By Shel Perkins

April 01, 2004

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 blanks:

Type of Firm

State the general category of business that you are in, such as graphic design, web development or advertising.

Description of Services

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.

Client Categories

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 three.

Unique Selling Point

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.

Benefit Statement

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 new services.

Promotions Program

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:

Identity System

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.

Capabilities/Case Studies

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.

Website/Interactive Projects

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 return.

Demo Reel of Motion Graphics

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 packaging.

Direct Mail

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 activities.

Trade Shows & Industry Events

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.

Press Releases

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.

Press Coverage & Reprints

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.

Publishing Articles & Books

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 free copy.

Memberships & Personal Networking

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 opportunities.


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 efforts.

Mailing List

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 acquisitions.

Sales Process

The overall sales process for creative firms usually looks like this:

Identify Leads

These may be companies that you've read about or become aware of through industry events.

Qualify Leads

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.

Make Contact

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.

Criteria to Pursue or Drop

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.

Capabilities Presentations

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 proposal.


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.

Active Projects

Never start a project without a signed proposal. A signature means you're on your way. Do a great job!

Close the Loop

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 relationships.

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.

Relationship Management

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.

Some Final Advice

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.