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Successful marketing involves the systematic planning,
implementation and control of a wide range of business activities.
For creative firms, some of the most important aspects include
clear positioning on the competitive landscape, a varied
promotional mix that is appropriate to your creative discipline,
and a focus on long-term mutually advantageous relationships. This
article shares expert advice on each of these vital topics.
Positioning has to do with the way that clients view competitive
firms. A successful positioning strategy involves marketing
decisions and activities intended to place your services into a
desired position in a particular market and in the minds of
purchasers. Some companies attempt to clearly differentiate their
offer from a competitor's. Other companies seek to appear similar
to a competitor.
The process of positioning yourself effectively starts with
preparation of a positioning statement. Keep it simple and brief—no
more than two sentences. This is your “elevator speech” for
communicating the essentials of your business in just a few
moments. Here is a suggested format with some blanks for you to
fill in: “We are a [type of firm] providing [range of services] to
[categories of clients]. Our [unique selling point] provides
[specific client benefits]. Don't make a potential client work too
hard to figure it out. If it's too vague or too complicated, they
will just move on. Here are some thoughts about filling in the
State the general category of business that you are in, such as
graphic design, web development or advertising.
State your core competencies. The initial impulse of many a
designer is to describe himself or herself as a ”Renaissance
man“—able to take on a wide variety of creative challenges. This
may in fact be true, but it does not work well as a positioning
statement. In a highly competitive market, you can't be everything
to everybody. The appearance that you are willing to do so could
convey a certain air of desperation. What we are looking for here
is a frank statement of the two or three services that actually
produce the majority of your billings.
Identify the industries of your largest clients, such as
manufacturing, financial services or entertainment. These are the
businesses that you know the most about. List no more than two or
You need to make a clear distinction between your firm and
others that are serving the same market. You may want to emphasize
your years of experience in a particular category, your
award-winning team, your proprietary methodology, your
understanding of new technologies or something comparable.
What will the client gain by hiring you instead of someone else?
Describe the specific competitive advantages that you have provided
to past clients. These might include benefits like reduced time to
market, more effective communications with a particular target
demographic, increased traffic, or higher sales.
As you draft your positioning statement, spend time conducting
research on your competition. List the people that you tend to come
up against when you are pitching new projects. Who are they and how
is your firm different from theirs? Visit their websites, look at
their marketing materials and talk to people who have worked with
them. How many employees do they have, who are their major clients,
what are their strengths and weaknesses?
Visualize the information that you have gathered about the
competitive landscape by preparing a positioning map. Start by
drawing a very large plus sign and assigning a key differentiator
to the vertical axis. Company size (either in staff or total
billings) is a good vertical measurement, with large at the top and
small at the bottom. For the horizontal axis, choose a type of
differentiation that is very specific to your situation. It may be
a contrast of two creative disciplines such as print and
interactive, or perhaps a contrast between specialist and
multi-disciplinary. Another option might be a contrast of creative
approaches, such as conventional and cutting edge, or perhaps a
geographic difference such as local versus national.
Now plot the locations of at least ten competitors—companies who
have been or who might be hired instead of you by a client.
Finally, mark the position of your own firm. This position mapping
exercise will help you to analyze the nature and extent of the
differences between you and your closest competitors. Keep in mind,
though, that you have an insider's knowledge of the situation and
the players. There may be a big disparity between your reality and
your clients' perceptions. It's good to get outside verification
that clients see the options in the same way that you do. This
variation is called perceptual mapping. It charts the way that
individuals selected from the target market perceive different
creative firms and their services. Future marketing efforts can
then address those discrepancies.
Going through this mapping exercise is great preparation for new
business pitches. You'll be able to counter information that they
may bring up about other firms and to clarify the advantages of
hiring you. Mapping can also be a useful tool in your own
long-range business planning. Is there some aspect of a
competitor's business that you would like to emulate? If you want
to resemble another firm more closely in the future, think about
what would be involved in that transition. How long would it take
and what specifically would you be changing? This process is called
repositioning—shifting your studio to occupy a distinctive position
in the market and in the minds of target clients that is quite
different from the one that you occupy today. Repositioning may be
necessary if your sales are declining or if you want to introduce
The next challenge for you is to choose the most appropriate mix
of promotional activities (such as personal selling, advertising,
publicity and public relations) for communication with your target
market. You should put together a promotions program that is as
diverse as you can manage. Here is a list of the most common
components for creative firms:
No doubt you've already developed a great visual identity for
your firm and the first application of it was on your stationery.
