Running a Wildly Successful Creative Agency Without Timesheets

We sat down with MediaMonks Founder and COO Wesley ter Haar, to drink a couple beers and find out how they run a successful agency without timesheets

MediaMonks interview with 10,000ft

MediaMonks is a creative integrated production company and a powerhouse in the industry, with work recognized by advertising and craft awards around the world, including 100+ Lions and over 200 FWAs.

The best part? No one at MediaMonks has ever filled out a timesheet.

What wizardry does it take to run such a successful creative agency without timesheets? We sat down with Founder and COO Wesley ter Haar (and his legendary beard), to drink a couple beers, sip some mezcal, and find out.

For people who don’t already know, what do you do at MediaMonks?

I'm one of the founders and run the operational side of our business, although my colleagues would probably say I used to run the operational side of the business while other people do the actual work nowadays.

From our start, we’ve always been a people-driven company, focused on bringing really talented people together, making sure we get them enough interesting projects, and then collectively trying to execute the work at the very highest levels in an efficient manner.

We're an operationally focused company, but not in ways that limit creative ambition. That, I think, is a hugely interesting balancing act. What’s too much operational workflow? What’s too little? We're always interested in finding that balance.

MediaMonks office

How do you manage that tension between creativity and operational constraints?

Lots of running around and lots of shouting!

No, honestly, I prefer too little process over too much. We try and look at it more organically. We try and get problems to be solved by teams. I think there’s a huge value in having solutions be carried by the team themselves instead of feeling like it's very top-down process — especially as you start scaling. We sometimes accrue a bit of operational stress to see what solution a team comes up with, instead of trying to preempt operational stressors.

It's a real balancing act, but I do prefer thinking about a company as an organism, how organisms evolve because of certain influences and stressors, and how that makes them stronger. That's the way I like to think about running the company, which means I'm okay with a bit of scar tissue. I’m okay with a bit of friction as long as it doesn't impact the talent in a long-term manner or impact our clients. So, we try to make sure those things can happen without having negative effects that ripple out.

Why don’t you use timesheets at MediaMonks?

Timesheets never made much sense to me. In reality, you're getting a very flawed data set. People are being forced into lying to their employer, because we all have super bad days. I own the place and I even have them.

And even if a company is super up-front about not using that data in a negative way, people still feel forced to fill in their eight hours or seven hours or six hours or whatever, depending on your utilization rates. So, I think it starts with a bad relationship between employer and employee that’s based on a lie you tell each other. For me, it never felt like it made much sense.

It initially started out from an idealistic perspective, and as we started scaling we had to think about what that actually means. The number one piece of feedback we would always get from people is, "You can't have 20 people without timesheets. Oh, you can't have 50 people without timesheets." And it would just go up and up and up as we grew.

What’s been really interesting is, as we've gone from it being an idealistic component, it's actually made us a great operational company. At our scale, we need a lot of data, but we don't want it to come from this faulty data set. We want it to come from a better, cleaner set of information.

A lot of our current workflow and tooling is to make sure we get the data we need to be smart about value, pricing, and utilization, but in a fairer way. I think it produces a higher quality of work as well. Using 10,000ft has been a really key component of that.

So, that's how we think about timesheets. It's not that we don't want that information, we just don't want to put that pressure on our talent. We don't want to force them into a weird relationship with us as a company, where we're saying, "Tell us what you did the last eight hours." That's the big idea behind it.

How do you get accurate data without time tracking?

I have to give credit to our operations team because they’re definitely more focused on it than I was when I ran the day-to-day operational side.

Every full project that hits the organization starts from a single source of truth. That single source of truth combines several best-of-breed tools, 10,000ft being one of them. The actual resourcing happens in 10,000ft, which is updated by operations leads and project managers on a daily basis. That data all comes back into our project overviews, our status overviews, our wash-ups, and our metrics.

So, the people that are actually doing the work don't do any admin. The admin gets done by the process of creating the project, and our operations people who are responsible for making the team successful. It still gets us a very similar data set, I just think it's a cleaner data set that puts a lot less negative effort towards our talent.

MediaMonks sound work

Agencies typically focus on timesheet data to make resourcing and planning decisions. What key information is your operations team looking at?

Honestly, the simple rule we’ve been able to scale MediaMonks from is, we need to deliver really good work. We're less focused on telling people how much time they have. We don't say, you have eight hours, or 24 hours, or you have 60 hours. We’re much more focused on delivering the best possible quality within the deadline that’s available . So, there's a shared ambition. We have X amount of time as a group, and we want to get a certain result. How are we going to make that happen operationally within that time box?

We’re less focused on the amount of hours we spent because it’s up to the commercial team to make sure we get paid in relation to the value we're creating. We're a high quality company, so that comes at a certain premium but we're also not trying to nickel and dime our talent or clients to squeeze out more margin— an hour more, an hour less isn’t what drives our business model.

