Featured May 19, 2021 in Red Tent Living (redtentliving.com):
‘Hold onto your underwear,’ I thought, when the pandemic settled in. Anyone caught in the interplay between shutdown, cash flow, and desperation with their proverbial panties in a wad wouldn’t potentially fare well in re-establishing client relationships. Generally, the first thing to go in an iffy business climate are the marketing people and designers (after seeing too many years of this). Then, as businesses began to open and retain some form of forward progress, I started to slowly see the remnants of what I saw post-Katrina in the Deep South—new opportunities.
What I saw in 2005, are personal injury attorneys who relocated from looted and flooded New Orleans to my little suburb, dumping money on billboards, signage, and buildings. Some clients we barely knew had lost their marketing people in the uprooting that the hurricane caused and flocked into our little haven. We were busier than ever, and we saw our moderate-sized RV client go from being a vacation/luxury buy to actual housing.
I’ve tried to assess what pockets of work are out there for creatives in the (and I hate this term) ‘new normal’. My inclination is to tell you that businesspeople are distracted, bothered, and worried. They are thinking about what they need to do to make up ground since the shutdown for far longer than you realize, and they consistently haven’t “called you in” because they are in survival mode. Now is the time that I’d suggest old fashioned communication. Stopping by with a tray of cookies-type contact, with no ploy for business—just saying hello behind your mask, and asking if everyone is ok, then leaving promptly. Trust me; they WILL remember that visit.
Personal letters, if you can muster the writing skills, are another big standout when things are looking weedy. I can count on one hand the number of personal letters I received from marketing firms seeking work from me. I can tell you, however, that I am almost 100% in responding to these letters and moving forward with a purchase of either services or products. Part of the reason is that in the tech age actual mailed letters are so darn remarkable and so authentic. I am not talking about bulk letters; I am referring to a live stamp and hand-written address lines. Yes, type the letter. But hand address the envelope. It has a better chance of getting put on the desk of the owner/CEO.
Is there a magic formula for getting renewed web, design, or SEO work going in the current environs? No. The climate varies by county and even microcosm, which makes the equation to success that even harder to figure out. Instead of going guru, step back and think like a human (like Aunt Bea with her pie, really). The personal touch means more than ever, even if it’s touchless. If I’ve got a restaurant, I’m not only worried about the cash flow of my diminished capacity rules, I’m desperately considering whether my kids will go to college and whether I will be able to continue paying my best, most loyal people. I’m even worried about my phone bill. A kind word goes a long way, especially if it’s not opportunistic in nature.
The second level of worry that business people have to consider is their messaging and diversity environment. Never before has company culture mattered more. Make sure your own culture measures up. The consistent messaging I see ahead of us all is to muster a double-dose of compassion in our daily lives and work. Deliver the last half-hour of work free and show that on the billing. Thank people for their business. Be kind. A lot of the rejection you may see right now in the services arena isn’t personal.
I’ve never liked the red waters of competition; I’ve always favored the Blue Ocean Strategy methodology (Blue Ocean Strategy by W. Chan Kim and Renée A. Mauborgne, https://www.amazon.com/Blue-Ocean-Strategy-Expanded-Uncontested/dp/1625274491/ref=sr_1_2?crid=1PWPBSLWQBZA6&dchild=1&keywords=blue+ocean+strategy&qid=1592227348&sprefix=blue+ocean+strategy%2Caps%2C198&sr=8-2
Blue Ocean Strategy is the top professional development book I’d recommend for marketers seeking to reinvent themselves or up their game. Other top reads would be Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos, and The Purple Cow by Seth Godin. Godin gets a mite trivial inventing his latest quip, but nothing works better for me than his chapter on Shaving a Yak, which reminds me to stay focused on the task at hand. All these books are available in any given format, including audio. In my grumbly old school opinion, there’s zero excuse for not reading Blue Ocean Strategy at least once.
At any rate, good luck to you, and I hope you find uncommon fortune and calm waters going forward. I’d welcome an eye roll in saying you will have learned from this (I am eye-rolling myself) but it’s certainly true. Still, it’s the biggest horse pill any of us creatives have ever had to swallow unless you were in a cozy situation of having a monthly contract. You may have to get ‘sticky’ and you may have to do some form of groveling to stay relevant, but my fervent and patriotic hope is that nothing will ever completely stop business from happening in a free society. No force in heaven or earth can stop the entrepreneurial dream–yours included.
The ‘hush’ in the courtroom was loud in the minds of small business owners when the judge accused Shelley Luther, the Dallas-based salon owner, of being “selfish” for opening her salon. Her reply was real and pure Texan: “Judge, I don’t consider it selfish to want to feed my kids” – or something close to this. At any rate, we don’t need to revisit the riveting response because far too many entrepreneurs have building unrest, perhaps rage, watching public giant Walmart route people into one entrance, elbow-to-elbow, in clear denial of safe practices. A fabric store owner told me that Walmart was doing Black Friday numbers and was completely sold out of mask fabric, while Ms. Unknown Quilt Shop with her little mask on and only 5 people in her store, had to remain closed, slowly starving to death.
The truth is, no amount of business incentive money can make up for a high percentage of business closures that will occur as a result of this virus. It may simply prolong the process of death for businesses caught in the too-indecisive measures of counties and cities. Ironically, it is undeniable that inferior or cloth mask wearing, scientifically, would be more likely to cultivate and spread COVID-19 rather than reduce it. But we must preserve the jobs of the political establishment, right? While they collect their salaries and benefits no matter what they decide?