Now you need to carry through and practice what we preach to
clients about comprehensive branding. Make sure that you expand the
basic elements into a flexible system that gives consistency to all
the different promotional materials that you will produce.
The classic marketing tool for creative firms used to be a
four-color, glossy capabilities brochure. It took a lot of time and
money to produce. When completed, it become obsolete almost
immediately because it was impossible to update. Most design firms
have now moved to a modular approach, with separate sheets for each
major creative category or client industry. This involves selecting
only the most compelling project in each major category and
presenting it as a case study with key visuals and captions. A good
approach is to briefly describe the client's initial business need
or communications challenge, then describe the process that you
went through to develop the most appropriate solution. Then,
whenever possible, quantify the results by describing the impact
that your work had on the client's business. Each project is a
success story with an emphasis on client benefits. Even for
freelancers, there is a clear trend away from a portfolio filled
with loose samples and toward a compact collection of success
stories that present work in a larger context.
Again, it's a good idea to prepare an overview of the project
using only key information and visuals. From there, a prospective
client can dive into the full project if they are interested and
have the time. Place success stories on your website, rather than
just a list of hyperlinks. If someone follows a link for a project
that you completed some time ago, they might encounter a site that
has changed considerably and no longer resembles what you
delivered. The prospective client would not know that, however—they
would leave your site, see bad work elsewhere and would simply not
If your firm does motion graphics, you'll have no problem
selecting a great assortment of clips. The challenge is to bring
them together in a clean, simple framework that is a clear
extension of your own identity, both in the format for the onscreen
introductory graphics and the appearance of the external
Many creative firms mail out promotional materials several times
a year. This raises two questions: what exactly are you sending,
and who is going to receive it? If you are doing large mailings, it
makes sense to produce small, inexpensive materials such as
postcards that feature recent projects. That way you can save any
complex, expensive materials for personal selling efforts.
Developing a mailing list is a challenge in and of itself—more
about this below.
When design firms advertise, it tends to fall into two
categories: recruitment and new business development. Recruitment
is not just classified job listings, but also image ads in design
publications. The goal is to enhance the way in which you're
perceived in the design community in order to attract the best
talent to your team. If you want to develop new business, however,
you must choose the publications that your clients read and run ads
that clearly communicate your positioning and the client benefits
of working with you.
Directories and workbooks are important for photographers and
illustrators. Many directories are regional and are published once
a year. They are sent to art directors in the hope that they'll be
kept on a reference shelf, like a cross between a design annual and
a phone book. The directories sell space to you, either as single
pages or spreads. You may want to feature just one large project or
you may want to show a variety of small images. You can purchase
extra copies of those pages to use in your other marketing
Trade shows are especially important if you are a product
designer. It's a chance to immerse yourself in the client's
industry, whether it's high technology, housewares, or anything
else. It's a great opportunity to see what's new, see what the
competition is doing, and spot companies that could use your help.
By spending time on the trade show floor you can meet a lot of
people and increase general awareness of your firm. You might also
want to participate in conference programming, perhaps by being
part of a panel discussion. If so, contact the event producers at
least eight to ten months in advance to let them know about your
availability and expertise.
Each time you complete an important project, win an award or
land a major new client, you should send out a press release.
Unfortunately, in most creative firms this task goes to the back
burner so often that it's never actually completed. It may be a
better idea for you to outsource the process to a small public
relations firm or freelancer. The information itself must be
newsworthy and presented in a way that makes it interesting to the
reader of a trade publication, and it must be sent to the correct
editors and columnists.
Hopefully your press releases will lead to some press coverage.
A positive article about you is essentially a third-party
endorsement. It's a great addition to your marketing materials.