Our very simple rule is, if we do the work well, we should be able to sell it well, and we should be able to have ongoing relationships with recurring clients. That's our core focus.

Out of that comes a lot of additional data from utilization, from planning, from wash-ups where we’re asking if there’s a way to be more efficient without impacting our talent and our clients. Maybe there’s a process we can optimize. Maybe there's a library or framework we should be using because it allows us to be quicker.

If a project is going off the rails, how do course correct?

I think there are two versions of a project going off the rails. One is the more traditional version that a lot of our industry peers talk about, which is, "We didn't make any money, or we lost money on a project."

I think we’ve gotten to the level where we know as a team if we’re investing in a project before we say yes, and that's fine. We incentivize our teams beyond the financial side of things. We want to do great work. We want to win awards. We want our talent to hopefully do some of the best work of their careers. And sometimes that requires and investment.

So, work that goes off the rails when it comes to financials is about active decision-making. And we have a really clear process for it. If the team knows we’re going to have to invest X amount of hours, but it's going to give us a great piece of work, our talent is going to love it. It's going to allow us to build our skills. It's going to allow us to do something that has value, even though it's not directly monetary value, that's completely fine. We don't see that as a project going off the rails; we see that as a natural and important part of our business.

For me, projects that go off the rails are projects where we're not hitting on our core promise, which is delivering high quality work on time. That, to me, is something that goes off rails. And if that happens it’ll be because of one of two things: It's either not having the right talent on a project, or it's underestimating risk. So, there might be risk that’s inherently part of a project, but the team didn't see it. A lot of that becomes scar tissue that we then try to formalize into process so it hopefully doesn’t happen again.

I think the most important thing you try to do as an operations person is, if you make a mistake, how does the company learn not to make that mistake again? How do you get paid for scar tissue? That’s a huge part of our process.

MediaMonks celebrating 15 years

Going back to value-based pricing, how do you put together a quote for a potential client, especially if it's work you haven't done before?

Our industry is amazingly bad at quoting and scoping. You see that in the triple-bid process. Typically, one company will come in way too low, one company will come in way too high, and the middle bid wins it because they must be right. I call that a "Schrödinger quote." All of these bids could be right, or none of them could be right.

We were once part of a triple-bid, and all the three companies came in at pretty much the same number (no collusion…). And because of that, the client decided to re-pitch it with additional companies because they just couldn't believe that three companies could come in at a similar number.

There's a muscle memory that you develop over time when it comes to quoting new things, supported by senior people, to really get a sense of, "Are we underestimating? Are we overestimating? Are we taking risk? And if so, is there any understanding of what that risk is?"

Sometimes you know you're taking a risk but you don't actually know how big of the risk it is.

Our business at MediaMonks is based on saying yes to things that we don't know yet. That's what makes it exciting. It's also what makes it creative. I also think in many cases that excitement of something that’s unknown is the reason we produce really great work.

The risk is one of the interesting parts of the business, and the learnings you get from taking a risk hopefully makes it easier to mitigate in the next project, and the project after that.

That's where some of those metrics come in. If we know we did a project, and we went 200% over budget, then we’re 100% sure next time that we’ll be able to do it quicker and more efficiently this time. It's being comfortable with risk, but the most important thing is making sure you learn from it.

How can other agencies move away from using timesheets?

We’ve been a part of SoDA for six or seven years now, and there’s definitely a shift that I've seen happen there. We've probably been the biggest company in our group that hasn't been doing timesheets but I’ve seen more companies become open to it. Tools today are so flexible that it’s getting easier and easier to get your data from just running your projects.

The real discussion is around the stereotype of asking creative people to do timesheets. More and more companies are realizing that the friction it creates isn’t worth the effort anymore. Although, some companies need that data for their billing and invoicing model.

I'm definitely seeing a move away from the traditional timesheet model, which is bad for us because it's been a great recruiting tool for us over the years. I hope everybody keeps doing timesheets, and makes it as difficult to do as is humanly possible, which seems to be the de facto standard.

MediaMonks is a global creative production company partnering with clients across industries and markets to craft amazing work for leading businesses and brands. Their integrated production capabilities span the entire creative spectrum, covering anything you could possibly want from a production partner, and probably more.

Founded in 2001 and rooted in digital, you can find MediaMonks anywhere on the web, as well as in Amsterdam, London, Stockholm, Dubai, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Buenos Aires, São Paulo, Singapore, and Shanghai.

Working from the LA office, Wesley ter Haar acts as MediaMonks’ COO, making him a lifeline for deadlines and the project manager of project managers across seven time zones. He spends his ephemeral free time as the European Chair of SoDA or cultivating his exceptional beard

Read more conversations with smart operations leaders in our Two Beers interview series.

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