may choose to give you a larger, more sophisticated project to work on.
Another best use of downtime is to have client reading materials around the agency. Trade magazines, research, client literature and other client-specific data help your people to learn more about the client’s business. Remember, informed employees do better, more on-target work. And this study time could spur ideas you can proactively propose to clients, rather than waiting for them to call you. Again, it makes your agency look smarter and more strategic than the next agency down the road.
Finally, use pro bono projects as downtime fillers. Pro bono projects offer your creative team some fun work as a change from their more specific (and micro-managed) client work. Try to work with just one or two pro-bono clients per year, and use downtime to brainstorm new ideas or develop some already in your plan.
To those agencies fortunate enough not to have seen downtime in a couple of years, congratulations. But be prepared for possible reduced project flow in the near future. We are past due for some fluctuations or even a more severe correction in the stock market, and businesses may adjust spending and budget plans as a result. Downturns are not pleasant, especially if they come after a long period of growth. Having an organized plan for downtime is a good idea, whether you use it for agency projects, spec work or more strategic work for clients. It will make you more efficient, and make your people happier. And you’ll already have the habit of productively filling time with development projects, just when development could become critical.
See also: Super-Recharge: Why Downtime Is Critical