My life is essential to me just like it is to you. The concepts and terminologies must be changed going forward or we are going to have a massive revolt, a true economic revolution on our hands in this country, on a blistering scale. My local farmer’s market, which my partner and I were counting on to parlay our vintage and handmade items, has decided 6 weeks in advance not to include nonfood vendors, and to only allow people to order and pick up vegetables they did not even get to pick out, during a one-hour period each week. This action exposes the tendency towards cluelessness of city/county governments. What’s truly crazy is that Disney World will be open 2 days after the first market. There is plenty of city-owned open ground in which to socially distance tents 6 feet apart here in the sunny UV-ray laden air here in Colorado.
What is sure to happen is that the local farmers WILL figure out an alternative, and so will the artisans. Order-takers and committees can’t run business which will inevitably run circles around slow and visionless paper-shufflers. I was born on the 4th of July in Pasadena, Texas. I ‘get’ the intrinsic need to turn the tables on bureaucracy and stalemating. I truly adore small business; it has been a passion my entire career. I like “moving revenue” for small entities, especially when I have a tiny, impossible budget. For those of us who consult, we have an opportunity to ‘up our game’.
Truly, we are ALL ‘Essential Businesses’ in playing our respective parts in the economy in which we buy bread, energy drinks, and postage stamps in. Without us and our millions of like counterparts participating, it makes a dent very quickly. A community’s economy does operate like a smart and organic machine. Without the machine oil that insulates the parts, that is the cash flow that supports all the tanning salons, the dog groomers, and the boutique owners – our surroundings start to look at little grim; a little less than what we work so hard for.
All I can say to my fellow businesspeople is to observe very closely what your city/county officials are doing – are their actions reasonable and responsible, or are they self-serving? Are they at least attempting to protect small businesses? If the answer is yes, great! If the answer is no, start making a list of who can be voted out and how quickly. We small businesspeople can’t stand around in our daily lives and say “Oh, this was something we couldn’t predict or control,” because guess what? We don’t get that luxury in any business scenario, ever. It’s a cop out and we know it, deep down. I do predict a lot of local city/county governments to flip whenever elections allow, based on how they have handled their respective areas. Certainly a fair number of governor flips will occur as soon as elections allow (hello, Michigan).
This virus has been devastating, but it’s possible that it will illuminate some areas of inefficiency and bad governing that needs to be drained or replaced. It’s acted as a good filter for separating what we used to call in Biblical terms ‘the wheat from the chaff’. It’s definitely set up a distinct and monumental challenge for determining whether we as businesspeople pivot well. There is going to be a wall of new opportunity out there for those who are determined to survive.
As for me, I’m feeling more essential every day.
Jennifer Moore is the owner of consulting firm Yellow Pug Ltd. (www.yellowpug.com) and an artisan/creator for her new venture Meander of Colorado (www.meander.shop). She can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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:
- 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.
A friend who has suffered long stints of emotional abuse from her insane and psychopathic ex mentioned that she believed that God was telling her to “be still.” Normally, as Christians, we tend to say, “Oh yeah, sister, that’s it,” without really giving any thought, because we are so overly zealous: 1) to prove we really are Christians and that we fully understand this phrase, or 2) to veil our guilt that we are not doing this at all in our lives, and it really sounded good. So, I did a double-take and evaluated what ‘be still’ means, and how it applies to my life.
I began to assess what times in my life that I knew God “showed up” in my life. I ascertained that it was when I least expected it; it was almost as if I was looking the other way spiritually when it DID occur. I am trying to develop a ‘spiritual memory’ of sorts in which I can remember ‘what this felt like’ or what outcome came about from a series of prayer events. This sounds strange, but I have begun to ‘see’ outcomes from prayer as ‘campaign results’ in the same vein as social media ads. The truth is, we are outreaching to God for help, so it is in the realm of communication arts to pray. I know I am opening myself up to the dreaded ‘Christian’ criticism by revealing that I think this way.
In assessing what vibes turn the God Power on, I’ve learned this nugget of truth: when I have felt my most passive, lonely, and resigned is when God quickly let me know He was there, in spectacular fashion. I’d prayed, yes, but my validation came when I was my most humbled, insignificant self; resigned to whatever was coming to me, even if that meant permanent isolation and failure. Am I supposed to just be like that all the time? Or am I supposed to be OKAY with being like that all the time? The truth is probably closer to the fact that we draw nearer to God when we just let our emotions go and pray honestly that we can’t do anything with ourselves, and we ask Him to lead us.
This, unfortunately, works against those of us who are Type A control freaks, because it attempts to rewire us. It may cause us to speak more slowly, answer less quickly, or even sit quietly. This, I feel, is the process of developing a spiritual power center and deep communion with God. My friend had tapped into the mojo — in listening and waiting. I am learning that perhaps there is some Power in Passivity with God that I missed somewhere along the way. Sometimes the ‘heavy lifting’ can’t occur until you just simply become incompetent in the area of fixing things.
I realize that this sounds defeatist, but I can tell you it is a pattern that has illuminated itself lately. My grasp on this concept is like the barely visible blue line of that positive early pregnancy test. I CAN see it, but I’m still wondering if it’s really there. “Doing it scared” seems to be the uneasy faith-footing in which we are called to thrive. We may not get what we want, but we will always get what we need (aging adult old-song lyric alert).
Clearly, for those of you more mature than me spiritually, this falls in the realm of ‘blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted’ obviousness. But what if it is something else? What if my spiritual neurons can connect most accurately with the Holy Spirit when I’m what they call ‘still’? When the wind isn’t blowing, it’s still. This may mean I’m learning to silence the noise of expectation, self-preservation, and pride in my blip-blip-blip radar with God. Of course, what you’re going through is wrong, He whispers. But one day, you will dance on the mountain.
I don’t have to tell any of you how this goes against human nature, and against how the world works. This is how I know it’s right on target. Thanks, soul sister. I needed this. Now if I can only get as good at it as you are.