Brand agency rates (and why they mean absolutely nothing to you).
Dear Google, my kitchen tap is dripping. It's not a huge problem, but it is annoying. So, being the man of the house I decided to get another man in. I contacted a few respectfully branded plumbers to see if they had a minimum charge for addressing such a basic of basic problems in the plumbing arena. Those that decided to reply to my email told me that there's a minimum call-out charge of £90 (+VAT) and £90 per hour thereafter not including parts. I did ask if they anticipated fixing the problem within an hour and if parts were needed, what's the worst-case scenario? None of them could say for absolute certainty on either topic. It was suggested that I pay £90 for an inspection and take it from there. £90 to inspect a £150 dripping tap. Can't we simply facetime the tap?
How on earth did he expect me to buy into this, when the specifics on cost were left very 'open', with so many 'blanks', in a 'blank cheque' sort of way. The conversations I had with 3 plumbers over as many days went a little something like this:
Me: How much to fix a dripping tap?
Plumber: It's £XX for a call out and then £XX an hour thereafter plus parts Me: How many hours will it take?
Plumber: Not sure. Me: Will you be able to fix it on your first visit?
Plumber: Hmm, hard to say. Me: What's the most I can expect to pay for any replacement parts?
Plumber: I can't honestly say for certain. Me: But you will be able to fix it?
Plumber: Absolutely. At some point, yes.
I can't disagree with any of the replies as he was dealing with an unknown quantity. But was he? A dripping tap? Surely he's fixed more dripping taps in his lifetime than I've drawn hot baths. And with this wealth of history and experience under his utility belt, would it not be possible to say, within a certain probability, that a dripping tap can be fixed within X hours and with £X being your worst-case spares cost. You'd think so, but evidently not.
He's failed to see that in my mind there's a top value I'm willing to pay to stop this £150 tap from dripping. His hourly rate means absolutely nothing to me (or anyone else for that matter) because he can't quantify hours. His hourly rate only serves to validate his worth. The question remains 'What will it cost me to get the results I need?'.
Why as professionals do we feel the need to validate our expertise by putting a price tag on a mere 60 minutes of the day? Hourly rates seem to exist only as a means to track our own profitability or measure self-worth.
The hourly rate ego
Naomi Campbell, (the supermodel diva in case you're not from this planet) was known for not getting out of her bed for less than $10,000. Was that the equivalent to my plumbers £90 call out charge? Could declaring the value of a meager 60 mins of your day be considered a little egotistic? Whenever I find yourself in the company of other designers, they'll eventually get on the subject of their hourly rate. "So how much do you charge per hour?". "What's your day rate?". It's awful. 'Comparison' is entirely about Ego. And regardless of what you think you're worth per hour, it means diddly squat to your clients, because they're going to squeeze until you squeak in a price war with everyone else at the table.
As individuals, the value we place on our time is really just a cost we create. In fact, it's possibly the industry we work within that has the most influence.
Brand agency rates
The DBA provides a rates survey each year within their Annual review that provides an overview of how London brand agencies big and small charge their time. If you're a DBA member you can view the brand agency and graphic designer rates survey here: www.dbareview.org.uk
For a brand agency or any service-based business, our time is our main utility and so shouldn't we be aware of how much it's worth? After all, it's limited in supply if you consider a typical working week. 'Time' to us is like wood to a carpenter. It's a material we use to create something with a much higher value. The cost of the oak used by the carpenter is a cost only to the carpenter. What the carpenter creates with that oak is going to have a much higher value depending on the level of this craftsmanship.
So maybe 'Time is money' after all? Attributed originally to Benjamin Franklin back in 1784, the same phrase can be traced further back to ancient Greek times. The statement essentially covers the notion that time wasted, is money wasted. The more time you can account for, the more profitable you'll be.
OK, so if we're billing hours, how many hours should we bill?
How long will it take?
How long is a piece of string? Well, a research scientist once told me it was 'Twice the distance from the middle of the end'. What does this tell us? Nothing. You can't predict the length of string, but there's a formula here that assures you that it's measurable and there's as much of it as you need.
Creativity is potentially an endless process.
Can creativity be measured? I don't think so. Sure, there are design and branding awards that brand agencies enter where a panel of judges will determine how creative something is, but they're simply agreeing to agree based on their own perception of what 'creative' is. Creative isn't 'higher', 'longer' or 'faster'. 'Creative' is more of an ideal, a standard you strive for and one person's perception of what creative is, will vary as much as their perceived value of it.
“Rome, from Mount Aventine,” by J.M.W. Turner sold for 47.5 million. "Onement" by Barnet Newman sold for 43.8 million. Both pieces are certainly 'creative' but notably different in complexity, an aspect that has caused much debate over the value.
Should they be valued differently? How long did each piece take to paint? How much work went into each piece? To arrive at a result? And which is more creative? Isn't Newman's just a white line on a blue canvas? Isn't Turners just a copy of a landscape? Can one be appreciated more, offer more through interpretation? Art will always spark debate.
