Jon Williams is calling for a better way to charge for ideas
Jon Williams is calling for a better way to charge for ideas
A view from Jon Williams

We need to find a better way to buy and sell creative

Ideas are timeless. Some might form in a moment, while others will gestate over a longer period of time – a distinction that has no bearing on whether an idea is good or bad. So why does adland insist on charging for ideas by the hour?

It was years ago. But I can remember the argument very clearly. People around us had sort of stopped what they were doing and had started subtly earwigging as it heated up. They were taking sides. Like you will in a minute.

My FD at the time (who is now a very good friend) was basically trying to do his job and insisting that I tell him how long it takes to have a creative idea. To the minute. He had his forecasting model to do, and he thought that the timesheets were wildly inaccurate… which of course they were.

I was insisting right back that there is no way you can possibly quantify how long it takes to have an idea. Good or bad. So he could make up whatever he wanted for his model because selling hours doesn’t work on any level.

And I still stand by that. Can anyone tell me how long an idea takes?
Who’s side would you have taken?

There are so many conflicting agendas competing for hours anyway. Client service will always rightly push for more customer satisfaction (sorry guys, can we go again?). Finance will always be a slave to the margin (and literally blind to the unrecoverable weekend hours being burnt).

And strategy is inexplicably considered in a linear fashion and will have to perfect a "creative brief" (because the client version is somehow wrong?) before the creatives are given it.

Which puts further pressure on the ideation time. And then procurement will always look at agency costs and challenge both the rate of, and number of, hours because they will always be layered, loaded and padded. (Yet tellingly, down the corridor the same procurement department will order 1,000 Biros at a fixed price without ever enquiring as to the hourly rate of the guy who puts the tops on – that’s a separate debate).

What have we done to this industry? How have we built a system where the remuneration model gets more favourable the longer you take to crack an idea? A system where none of the big creative networks has made a decent profit in years. Even though the clients think they charge too much. And yet one which no one seems interested in blowing up.

If you strip it all back, the thing we all sell is the output of the creatives. Ideas. And ideas don’t do hours. Scriptwriters or artists or sculptors or architects do not generally charge by the hour.

On a more mercantile level, Apple or Tesla or Samsung don’t sell their ideas by the hour either.

Ideas can come fast, or they can come slow. But come they must, and they have great value.

But we need to charge for them in a more appropriate way. Now is the perfect time to lean in and get engaged.

Covid has pushed such a massive reset button in business and in society and started the job for us. Clients have changed their business models, their go-to-market strategies, their supply chain logistics.

Everything is up in the air so we need to change ours too.

Covid has finally forced some creative businesses to actually trust their teams. Forced them to adopt technology that would have taken years to organically percolate into their business.

Technology that has allowed us as a business to effectively connect distributed teams who are tired of being chained to desks, who don’t need baristas and pool tables to excel and who certainly don’t want to work weekends anymore. We have seen that our teams can create great work on their terms and in their own time. Whether that’s in the agency… or not.

Covid has also shown the industry that it can expand its creative footprint. Exactly because of the technology above, enabling anyone to work from anywhere, we can all now finally welcome divergent thinking into our businesses. Thinking from the minds of people who wouldn’t be able to afford to live within commuting distance of London. Or New York. Or Singapore. We have truly overcome geographic limitations and embraced the connected world. What a beautiful moment for equality?

Covid has also forced us to listen more. And as you listen, you will hear vocal opinions about the health and future of our business from clients, agencies (indie and network), the consultancies, the VCs and the holding groups, new and old. Creatives, however, up until now, have had no voice in any of this. How can that be? Without them, none of us has anything to sell!

While the whole business is "turning itself off and on again", it’s the perfect moment to redefine how we buy and sell creative. If we get it right, we can start an industry-wide shift in power, culture, motivation and value, back to ideas and those amazing people who have them.

But how? How do we measure value? Share price shifts? Sales? Brand health? Or more VC-style business metrics? Do we licence IP like the music business, instead of giving it all away? Do we
sell more consultatively? Is it all about NFTs? Fixed fees – what if we took the risk on our books? What if we behaved more like Hollywood? Or what if we treated ideas like products? Or even software (user licence anyone)?

We’re all dealing with a hell of a lot right now. But if we don’t get this bit right… what the future of the business looks like is just an academic exercise. No-one thinks what we have works. Agency-side or client-side. I’m in. Who else? Who cares enough to want to change it?

We need a better way to charge for ideas, or the cost will be more than any of us want to pay.

Jon Williams is founder of The Liberty Guild.