Are Timesheets Killing Innovation?

It’s interesting how creative professionals have never really found a way to be suitably paid. As a writer, I was asked my rate per word, which I found a particularly distasteful way to measure my value. It felt as if I were selling old books to trendy restaurants by the yard, honoring volume over ideas.

Advertising agencies have long used calculating their employees’ time as an imperfect but acceptable way to measure effort expended, a roughly correlated proxy to value. The biggest problem I have with this practice: It means we consciously or unconsciously focus on being busy and present, rather than on the quality of our thought and the scale of our ideas -- and, above all else, the contribution we make to a business.  If we are truly honest with ourselves, the question becomes: Are we more obsessed with being busy than we are with making a difference?

Of the entire global phone market, Apple makes 93% of the profit, Samsung makes around 5%. It's not for lack of effort; in a typical year, Samsung launches 45 new phones, yet Apple will launch one (or two in a big year).



I'm not an Apple fanboy, but clearly there's something interesting here: the power of focus and omission.

Apple doesn't appear to do much. It's never hijacking the Oscars or promoting tweets. It's not launching user-generated content initiatives, doing special deals for bonus bundled content, or taking over CES..

Apple doesn't make much: no washing machines, vacuum cleaners, limited-edition variants.

Maybe the best companies can partially be defined by what they don't do? 

Maybe the best people can, too?

When most of us start working at a particular company, our initial thoughts are about holding onto a job. We don't focus on changing the world, but on keeping our bosses happy.

And the best way to make our bosses happy is doing everything that they ask us to do, being demonstrably busy. It's primarily a defensive mindset. Nobody ever got fired for being busy and compliant.

So for the first few years of any career, we are dominated by the need to create tangible demonstrations of work. We have to be seen in the office. We need to answer emails quickly on a Friday night, and check emails on vacation. We need to be in every meeting, and say something -- ANYTHING! 

Do we ever grow out of this phase? I think it becomes muscle memory, and most spend their whole career defensively.

Looking to the future or asking existential questions about our industry, our job or ourselves is both the most important thing we can ever do, and the most self-indulgent. Having a beer with someone in a parallel industry, talking to VC firms about how they ideate, hanging around the mall, playing with Periscope: these all feel like luxuries when they should be core parts of advertising thinking. 

So what if we turned everything around? What if we filled in time sheets quickly to keep finance happy, but every month focused on tracking what we did that made a difference to our agency or clients? What if we realigned our entire job focus on doing a few things really well? 

I’d imagine we'd work in totally different ways, in different places, with different people. We'd educate ourselves and invest in being healthy, bright, energetic, positive people and nurture our curiosity.

How about sitting down for 10 minutes a week to think of four really important things that you want to work towards: some longer-term and big-picture, some short-term and massively useful.

And also write down 10 or 20 tasks that in all honesty won't make a big difference to yourselves or your business, and don't do them -- or do them badly and quickly.

I wonder what will happen.

5 comments about "Are Timesheets Killing Innovation?".
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  1. James Hering from The Richards Group, April 9, 2015 at 12:01 p.m.

    Nice article - now I need to run and submit my timesheet :)

  2. STEVE CLIMONS from Crosssover Creative, April 9, 2015 at 12:21 p.m.

    Agree. Unfortunately like everything else today in business, it's all about metrics. Accountability for the exchange. Those who really work towards innovation know it's never about time and for that matter where or when it happens.

  3. Mike Donatello from N/A, April 9, 2015 at 1:05 p.m.

    "Also write down 10 or 20 tasks that in all honesty won't make a big difference to yourselves or your business, and don't do them -- or do them badly and quickly.


    I wonder what will happen."


    In most companies, you'll become unemployed in short order. That's what will happen. ;)

  4. Mike Donatello from N/A, April 9, 2015 at 1:14 p.m.

    Apologies for the poor formatting on my prior post. Not sure how that happened.

  5. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 9, 2015 at 6:59 p.m.

    True, in creative unless you can manage to time it that perfectly when you color inside the lines (metaphor), there is no good time when the idea strikes, like in the shower. Per word ? One of the best VW ads of all time was a one line outline of the bug. Even the artist wouldn't have gotten paid much in the abstract-absurd world of per inch/meter creative value. Some of the payment value has to include volume of assignments and percentage of income from those clients. How many clients retained and gained, experience, market rates, portfolio, personal opinions and creative negotiating. You must also tie yourselves together in some way to take metrics out of the equation and insist on being on the total payroll with benefits. I don't envy the creatives. 

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