OK, forget 'creative' for a moment and let's talk about 'funny'. The only measure of funny is how hard you laugh. If the result you're looking for is 'to laugh', would you question how funny a joke was by how long it took to write it? Or how long it took to tell it? How much would a comedian cost per hour? If you had to commission them to write a joke, a real ab shaker, how much would they charge? And what guarantee would they offer that it would make your sides split? As brand designers selling 'creativity' I think we're dealing with a similar level of trust and commitment to produce applaudable results.
An intangible quality such as 'creative' cannot be measured. It can't be measured in time, or volume and so should the concept of paying for it at a predetermined hourly rate be laughed at?
'Doing' hours vs 'Thinking' hours
For brand agencies, there are possibly two measurements of time. 'Doing' and 'thinking'. 'Doing' hours can more easily be assigned an exact value. 'Doing' something is very linear and procedural. 'Doing' something get's boxes ticked.
'Thinking' hours are harder to quantify. There's no well-trodden pathway or process that will lead you to a result. The process of 'Thinking' is largely exploration, dead-ends and making mistakes.
For me, the time required for 'doing' actually distracts me away from the more important 'Thinking' hours. I generally don't like doing. It's not a very creative state of mind to be in. My expertise lie in 'Thinking', it's where I can create the most value. 'Doing' takes time, but 'Thinking' requires space.
Not all hours are equal
Can I honestly say that every hour that I spend 'Thinking' has equal value? I don't think I can. Some 'Thinking' hours will always be more fruitful than others. If I'm to follow the 'Time is money' concept, then surely I should be charging for those hours where I was thinking (thinking hard) on a client's branding, but failed to produce anything of real value.
Can I bill the client for each dead-end and every 'close but no cigar'?
And if I was to charge for my 'Thinking' honestly and fairly, would it be considered unfair to charge a client a full day of 'Thinking' for an idea that I produced within the first hour of the day?
No. Because my clients aren't buying hours, they're buying results. Whether or not we arrived at that result in the very first hour of thinking or the night before the presentation, the value is in the result. The actual 'Thinking' hours used to deliver the result is a cost that's entirely mine.
For me, the estimating aspect of any branding project, as I'm sure it is for any company is the most delicate and crucial part to get right. It's a moment where both the client and the designer need to mutually agree not on price, but on value.
In those instances where I find myself locked in a poker game of 'guess my budget' with a client, I'll have little option but to call them out with the question "What's the value in getting this done right?".
This can be quite empowering. Their answer will not only tell me how much they value they place on the exercise, but also how much they perceive the value of my expertise.
If there's a huge discrepancy in each others' value perception, then I've found it's best if we both part company. I can say based on experience any client who wrestles you into lowering your value, will continue to expect more for less from that point onwards. The relationship is doomed and one-sided. The same goes for free-pitching and competitive pricing. The only person who wins in a price war is the customer.
Creativity needs space
For a brand agency, producing the initial branding concepts is the most crucial stage of any branding project. It's where ideas are born, avenues explored, no stone left unturned, no single idea laughed out if the room. So don't stifle your brand agency too early – allow sufficient time for this creative journey.
There have been times when I've delayed a presentation because, although I've felt that what we'd produced hit the mark, it was at best 'comfortable'. And comfortable is never good. Comfortable means that you've seen it before in one guise or another, instantly acceptable, familiar, inoffensive and industry tried and tested. Nope, I was looking for something that would make the client uncomfortable, get them shuffling in their seat, liking and doubting, getting excited and scared over what they're looking at. Just because in my mind I'd prescribed a healthy measure of time to produce a result, I just wasn't convinced I was there yet.
A better all-round proposition
From a client's standpoint, isn't agreeing on the value of a result by far a more comforting, reassuring proposition? By not mentioning hourly or daily design rates, we're not locked into a timeframe. The client can relax and enjoy the creative journey without having to keep one eye on the meter. It's then down to the branding agency to ensure that they have both the resources, and capacity to deliver a worthy result, without feeling like the client has devalued their 'Thinking', or that they're 'over-servicing' the client. Collectively it's a win, win.
Brand agencies are slowly waking up to this idea of agreeing on a value over day rates. The Brand agency mentality is changing as clients demand more transparency. The photo library giant Getty images are notorious for pricing licensed images based on complex usage algorithms have since abandoned the licensed purchasing model altogether, with brand agencies everywhere breathing a sigh of relief.
There are creatives out there such as photographers, artists, illustrators who value their work on the same licensing principle. We habitually commission illustrators for a branding projects who, not only want payment for producing the artwork, but also charge usage rights. Yep, brand agencies can expect to be charged to use the image they just paid them to create, based on how long and where it was going to be used. You'll find this is true for any illustrator worth their salt. Don't say I didn't warn you. Oh, and then there are the agents fees.
We all make judgment calls based around value every day. Is it really worth the price tag? Can I get it cheaper anywhere else? Can I do it cheaper myself?
The ending to the dripping tap story is that I had to do it myself. I had no other alternative. The information the plumber provided just wasn't enough for me to make a judgment on value. Despite his many years of expertise, accrued knowledge and plumbing insight, he was unable to say with any level of certainty "You know what mate, I'll fix that drip for £XX, come what may. Do we have a deal?".