Lies, Damned Lies, and Timing Sheets

People often ask why I charge based on word count, and not on the time it takes me to actually do the work.

Well, there are plenty of reasons - for a start, charging for content based on quantity just feels right, I still make it as good as I possibly can, but it means if you need lots of content, fast, I can turn it around more quickly for you without being left out of pocket.

But it's also partly because I've worked in an agency environment in the past, and I've seen what happens when profits become linked to time, rather than to the content itself.

Case in point, in one agency I worked at (which will remain nameless) the time taken to produce each page of content was estimated down to the hundredth of a minute - yes, that's 'estimated' to within less than a second, with no margin allowed for error.

While I was in a middle-management role at this agency, they decided to reorganise the way these estimates were calculated, to more accurately reflect the way the agency worked at the time - the existing method had been in place for years and wasn't exactly spot-on, given the way SEO had changed, and so on.

So the managers all got called into a meeting room, where a senior manager had come up from London to guide us through the new system - which, he stressed, was not about saving time, but simply allocated the existing time in new ways.

Each client contract had been transferred to the new system, he explained, with the same amount of time given to them as had previously been the case - the new system was not about saving time.

Oh, and the entire admin time allowed per client (a generous 7.5 minutes per week) had been removed. Any questions?

That's 7.5 minutes per client, in an agency where the typical writer had up to ten clients at any one time. Conservatively, that's 60 minutes per person per week that had simply been wiped off of the perceived workload.

At the time, I had a deputy, four office-based staff and two home-based team members. That's basically a working day per week that had been scrubbed from what my team were perceived as doing.

And that's the problem. Pay me for ten articles, and if it takes me ten hours to find the right source material, that's my problem. Pay me for five hours, and we've got problems.

In real terms, I think we both know I'd end up picking up the slack anyway - but at least when you're paying by the article, as long as they're up to the desired quality, you don't have to take my word for it that they took me two hours, or four hours, or whatever - you've got the content you wanted, at the agreed price, and that's all that really matters.

One more thing - I still freelance for several agencies, and I can honestly say, they're not all crooks! The example above was probably spurred on in part by the onset of the recession, but it's a perfect example of why time alone is a terrible way to assess how much work has been done.

On a slightly related note, this post was inspired in part by the Twitter project Things You Hear In Agencies - follow the hashtag #ThingsYouHearInAgencies or just follow @AgencyQuotes for similar stories in 140 characters or fewer.