Why aren’t you selling your work better?

The Disclaimer

You could say there is a difference between “art” and “design”. Or in other words, a difference between work that is a product of your own creative expression and a work that is a product for “the man” – whether it be your boss, a freelance client, a prospective art buyer or patron. Now plenty of artists throughout history have had patrons and done work via commission for, usually, a hefty sum; often the work was heavily dictated/influenced by the patron (subject, composition, style, colour, etc.). You could view this as not very different from what many clients ask you to do on a daily basis – sometimes you are hired as a wrist, a wordsmith, a pixel pusher and sometimes you are hired for your particular artistic/creative style, viewpoint or specialty.

But unless your clients are using the product of your imagination and mental sweat to hang on their walls to otherwise enjoy in some private, let-me-soak-this-in-while-drinking-cognac-in-my-leather-and-wood-clad-home-library, and you are giving away this artwork for free (including footing the bill for materials), you’re working in sales, hon.

Admit it.

You are giving away your creative perspective for the purpose of monetisation. It’s painful for many creatives to fully accept and admit that fact. And in today’s business world, if you are not actively building, branding or promoting a company, service or product, you are helping others within the company to do so. All of us hope our skill or concept will transcend into the larger cultural fabric as something amazing in and of itself. But we aren’t paying for the production or the media placement. So you’re going to have to find a way to convince a client to do so.

Plastic smiles and stuffy ties?

So why am I bringing up this seat-shifting, uncomfortable fact? Because we are hired to solve clients’ business problems in a creative way and the majority of successful creative are REALLY good at it. But despite all these wonderful creative problem solving abilities – abilities used to produce, in the end, successful sales for the client, it’s amazing how many creatives can’t sell their own work. Whether it’s getting an external client to buy onto a concept or an internal creative director to understand where the idea/execution is going, knowing how to sell your work is crucial. Not only do you have a better chance of your original good idea remaining on a good track through the iteration and production process, better selling of work usually yields much better, much more useful feedback!

Not knowing how to sell creative work leads to nothing but trouble: frustration, demotivation and crushing self doubt that results in a once enthusiastic creative turning into the departmental Gollum.

Here are some very important skills and considerations I’ve learned over the years that might be helpful to creative types trying to sell their work to other creatives and non-creatives in the office and beyond:

1. Know who you are selling to:

I can’t emphasise this enough. Find out who is in the room when you present, what they are responsible for within their company, who do they report to (ie. who else might see your work when you are NOT in the room) and what matters to them most. This is the one area I see creatives fail in the first round by focusing too much on the wrong area/aspect of their creative for their audience.

If you are presenting to internal product managers, they don’t give a rat’s ass how many pixels your dropshadow is or what exact point size the type is, but they will care about how that drop shadow will make the call to action more prominent, or how you’ve balanced the type sizing on the page to make the information easier to read. Same with external clients – many art directors and designers lament the client saying “make the logo bigger” without realising they are pitching to a brand manager and that many times they get that request because the rest of the design or copy isn’t distinctly branded enough to make up for a small logo. Know your audience.

The SELL TIP: Find out who’s in the room and what helps them be successful in the company (this is where your account managers and/or main client contacts become invaluable). Then gear your presentation language to show how your idea will address their concerns. You can’t please everyone in the room, so focus on the 1-2 most important people in the chain of sign-off.

2. Always go back to the brief:

Now I am NOT saying that every creative concept must follow the brief to the letter. Unless it is a “functional” update of pre-existing work, most projects have room to move and most clients could use the push to consider other options than what they’ve had in mind when developing a brief. But always go back to the core of what they are really trying to accomplish – if the brief is unclear/vague/nebulous, go back to the client directly yourself and get clarification (and yes, have an account manager there because it could save you political drama and/or there might back history you don’t know about they can shed light on) – get it from the horse’s mouth because what you might find helpful or clear as a creative could be different than what an account manager, planner or project manager might.

The SELL TIP:  ALWAYS be able to present your creative product with language going back to the core of what the brief has asked you to accomplish. And if you have gone off brief with a good reason, start with what’s been asked for and expound on why your idea is better – if possible, back up your creative decisions with data vs anecdotal trends.

3. Read and use the research!

Now I’ve dealt with creatives who have a mixed reaction to research. Some devour it and structure every last creative idea or execution around it like a muscles on a skeleton. Some creatives are “allergic” to the research, finding it too restrictive or too lacking in emotion-related data to be useful. Some creatives don’t even think to ask for it.

I used to be in the last camp. And then moved easily between the first two. Regardless of where you stand, you shouldn’t ignore the research, especially if you have to sell creative ideas to non-creative types. More and more companies are numbers driven and addicted to Big Data findings. Ignoring research, especially on the more functional or cultural-behavioral end of things could be the kiss of death for your creative ideas and perhaps your client relationship.

The SELL TIP: When presenting your creative work, try to pick out some bigger and niche points within the research and explain how your idea accommodates or deals with those points. Example: If you are doing an ad campaign for organic skincare for yummy-mummies, show how your creative idea addresses their concern about the ingredients being all natural, but also show how it addresses a more secondary concern about the bottles being easy to open with one hand… Addressing the research will help sell your idea to the numbers-focused people in the room!

4. Don’t forget the customer

Think about how the customers interact with this client’s product and what THEY like about the product or service – weave that story into how you present your work. Yes, you should like what you produce. But not every customer is YOU with your preferences or perspective on the world. Your work should be relevant to type of customer the company currently has and aspires to collect, even if the customer is completely opposite in tastes and lifestyle to yourself.

The SELL TIP: Once again, reference the research and any additional information you can get about the target audience for your creative piece of work and think/present how it could appeal to them – examples of any cultural cues you’ve considered with coming up with your creative solution, make sure you mention them and to explain why they struck a chord.

5. How is your idea / execution going to help revenue? (or save money?)

This. Brass tacks, people. Most of us do not work for a charity and, if anything, your salary needs to come from somewhere! Not every idea will generate revenue directly or in the short term, but focus on the financial benefits wherever you can. 

6. Be able to explain how your creative idea works within the larger brand fabric

This is a bit tougher to explain. 
It’s great if you come up with a wonderful one-off idea/execution, but most clients and stakeholders want something that can work within a larger brand position. Or if it is different and intriguing enough, they want it to have enough legs to influence change over the whole company brand system. Not every campaign can be a brand manifesto, not every headline a “Just Do It”, not every mobile app can be an anomaly, not every advert can be another social media rip-off. Whatever you create needs to work within the larger company ethos. 

Too many times I’ve seen creatives attempt to sell work because it looked or sounded nice to them . It was more reflective of what they wished the brand could be or what they would prefer to have their own work reflect vs the client’s/company’s core objective or competencies. Example: You wouldn’t design a press ad for ASDA at the same aesthetic level as you would do for Harrods. We all have clients who ask for work that may not push us into the creative territories we prefer, but every client deserves to get work that’s right for their brand.

The SELL TIP: Step back from your work for a bit, think about the client’s overall objective as a business and see how your work fits into that objective.


Wrapping Up

Undoubtedly there are other things to keep in mind when selling work, especially to other non-creatives, but these seem like the strongest points I have at the moment. In the end, you are telling a story with your creative work – make sure you not only tell the high-minded, inspirational end of it, but that you also address the brass tacks.