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How to keep a marketing project within budget

How to keep a marketing project within budget

By Hugh Stafford-Smith, UK Managing Director, Maconomy

When Benjamin Franklin remarked that lost time is never found, he was obviously not referring to the complex relationships between marketing agencies and their clients.  But it’s a maxim that both parties should bear in mind when it comes to monitoring the costs of any project.

There will always be cynics about the value of bringing in a marketing consultancy. But, apart from this small group of the suspicious and the sceptical, most companies that have brought in a consultant have appreciated the benefits that their partnership has delivered.

After all, consultants often have finely honed and specific expertise as well as a valuable outside view, uncluttered by internal politics or inert thinking.
But how do you quantify such experience, skill or knowledge?  Valuing human activity is a problem that has occupied politicians and philosophers for centuries.  Since the easiest and most workable solution is to charge for time spent, this is what most agencies have adopted – charging by the hour or by the day.

So whether an agency offers more technical CRM and customer segmentation services, or focuses on creative copy and visuals, it’s easy to monitor, fairly transparent, and makes it easy to calculate return on investment.

Or does it? One of the favourite arguments against using agencies is that paying for hours spent on a project leads to rampant overcharging and an inefficient use of time.  An extra hour here or half day there and costs soon mount up.  The sceptics argue that activities which should take two days suddenly take a week and cost much more as a result.

Meanwhile, consultancies have their own coterie of cynics, who point out perils of over-servicing.  Any agency manager will tell you it’s all too easy to lose track of how many hours or days have actually been spent on a project, in the effort to meet the deadline.  With the result that agencies regularly do more work than they are paid for.

Clearly both sides have much to gain from accurate tracking of time.  Clients get a true breakdown of exactly what they are paying for, and consultancies can create an accurate, profitable, yet competitive business model that is based on real rather than fantasy scenarios. 

But not all time-tracking solutions are created equal.  Consultancies that rely on pieces of paper, a calculator and the mathematical abilities of staff in an attempt to make the time sheet tally with the hours spent on-site are obviously asking for trouble.  Even spreadsheets are time consuming and prone to error. 

These unsophisticated methods are an inefficient use of time, which must either be absorbed by the consultancy, or incorporated into the final client bill that is often late or incomplete thanks to delays caused by manual processing.

All of these can have a negative affect on cash flow, profitability, reputation and, on occasion, the relationship itself. Even sophisticated solutions that do not have the ability to capture hours in real time can result in delayed invoicing and cash flow problems.

All time tracking solutions need to come to terms with one basic problem: their success is entirely dependent on accurate and timely input from users.  The more complicated it is the less likely it is to work effectively. If it makes consultant’s lives unnecessarily complicated they are likely to by-pass it altogether.

Fortunately a new generation of time management solutions are becoming available, that are designed around the operational reality of marketing agency life and offer the ability to track hours spent on a project in real time.  Most large consultancies have some form of project management software in place, which incorporates a time management solution.

But instead of opening up the whole application and then finding their way through to the relevant part of the system, consultants can now simply click an icon in a task bar to record their time, and then carry on with their next appointed task.

It’s easy to forget that most team-members on a marketing project do not interact with the management application on a daily basis.  Project administrators, naturally, rely on it, but the customer segmentation expert, or advertising copywriter have no reason to do so other than to register their hours.  By simplifying the whole process, these new systems make it much more likely that time will be recorded, and therefore billed, accurately.

Furthermore, creatives and analysts who touch on a number of projects simultaneously, can move between tasks far more easily.

Rather than waiting until the end of the week to fill in a timesheet - still common practice - even the smallest increments of time can be registered as tasks are completed.  It gives consultants an immediate and accurate record of what they did and when – rather than relying on memory, or ‘sent items’ in their email system.

The high degree of granularity that can be achieved is also an advantage.  Professional service firms that have the ability to charge by the hour are more attractive to prospective clients than those who can only charge by the day or half-day.

However, before investing in a time management solution, all consultancies need to be clear on the benefits it will deliver to their specific circumstances.  Although larger firms who run multiple projects concurrently with a high head count are the most obvious beneficiaries, smaller firms can also gain from canny investments in the right technology. 

In addition to the improvements in cash flow, and the more open relationship with clients, deploying this kind of solution can demonstrate a marketing firm’s commitment to both its own and its clients’ future.  It offers reassurance that its growth strategy is sustainable – and demonstrates a commitment to providing best value that can only impress a selection committee.

In today’s service-oriented economy, time has become one of the most valuable commodities available - and monitoring and recording it accurately has become a business imperative.

As time-tracking solutions have grown in sophistication, the benefits they offer have become proportionately greater, to the advantage of both marketing agencies and their clients.  Never has Benjamin Franklin’s most famous phrase seemed more appropriate: time really is money.

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