Commercials and creatives: finding the right balance

Image for Rebecca Cash By Rebecca Cash

It’s easy to think that commercial and creative skills are poles apart, so much so that many agencies keep the roles separate.  The reality is, however, that for many creatives, commerciality is an integral part of their role. Especially in smaller agencies, where a creative team member is expected to wear a lot of hats.

What do I mean by this? Well, working as a creative brings its own set of pressures. Every job they do is judged, critiqued, amended and evaluated, both internally and by clients. And often by committee. So there’s an immediate expectation they will deliver outstanding or even award-winning work. But this must be done within the confines of the hours they’ve been allocated. Necessary, but not always easy.

Plus, they are often asked to consult on strategy and how to navigate new business wins, at the same time as servicing existing clients (something as agency leaders you need to remember when you’re looking at utilisation rates, which I’ll explore more below).

Most creatives work with a wide range of clients, so they have to know and remember brand guidelines and tone of voice for them all… and get it right every time. They also need to have a good, in-depth knowledge of each client’s focus area (such as health and beauty for one project, mechanical engineering for the next).

They need to deliver clever straplines and superb content without a single mistake, design and artwork for all different mediums and work on pitches for presentations.

And that’s just a few hats. Some others include:

  • Managing freelancers and third parties
  • Reviewing other team members’ work
  • Developing and growing the team
  • Client liaison
  • Social media strategy and creative work
  • Estimating time for jobs
  • Client research
  • Company growth and social strategy
  • Managing resource and scheduling work
  • Internal branding and marketing

Essentially, creatives aren’t just machines who turn up and produce. They contend with an awful lot of expectations on a daily basis.

So, from a commercial perspective, how can you help?

Be fair about utilisation

You need to keep this supremely realistic. While you might want and hope that every member of your team is going to be 80% utilised, you need to look at what each individual can actually deliver on top of their internal tasks. Remembering each person has different responsibilities. Likewise, you can’t ask a designer to be doing 80% of billable hours if you’re not giving them the work to achieve that.

All that happens here is they spend longer on a job than is really needed, just to hit their utilisation targets. It’s also a good idea for agencies to have a process in place if creatives find themselves with nothing scheduled in – such as a bank of tasks that could be dipped into during lulls in other work. It’s worth noting that average agency utilisation is around 65%.

Managing resource

This is always a juggling act for agencies but it’s a hugely important one to get right if you want to get the very best from your creatives. They don’t want to turn up to work and spend time twiddling their thumbs waiting for a brief. Or suddenly be told they’re working on a massive and hugely important project they haven’t had time to think about or prepare for. Having a robust booking system that relies on an accurate estimate and supports all the details of the project is essential.

And, however tempted you might be or pressurised by a client, don’t fall into the trap of always accommodating a last-minute deadline. Shifting other, pre-booked work around brings its own set of ramifications and you’ll irritate your organised client in order to appease your less-organised one. You can’t expect your creatives to stop and start something else, when they’ve already immersed themselves in a job. Brains, and people, simply don’t operate like that.

Carefully managing projects

With this in mind, it’s important for creatives to realise that clients are only paying for a certain amount of time and expertise. Agencies aren’t in business to give these away for free, no matter how important building and maintaining client relationships may be.

This means making sure they fully understand and agree with the estimate, asking them to raise any issues early in the process if they think the work can’t be delivered in the agreed time. And flagging if things are taking longer than expected. Especially when it comes to those final amends that sound small but take forever.

Good capacity planning

Knowing what’s coming into your business and getting your estimates right is crucial for capacity planning.

Making sure your estimates are accurate means you know your creatives have got just the right amount of time and space to actually be creative. Which is key to them producing work your clients will love. And you’ve got the resource to deliver great work without overstretching your teams. This also informs decision making around recruitment – do you need some temporary freelance help to deliver some projects, or do you need to hire?

It’s also key to remember that your estimated hours may well be different to your quote. The estimate is internal and should be a true reflection of how long you think the job will take. The quote is what you propose to charge your client for this time.

Setting boundaries

And making these clear in the scope of your work! Work closely with your creatives to make sure that what they’re promising the client is actually feasible. This includes amends: while you might include a ‘reasonable’ set of amends in your quote, these need properly assessing when they come in to make sure the time is available and booked. Chucking amends at a creative who has moved onto a new project won’t win you any thanks and will result in them being rushed through (resentfully!)

Don’t take a casual approach to amends

Amends need an official collation process, too, to keep them as efficient as possible. Ask for one set of amends sent from one person from the client organisation, rather than a whole slew of emails sent by different people – which can often contradict each other. Or you could ask for a call – a 15-minute conversation to go through amends is often much more productive than a lot of back-and-forth emails.

Make sure amends are included as part of your timeline – never promise to turn them around in under 48 hours. And clients need to adhere to their side of the timeline too. If they miss their slot, then amends will need to be rebooked in, not ‘fitted in’.

Consider how to support team development

For senior creatives, part of the role is about growing and developing the team. You can support this by firstly making sure they have the time and scope built into their working day to account for this (coming back to realistic utilisation).

Also, you can ask them to spend time understanding their team’s development goals, where they find they work harder and how they are spending their time. This will help you to identify where they need more guidance, support or additional training.

It’s ideal for creatives to know what’s coming up not just in the next day or so, but in the next week and month if possible. This helps with their development, thinking and planning and knowing when they can ask to be involved in training programmes and pitches, for example. It gives them their own personal KPIs, so they can work towards things like upskilling and internal work.

Creativity and commerciality shouldn’t feel an awkward alliance. Running a creative agency must be done on a profitable basis to stay competitive. Creatives will produce compelling and exciting work – but need to do this within the confines of timings and budgets. This can lead to frustrated creatives, and equally frustrated agency leaders who don’t get why they don’t ‘get it’. Instead, keeping them in the commercial loop and making sure you’ve got your resource and capacity planning tightly under control can help with what feels like a balancing act at times… and that’s where success lies.

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