Time Tracking for Creative Teams: Four Ways to Do it Successfully

by Sam Petersen
, 6 min read

The first thing that usually comes to mind when we think about time tracking (besides, "Please no!") is that it's for interns, part-time employees, and freelancers. But looking at the bigger picture, it's not hard to realize that time tracking isn't just some lowly practice for those that aren't on salary, it's actually the lifeblood of most client-based businesses, whether it's a consulting firm, an accounting office, an ad agency, or even a corporate creative services team—especially if they're organized as an in-house agency.

Time tracking on a creative team might seem out of place, since the employees are most likely on salary, and, to them, the work they do means more than the time it takes to do it. However, according to a 2014 report on in-house creative teams, nearly half of in-house creative services teams have begun tracking time worked on projects. This post will explore the basics of time tracking, how not to track time, how to track time, and the benefits of time tracking for creative services teams.

"We are an internal agency at a large corporation and bill out to internal groups for services rendered on a monthly basis, therefore time tracking is critical for us. We have a number of custom processes and ad-hoc projects we use to capture, track and report out to Finance each month. We literally could not operate without time tracking."

Kelly Eismann, Sr. Manager Creative Services, Mitchell International Inc

TIME TRACKING 101

Advertising agencies, consulting firms, and other similar client-based teams will typically bill their clients based on the amount of time spent on a project—meaning they have to track how many hours they work for individual clients. Their revenue depends on it. Employees are usually responsible for tracking their own time, often with time sheets or a time tracking software; although, some organizations have a project or account manager, who will manage employees' time sheets and handle a lot of the busy work time tracking requires. An agency or firm's hourly rates will vary depending on the experience of the team member working and the type of work completed during a given time period.

Time tracking in creative services teams closely resembles client-based time tracking practices; only, it serves primarily as a metrics tool rather than an accounting tool. Although, if a creative services team uses a chargeback method, then time tracking could fill a more finance-related role.

"Our creative and print services teams have bought into time tracking and are required to enter their time daily. Because we use an allocated charge-back system that takes into account our costs for administrative overhead, direct employee labor and employee benefits within the departments, they know it is critical that their time be accurately tracked. We also have used the data from time tracking to report on the amount of time certain projects and/or tasks are consistently taking to complete as well as to make comparisons, etc."

- Denise Moore, Traffic Production Manager, Ameritas

HALF-HEARTED TIME TRACKING

According to Les Johnson of Function Point, a Canadian time tracking software company, many creative services teams attempt to track time, but only half-heartedly. Johnson has found that creatives approach time tracking so informally they'll keep track of hours on a piece of scrap paper or even just take mental notes.

"If you're lucky, time is entered on a daily basis. If not, it's probably a last minute activity at the end of the day on Friday and likely less accurate," Johnson writes "Needless to say, the time entered is often a best guess. And if a few extra hours are needed to reach 40, staff tend to inaccurately spread the remaining hours out across the active projects." This approach quickly becomes more of a hindrance than a help to the team.

EFFECTIVE TIME TRACKING

Time tracking can only make a positive impact on a creative team if it's used effectively and consistently. According to a survey by Adobe, 77 percent of creatives say it's very important to them to have complete creative freedom. In order for creative professionals to adopt and strictly follow a practice that takes them away from their creative work, they have to see the purpose of the system.

"'We're not anti-time tracking. We just want it to be easy,'" writes Jackie Schaffer, a creative services consultant, describing an in-house creative team's response to her sermon about time tracking. Schaffer preaches that time tracking must be easy and non-invasive for creative teams to fully adopt it. "It's when time tracking is over-engineered or time intensive that creatives get turned off," Schaffer writes.

Here are four tips for making a time tracking system effective for creative teams:

1. Keep it simple.

Creatives aren't unintelligent, but they want to use their brainpower on their creative work, not on an administrative task. Thus, the easier the time tracking system, the more likely the team will use it. Spreadsheets and manual time updates are anything but simple; they're confusing, fallible, prone to get lost. Look for a user-friendly system—one that doesn't require much thought, but that gives you the metrics you want. Online time tracking tools have become sophisticated and easy to use. Some online tools will even track time spent on specific projects with just one click.

2. Make it visually appealing.

It might seem silly, but creative types are drawn to attractive design. The more a time tracking sheet looks like an Excel sheet, the less they'll want to work with it. "I'm working with creative types so the easier and more aesthetically appealing the software is, the more likely it will be that I won't have to be on top of folks insisting that they remember to use it appropriately," writes a contributor to Quora.com, referring to time tracking software.

3. Include the team.

To ensure a team fully adopts a system or software, the team should be included in the decision-making process. If the managers choose the procedure without the team's input, they can expect resistance from their team members. Hold product evaluation sessions as a team with potential time tracking vendors. Discuss together the pros and cons of different systems until you find a time tracking method or tool that you all agree on. Even after choosing a time tracking approach, managers may need to help team members see the benefits of time tracking—like how it will help prove the value of the team to the company and how it will help with resource and project planning, giving more creative time to the creatives. Creatives will be most willing to adopt a new process if they see how it can make them more creative.

4. Use an online tool.

Printable timesheet templates abound on the Internet, but web-based time tracking has become a convenient and reliable alternative to paper-based methods. Whether the tool is its own software, or part of a comprehensive work management software, creatives can track their work in one tool as soon as they finish a task or project, rather than juggling physical time sheets.

THE BENEFITS OF TIME TRACKING

Time tracking is at the heart of measuring efficiency and outputs. It is also needed to better serve clients, even if you aren't billing them. For example, if you know from your accurate time tracking that banner ads generally take your team two days, then you can better plan priorities, make estimates to clients, and ensure your deadlines upfront. Time-tracking reports can also be a tool that directors take to the company's other executives to show them metrics of what the creative services team is accomplishing. The whole company would then respect the creative services team as a critical member of the organization instead of just a "free service."

"Time tracking has illustrated just how much my team does on a weekly basis. Plus, it provides insight into whose projects require the most time."

Denise Schiller, Copywriter, Advance Auto Parts

Now that I've made time tracking seem glamorous and excellent, let me reiterate that a half-hearted approach to time tracking will not give you what you're looking for. It will give you heartache and stress and will cost your company a lot of time and money. But if it's done right, time tracking can be the difference between a team that works in chaotic disarray and that is perceived as a drive-thru service, and a team that works efficiently, produces high quality deliverables, and can prove their value in the company.

To learn how creative teams are using better work tracking to get more time for creativity, watch the video "How ATB Financial Got Back to Being Creative."

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