A creative pro makes a living from selling other people’s brands – but you’ve got to sell your own too. Here’s how.
Designers are hardly renowned for their devastating sales skills – the caricature is someone plugged into an iPod ogling a Mac with unblinking eyes. But unless you learn how to pimp your skills out, your creative brilliance will reach a minimal audience, or worse, no audience at all.
If you’re a shrinking violet when it comes to selling your work, getting your name known in such a saturated and competitive market will be a terrible struggle. Yet if cash and creative variety are important to you, you’re going to have to put your name out there and sell your skills.
“Designers spend a lot of time convincing clients of the importance of self-promotion but we don’t seem to be as good at it for ourselves,” says Martin Roach, founder of multi-discipline information design consultancy Epitype (www.epitype.co.uk).
But any old promotion won’t do, stresses Roach. “You have to think of self-promotion in campaign terms, and one of the things we tell clients is if you’re developing a campaign it’s got to have the legs to carry it.”
Few agencies have adopted the campaign approach to self-promotion more readily than Carbon Creative (www.carboncreative.net).
“We promote the core values of our company first and our services second,” says creative director Martin Hadfield. “When we started the company in 2002 we wanted to make an ethical commitment to become carbon neutral, and environmental sustainability is something we promote to clients and the supply chain.”
The reality is that no one mode of promotion will always outperform another. Regardless of whether the approach is a mail shot, email, networking, presentations, or word of mouth, the crucial factors are that you know what you want, that you’ve researched your market, that your material is relevant to those who receive it, and that you execute your work with the self-same expertise and flair that you’re trumpeting to prospects.
“You must make sure that you’re proud of what you sent out,” advises Brendan Thorpe, sales and marketing director with brand consultancy Springetts Design (www.springetts. co.uk).
“There’s no point rushing something out, because it has to represent what it is you are trying to promote.”
Yet it’s pointless something being beautifully conceived and executed if it lacks relevance for those who are receiving it.
Becca Saraga is head of client services with video and broadcast agency Addiction (www.addiction.tv), and says a one-size-fits-all approach just won’t do. “We have different sets of clients – record labels, broadcasters, advertising agencies, and corporate work – and when we promote ourselves we tailor it to that client base.”
Saraga says that in Addiction’s industry, the best approach is a personal one. “Broadcasting is quite a small world,” she says.
“We have a PowerPoint presentation that shows our work, and we’ll try to show them this in person. But with record labels, it’s more about keeping in contact via the phone and showing them our latest work. We have an HTML newsletter that we’ll send out if we’ve done a high-profile job.”
For Clifford Boobyer, creative director and co-founder of design and branding agency Firedog (www.firedog-design.co.uk), it’s all about striking a chord with your prospects.
“Do some research and find out a little bit about your prospects. If you can get a little nugget to latch onto, you’re in. Find out what they are like after hours, hobby wise, and aim there.
“Engage on a human level. Even the driest corporate communications manager has something human inside.”
Clients are simple, too, and they know what they want when a creative gets in touch to fish for work. “Creativity, communication, and the ability to deliver,“ says Cambridge-based print and Internet designer Nick Welsh (www.monoindustries.com). They’re also thinking, “Can I work with this person?”
Clifford Boobyer agrees: “They’re looking for a window into your business personality. They want to know what it’s going to be like working with you. A client sees appointing an agency as potentially the most fun part of their procurement remit.”
Brand consultant Martin Roach believes all clients look for something that stands out from the crowd. “The way people buy design these days, they haven’t got the infrastructure to be evaluating 10 or 15 design agencies, just as I haven’t the time to look at a dozen printers for a job. You’ve got to think about what it is that is going to keep you in the mix.”
Ultimately, promoting yourself is like any design brief. “As a design company you’ve got to think intelligently about how you’re going to speak to an audience,” says Roach.
“It’s better to target five companies really well than 500 with a postcard that just replicates what any other design company might do. Just offering a service the whole time won’t work.”
And the winner is...
