After 30+ years of doing work for clients, I’ve learned to classify the 3 types of client work:  ‘maintenance’ work, the ‘one-shot’ product, and the ‘speculative’ effort.  A client, especially a good one, CAN be all three, but sorting out the job type classifications can help us as creative professionals sort out the dreaded revenue and cash flow management we all end up dealing with:

  1. Maintenance Work:  This type of work entails what must be done for the client to maintain his/her daily life.  For realtors, this would include real estate brochures, updating listing data on print and web, social media posts; anything that would be day-to-day operations that is necessary for that client to be in business in the area they are in.  For auto dealers, this used to be print advertising but is now updating web information, email lists, and social media, as well as the collaboration with co-op advertising as per auto manufacturers.  For attorneys, it is maintaining anything that they must have going, all of the time, to function in their economic environment.

To be effective in this mode of ‘marketing’ – if we choose to even call it this – the service professional must be fast, efficient, accurate, and affordable to the client.  While it seems that these services require less skill, nothing is further from the truth:  the service deliverer must constantly be on the lookout of how to provide a service most competitively to the increasingly discriminating client.  Don’t ever assume that the client isn’t always on the lookout for a better, cheaper widget. 

On the billing end, maintenance marketing is bread-and-butter to the design or web professional.  They represent predictive revenue for those annoying events that happen to us such as actual bills or expenses.  It also provides us the best shot at proactively increasing the work we do through opportunity communication (that which happens naturally during the course of the work). 

In designing your “client portfolio” at least 30-40% of your service array should derive from revenue sources from which you know you will have recurring work.  If you are fortunate enough to have a client who understands the speed of money, you will be able to charge slightly (10-20%) more for your services if you are delivering the value proposition to the business owner that enables them to make money faster and without the headache of backtracking mistakes.  This goes especially for taking the time to proofread documents yourself before the client gets them.

2. The ‘One Shot’ Product:  This work includes items such as identity design, letterheads and collaterals that have simply presented a need, and website design for clients who don’t already have a website.   Yes, you can turn these clients into ‘maintenance’ clients by doing good work, but many upper-level firms will already have internal marketing departments that are proficient in taking that logo and integrating it into the rest of the company.  As a designer, logo work usually enriches your portfolio more than your revenue.  Increasingly, logos have become ‘cheap’ and there is a genericizing of the print/web visual world.  You and your clients will be well served if you become a designer who provides authentic value through design that is meaningful and original. 

Sites such as Upwork (upwork.com) and 99Designs (99designs.com) tend to exploit the cheaper work and actually can drain your time as a designer; therefore I do not recommend these as a rule, unless you are doing fine and you’re just bored.  It is better for you to pinpoint firms that are doing well in your local area, a.k.a. your favorite restaurant, a special pet store, or a salon that has particularly good service.  One on one communication, the all-powerful and overlooked personal letter, or dropping off a business card or collateral of some kind will probably get you further than hours pilfering through cheap, drive-through design online.

This being said, design work has become cheaper, or rather, what entrepreneurs are willing to pay has become difficult.  Social media and ignorance have caused this; there is nothing worse than a logo you are stuck with that was ‘cheap’ and looked great for a week, until you tried to put it on a sign.  Any designer worth his/her salt will have different levels of logo design that can meet most client budgets, producing far better work than having 50 starving artists bid on it, each vying for their share of $50.

I’d recommend keeping the ‘one-shot’ client work down to 20-25% of your revenue portfolio. 

3. The ‘Speculative’ Effort is sometimes already a client.  Whether they are or not, what you will hear them say is “We’ve been thinking about trying some Facebook advertising,” or “We had a meeting and our staff wants us to look into spending some money on radio,” – whether this client has an effective image already or not will largely play into whether the speculative job will pan out.  Even more important is the ‘big M’ – the degree to which the entire organization is brought into the marketing campaign, and how effectively the business delivers the product or service it promises through its advertising.  You can’t blame the creative for that failure. By definition, speculative work would mostly be ‘little m’ or an effort that is a task in- and of- itself.

Speculative jobs are some of my favorites, in spite of the inherent risk of failure.  They are my Mission Impossible, in which there is usually a less-than-perfect budget, a whole host of reasons why the effort won’t work, and there’s usually a (deservedly) jaded client in the mix as well.  One of the most unpopular things that I’ve been boneheaded enough to do is to advise the client NOT to do the speculative effort, thus cutting my own paycheck off at the proverbial nuts.  If things aren’t lined up which give enough evidence that the effort has a fair shot, then it’s in your own best interest to be up-front with the client and say, “I do not believe that will work because of __________ (without being offensive).” For example “The right mix of x and y isn’t here for the effort to have a good shot at success.” Who knows? You may pick up the other part of the work that you feel is missing if the client is truly dedicated to the speculative effort.

Speculative jobs can round out your work between 15%-20% but they may have wide swings throughout billing cycles.  If you are getting speculative work, or it’s more than a healthy part of your portfolio, then you may be either new or you are spread a little thin.  To further understand the speculative classification, a new menu for a restaurant isn’t a speculative job, it’s a ‘one-shot’.  A restaurant who for the first time wants to try Waitlist through Yelp and wants you to advertise that through social media, without giving you any other levity throughout the organization to brand the restaurant is a speculative job.

If you poke the bushes, you’ll find that just about every business owner wants to do marketing that increases revenue, usually within a certain budget and with an envisioned outcome.  A speculative client can become a maintenance client in the blink of an eye with extraordinary effort and designer diligence. Be on the lookout to convert your one-shot client to a maintenance client; your one-shot to a speculative; and your maintenance client into a permanent business partner and cornerstone revenue builder.

I love to mentor designers and marketing people, especially the young ones, and see them do well.  We all hate billing, but we all love to be able to eat and pay rent. The struggle is real. Look a little further down the line for articles related to client billings, collections, and how to get paid AND have happy clients. 

Jen Moore can be reached at www.yellowpug.com and at jen@yellowpug.com.