However, don't use photocopies. The quality is too low to project
the right image. Contact the publication to arrange for reprints.
The usual method is for them to sell you duplicate film or files,
which you can then take to an offset lithographer.
You can demonstrate your knowledge and enhance your stature as
an expert in a particular field by submitting articles to trade
publications. Many creative firms also produce books about their
work, although this can be very expensive and time-consuming and
potential clients might never see the book unless you give them a
Take the time to join professional organizations and actively
participate in industry groups. It's a great way to expand your
personal network, stay on top of trends and learn about project
Depending on the nature of your firm, you might consider teaming
up with companies that provide different but complementary
services. For example, many identity design studios have close ties
with venture capital firms.
You may feel a bit shy about this at first, but it's good to ask
for referrals from current and past clients. For example, your
contact in a large corporation may have counterparts in other
divisions. Someone who already knows you and trusts you is in a
great position to recommend you to peers and perhaps provide you
with a brief testimonial that you can use in future marketing
Every design firm needs to build a mailing list. Start with
current and past clients then add interesting companies in your
target markets. Perhaps you've read about them in the business
press or become aware of them through industry events. You can also
supplement your own information by purchasing mailing lists in
various categories for one-time use. If you do this, be careful of
several potential pitfalls—purchased lists can sometimes be
expensive and out of date, and they may not be targeted narrowly
enough for your exact needs.
Each time that you add a company to your list, do some research
to identify the senior decision-maker for the purchase of creative
services. Be sure that you have the correct spelling, office
address and job title. You should set an initial goal of compiling
200 to 500 names, but of course the emphasis must be on quality
rather than quantity. Instead of using word-processing software for
your list, get a basic contact tracking application. That way
you'll be able to sort the names into categories, record the date
and content of each mailing, record any response that you received
and make additional notes about other interactions or future
commitments. The initial building of your list is only half of the
work required. You need to make a serious commitment to maintain
the list. Constantly update and correct it to reflect such things
as employee turnover, address changes, mergers and
The overall sales process for creative firms usually looks like
These may be companies that you've read about or become aware of
through industry events.
Do some research on each company to see how much potential there
might be. Do they need the type of services that you provide?
Search the Internet for articles about them. Visit their website,
if they have one. If the company is publicly traded, get a copy of
their annual report.
It's fairly standard to send some initial information about your
services with a personalized cover letter, then follow up a few
days later with a phone call. Your goal is to make a positive first
impression and learn more about their situation and needs. Try to
get information that is more current and more specific than what
you found in your research.
At this point, you'll know enough about the company to be able
to decide whether or not you should pursue them. For example: if
it's a new company, do they have sufficient funding in place? Have
they just hired someone else to provide design services? If you
decide to pursue the company, it means spending additional time and
marketing dollars. You should do so only if you feel that there is
clear potential for appropriate work.
The next step is to schedule a personal meeting, which involves
advance preparation and perhaps travel. You will explain your
capabilities, show past work and leave behind high quality
marketing materials. Your hope is that the company will be
impressed, keep you in mind, and eventually ask you to submit a
Developing and negotiating a proposal is an iterative
process.Based on feedback from the client, your document may go
through several revisions. At the same time, the client will no
doubt be negotiating with a number of other creative firms. Not
every proposal that you send will be accepted. Over time, track
your acceptance rate (often called your ”hit rate“). What is normal
for you? Is it one in two, or one in three, or one in four? Average
hit rates will vary from studio to studio based on how selective
you are in pitching to new clients and how strong your
relationships are with existing clients.
Never start a project without a signed proposal. A signature
means you're on your way. Do a great job!
When each project concludes, take time to meet with the client
to assess the results of the assignment and their level of
satisfaction. This creates an opportunity for you to sell add-on
work and propose new projects. It also provides you with important
insights for possible modifications of your offering in order to
deliver more of the benefits that your clients desire. For example,
your creative product may be very strong but perhaps some simple
improvements could be made in the area of customer service. The
client will give you this feedback if you ask.