What designer hasn’t dreamt of scooping a big design gong, amid raucous applause and the flash of cameras? The real glory, though, can come later – when publicity surrounding your award helps generate new business.
Becca Saraga reveals that the Design Week award Addiction won in 2004 for film and video graphics helped the company win clients from more diverse market sectors.
“When we began we just did music ads, but after the award we won a lot more business from the broadcasting and advertising worlds,” she says.
Brendan Thorpe of brand agency Springetts says awards can also be used as an effective self-promotional tool. “We won a design effectiveness award, and this is useful as a selling point in itself.
“After winning it, we produced a small mailer that gave some background to the winning projectand told prospects: ‘If you want us to do the same for you, give us a ring.’”
The publicity surrounding awards is great for companies, but the design and marketing press aren’t interested only in awards, and savvy agencies know how to work the media to ensure regular exposure.
“The key to getting press coverage is finding the right person in the magazine you’re talking to, and look to build some sort of relationship with them,” says Thorpe,
“Meet them and give them enough background on your company to make them interested in what you do. Also introduce them to a senior member of staff, such as the creative director, so that they’ve got a good voice to call on when they need someone to make a comment.”
Clients know best... so we asked one
When creating marketing material, designers can at best make a well-informed guess about what will work and what won’t. But what about those on the receiving end of all this stuff – the prospects and clients? What do they believe works, and why?
Kevin Hyde is European packaging development manager for Coca-Cola, and his 11 years in the role affords him a great overview of design pitches and sells.
“We come across a lot of design agencies as we work on new packaging development projects. This is mainly structural, but also involves graphics and brand identity,” he says. So what approach works best?
“If it’s a mailshot, then unless it’s bang on the nail for the type of project we’re working on at the time it will tend to get passed over,” says Hyde.
“I do get flyers from agencies but they usually end up in the bin. It’s a fine balance between being hassled and being informed. I always encourage agencies to keep us up to speed with what they are doing, but in a format that doesn’t take too much time or effort to understand.
“I think an email with an easy-to-read attachment is enough to catch interest. File sizes must be low and it must be pretty graphic in terms of content.
“They should also make a follow-up call to check that the email has been read. If I was impressed with the email then I will respond well to a call.”
He adds that unless you can show you’ve looked into his company’s needs, he won’t have much time for you.
“Creative agencies should be able to show that they’ve done a bit of proactive work on how they think they can help us – generically, rather than on any specific project.
“What does not work is the cold call approach, with no thought about what the potential client’s needs are. To differentiate yourself from the others you need to focus on the customer, not yourself.
“Selling yourself as an agency with an approach that’s been trademarked, and presenting some generic examples of work, just won’t cut it.”
A well-researched and executed mail shot is one of the most potent self-promotional tools at the designers’ disposal. Becca Saraga, head of client services with video and broadcast agency Addiction, says you’ve got to send something innovative, or it’ll end up in the bin.
“We do quarterly showreel mailouts because all the stuff we do is moving image work, so it’s best that they get to see it.
“Knowing the right person to send them to is important. With some of the markets we work in there’s a very specific list of people who will always be the ones who commission the work, but with other markets this might require a lot of research.”
Personalizing mail outs is vital, agrees Springett’s Brendan Thorpe. “We’d never send out a ‘Dear Brand Manager’ letter, because this screams junk mail, and however much you’ve put into making the letter pertinent it will fail miserably.”
Saraga reveals that although Addiction sends only one showreel across all the markets per mail shot, it also sends an accompanying letter that is tailored to each individual prospect – telling them why the showreel is relevant to that particular business.
Being relevant is a must, says Springett’s Thorpe. “You decide on the market that you want to move into and do your research. You need a letter that addresses something in their market or, for us as a branding agency, their brands.
“We may come across an interesting new appointment in the press and decide it would be worth sending something to that person.
“But we never send just a letter – we always back it up with one of our company brochures or case studies that we think are relevant to the prospect.”