When the chemistry is right and the long-term potential is
there, consciously work to convert new client projects into ongoing
Your own sales process is probably similar to the one described
above. Take a look at the volume of activity required and how the
numbers play out for you. For example: do fifteen leads result in
seven meetings, of which three result in proposals, but only one is
accepted? This winnowing-down process is often called the ”sales
funnel.“ If the majority of your work consists of small projects
for one-time buyers, it's quite a challenge to keep the sales
funnel full by putting enough new leads into the top. That business
model requires continual prospecting, lots and lots of cold calls,
and many capability presentations that never lead to real projects.
It all becomes much easier for you as a businessperson if existing
clients are so pleased that they come right back for more. If you
can fill half of your firm's capacity with repeat business, that
will eliminate the need for 50 percent of the cold calls that would
have been required otherwise.
Overall, your sales process parallels the classic
decision-making process for clients: awareness (knowledge that you
exist); interest (a desire to know more about what you are
offering); evaluation (considering you as a viable option for their
next purchase); trial (awarding a first project to you in order to
test the waters); repurchase (if they are happy with the initial
results, they may come to you with add-on projects); and loyalty
(an ongoing relationship in which they trust you and prefer you
over other service providers). Client loyalty is a vital success
factor for creative firms. To achieve it, you must provide good
design, take good care of the client in the process, and always
close the loop to identify new opportunities.
Healthy design firms tend to have several good clients with a
variety of ongoing needs. These relationships are mutually
advantageous. A creative team that is already familiar with a
client account can provide good work more quickly and efficiently.
A standing team can also provide strategic continuity and brand
stewardship, particularly when there is staff turnover on the
client side. Another benefit is that an ongoing client will
gradually trust you with assignments outside of the original need
that brought them to you. For example, the first project might be a
brochure or sales materials, but the relationship could expand into
packaging or Web sites or other categories of work. It's a great
way to grow your skills and your portfolio.
However, as a businessperson, it's important to avoid becoming
overly dependent on any one client. A good rule of thumb is that no
single account should represent more than 25 percent of your total
billings. In a way, this is just common sense: don't put all of
your eggs into one basket. What would happen if your primary
contact retired, or the firm went through a merger, or the client
industry went into a slump? The health of your own business could
be affected quite dramatically.
At the other extreme, you don't want to take on too many small
clients. Maintaining lots of small accounts can be exhausting
because of the distractions involved and the level of multi-tasking
required. Too much ”background noise“ of this type makes it
difficult for you to do your best work. To prevent this, you may
need to re-think the filters that you use to qualify leads and
assess how consistent you are in applying those criteria. Since
initial marketing costs tend to be the same for every new client,
many creative firms set a minimum size for the new accounts they're
willing to go after.
If you find yourself working on an account that is too small or
too dysfunctional, you should let it go. The opportunity cost of
working with the wrong client can be high. If you are so busy
taking care of an account that is not creatively satisfying or
financially profitable, you may not have the bandwidth to respond
to other, better opportunities.
Sadly, even good, large client accounts don't last forever. Over
time you may begin to see an average life span for client accounts.
It will vary based on your practice area and the rate of change in
the client industries that you are serving. There are several
reasons why clients leave. It could be about you: perhaps you've
done ineffective work or provided inadequate service. Or it could
be about them: they may be undergoing general cost-cutting
initiatives or experiencing a change in senior management, perhaps
because of a merger or acquisition.
Never stop marketing, even when your workload of active projects
is high. As projects finish, you must have a constant stream of
appropriate new assignments lined up to replace them. Otherwise you
may find yourself on a very scary roller coaster ride between too
much work and not enough.
Shel is a graphic designer who is active on the business side of professional practice. He has solid experience managing the operations of leading creative firms and guiding them through periods of accelerated growth and rapid change. He has served as director
of operations for MetaDesign San Francisco and as vice president of operations for Clement Mok. He provides management consulting services to a range of creative firms in both traditional and new media. Shel has served on the national board of the Association
of Professional Design Firms and as the president of AIGA San Francisco. He has written and lectured on many topics related to design management and teaches Professional Practice at the Academy of Art in San Francisco, the California College of Arts, and the
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