Following up mail shots is the key to winning new business, says Saraga. “Sometimes it’s a case of ‘We’ll call you if anything comes up’, but other times you get invited to pitch for work.”
London agency Firedog eschews formal mailouts and takes a rather more maverick approach to promotional mail. Creative director Clifford Boobyer says it’s all about achieving “lasting brand contact”.
The idea is that you send something that will stick around in the client’s office for a while, although he admits that the (fake) poo in a box was a slightly risky strategy.
“We believe we can afford to take the piss in this regard,” he says, “as it lasts as a brand touchpoint and is memorable. Businesses expect agencies to be full of shit, so I guess this just works on that principle.”
The humble postcard promotes everything from club-nights to condoms, and they provide a perfect canvas for creative pros to hawk their wares. Art and marketing directors’ get sent sack loads of them – so you need to make sure yours ends up Blu-tacked to the wall rather than ditched in the recycling.
To work, a postcard must serve a specific purpose, says brand consultant Martin Roach. “We’ve done only one postcard, the purpose of which was to direct people to our Web site.
“If you’re sending a card I think it needs to direct people somewhere or have some definite call to action, such as an event.”
Nick Welsh uses cards as an extension of his stationary. “I really like postcards, and use them as compliment slips when sending out estimates, letters, and invoices. They also make a nice alternative to business cards.”
For illustrator Adrian Johnson (www.adrianjohnson.org.uk), cards are an important means of promotion. “They’re the oldest and still the best way of promoting your work as an illustrator quickly and economically, and everyone likes to receive something in the post that isn’t a bill.
“The more personalized the card, the better. I’ve found that limited edition screen prints go down very well, and clients put them up on the wall or keep them on their desk. That’s a great reminder to them that you do cool stuff.”
Meeting with people face to face is easily the best way to promote yourself – provided you don’t blush, stutter, and get really, really drunk.
Forging a relationship in person is the surest way to convert prospects into clients. Self-promotional tools such as mailshots are designed to culminate in meetings, but the process can be hot-wired, by paying to attend design networking events such as breakfast clubs, where potential clients and agencies meet and talk business.
When he was establishing his brand consultancy Epitype, Martin Roach relied heavily on networking events to drum up business.
“I did a hell of a lot of networking when I was setting out, mostly the breakfast clubs. One of the difficult things about design is being able to educate people about what it is you do, and I found the most useful thing about networking was I was able to succinctly explain what I do without people falling asleep, because they were there to be educated.
“For us these events were good for getting work in the start-up market, and also the below-20 employee market, which is the more fun stuff to get involved with. It’s important to have a nice spread of clients, from small to large, in order to be able to flex your creative muscles.”
One-man band Nick Welsh (www.monoindustries.com) has no doubt about the effectiveness of networking. “In my opinion, networking is easily the best way to get new business. There’s nothing quite like getting out there and actually meeting people.
“I really enjoy meeting new people and finding out what they do and perhaps how I might be able to help them. Most of my work comes from networking with small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs), which in my experience tend to buy from other SMEs, not from ads or direct mail campaigns. The best form of advertising really is word of mouth.”
But rolling up at a networking event and expecting work to fall into your lap will not produce results, warns Brendan Thorpe of Springetts Design.
“You’ve got to make sure you know who’s there and that what you talk about is what people want to hear,” he says.
For Becca Saraga of video and broadcast agency Addiction, social networking is also important. “We go to TV promo and channel branding events, not so much to sell ourselves but because we’re part of that community.
“It gives you face time with people who can potentially commission us work but it’s also a social thing. You get to know people on a social level that you’ve worked with, and that helps to strengthen your relationship.”
Thorpe stresses that designers must never forget that any meeting with a client, however informal, is a form of networking.
“Anytime you go to a client meeting it’s a form of networking, because those people move on, and if you’ve got a good relationship they’ll carry that on at their new company.”
Site for sore eyes
The Web site is a vital promotional tool – a cocktail of scene setting and portfolio that’s often potential clients’ first point of contact with a designer, illustrator or agency.
“It’s absolutely the most important part of any design agency,” insists Clifford Boobyer of Firedog. “This is your shop window, so make it sing. Don’t block your doorway with Flash, and make sure all your design is backed by sound marketing logic and information.
“This is what your clients want to know about – not about your print finishes. We get so many leads from our site, and are always getting compliments about its ease of use.
“We also have a blog, which we feel gives us the ability to convey our point of differentiation and personality. Due to the commoditized nature of our industry, your tone of voice is key to clients warming to you.”
For an illustrator, a Web site is arguably even more important. Without his, illustrator Adrian Johnson says he’d have virtually no work at all.
“Over 90 per cent of my work comes in as a result of my Web site. For sheer convenience sake, it’s the most effective way to promote my work.”
Carbon Creative’s Martin Hadfield says a well-presented Web site is crucial. “It’s often the first point of contact with a new client,” he says.
“We know from our Web stats it’s often used as a point of resource by our existing clients – whether this is to simply view contact information, obtain a quote using the online forms or increasingly to order bespoke printed items.”
“Ping me an email...”
At its best, email is an extremely cheap and immediate way to reach your prospects. At its worst, it’s a blunt tool that’s as likely to irritate potential clients as impress them. For many, email does have a valued place in the marketing mix.
Carbon Creative’s Martin Hadfield says: “Personalized marketing email has been beneficial for us. We broadcast only to clients and recipients who have opted to join our mailing, usually via our Web site.
Email broadcasts are a great way to keep clients up to date with news items and or new services that you are offering.”
Martin Roach, founder of brand consultancy Epitype, also believes email can be valuable as a means of keeping clients in the picture.
“The key to self-promotion is telling people what you’re doing, and email has a part to play in this. We sent an email out recently to 100 clients to let them know a few of our logos were being included in a new book on the subject.
“They were genuinely pleased to hear about this, not least those companies whose logos were chosen.”
But of all the marketing tools, email must be handled with caution. “We think it’s important not to bombard our clients so we tend to broadcast them every quarter,” reveals Hadfield.
“Creating them with a seasonal flavour fits our visual identity, and to add a fun element we run competitions that entice the audience to browse our Web site.
“In our last email broadcast we ran a ‘Going Bonkers over Conkers’ competition, in which we hid a conker on the site, and three winners were given an iPod Nano. Our clients loved it, and it drove a lot of traffic to the Web site.”
But many have reservations over email, including Brendan Thorpe, sales and marketing director with brand consultancy Springetts Design.
“We don’t send emails. The trouble is, you have no idea how something will look when it’s printed out at the other end, and a lot of our case study stuff involves big files that are not appropriate for email. Also, emails haven’t got the same visual appeal as a well-crafted letter or case study.”
Case Study: Addiction
In 2004, London-based agency Addiction won the Design Week award for Best TV/Film Graphics, for the Mop Tops idents for Kerrang TV. The company, which previously specialized on music ads, found an increase in interest from clients in other market sectors as a result of the gong.
Firedog’s mailouts tend to be a bit on the wacky side. From chilli sauce followed a few days later with toilet roll to cheeky copywriting. The company has even sent out a shiny fake poo in a box. “The overall message was: ‘we are on your doorstep,” says creative director Clifford Boobyer.
“An intelligent bit of direct mail is my favoured means of communication,” says Epitype brand consultant Martin Roach. This printed version of the company’s Web intro has led to all kinds of leads, and has resulted in new business, says Roach.
Swedish image manipulator Patrik Blomqvist (www.patrikland.se) created these postcards and sent them to clients for last Christmas. He says they ended up on many client’s fridges, and got good exposure in December.
Film and video agency Addiction uses email for promotional purposes. “We send out PR emails to our database to inform them of new work,” says Becca Saraga, head of client services. The pictured email newsletters bring the work Addiction did for Transport For London and for a TV ad for Joss Stone’s album Introducing Joss Stone.
Illustration: ilovedust, www.ilovedust.com