The paradox of creative commerciality for business

To many commercial businesses, creativity is a bit of a mystery. Something they don’t necessarily know much about and an enigma they often don’t see the need to solve. But your ability to help them unravel the mystery, to help them understand what creativity means for their business, will be key to giving them the confidence to invest in design and in your expertise.

John Scarrott

For many businesses, understanding what creativity is is a challenge. In purchasing terms, it’s different to anything they’ve bought before. They can’t see what they’re getting until they’ve agreed to buy it. This immediately raises the uncertainty around the process and turns it into a high-risk exercise.

Clients are also not always sure how creative businesses work and what to expect. Add to this the absence of a well-tuned process for selecting a creative agency and uncertainty grows.

Commercial businesses have developed a number of ways to manage this concern, which include: 

Turning creativity into something tangible

By viewing creativity as an output rather than a process clients can have something more tangible on which to make their decision. This can sometimes manifest itself in the form of free pitching, where clients believe they are getting a range of work from which to choose without the ‘risk’. Another less extreme example is when the client requests to see your portfolio of previous work.

Asking for information on the business behind the creativity

Many potential clients have a more formal process for assessing creative businesses. This might involve asking for performance figures around income and profit, top clients by income, fee scales and policies.

Using price as an indicator

Many clients simply use price as an indicator, assuming that everyone can ultimately do a good job (in the absence of clear proof to the contrary) and choosing to go with the consultancy that looks to be the most efficient (i.e. the cheapest) or one that can provide them with a cushion in the form of a saving on what they expected to pay.

The paradox for commercial businesses when it comes to creativity is that in the well-intentioned act of making their decisions feel more secure to them, they are making their decision tougher, on the wrong basis and potentially excluding the very experts that could solve their problem.

What can a design business do to influence the situation? Here are some ideas:

Turn creativity into something else that’s tangible (other than end product)

You could refocus the conversation from ‘your output’ to ‘their business challenge or problem’. What business are you in, drawing or thinking? If it’s thinking then you know that it’s only after applying some thinking to their problem that an approach can emerge. So initially, shift the conversation away from you and your work (this comes later when they’re ready to hear it). Make it about them. Ask good questions, (What problem are you trying to solve? Who do you want to influence? What do you want to achieve with this investment?). When it comes to your turn to talk you can discuss the ‘problems you’ve solved in the past’ and any similarities with your client -to-be’s situation. It should become obvious to your client-to-be during this exchange that getting to the right answer will be the result of joint effort and sharing of information based on the unique aspects of the situation.

Create the information that will give them confidence in the business behind the creativity

An absence of this information is worse than worrying about whether you’ve got ‘the right answer.’ So the only way is to compile the information. Consider it as a project where you become your client. Spread it over whatever period of time is sensible for you and will be accommodated by your work schedule. The performance figures exist. Your challenge might be around the policy documents. Rather than thinking about them as policies, see them as what you believe as a business. This means you can make them an expression of your brand and something you can share on your website to let clients know, ‘here’s what we believe about this…’

Reassure around your price

Find ways to explain your pricing. Benchmark your prices against your peers and be ready to quote your source. This goes a long way to reassuring that you’re good value and/or appropriately priced. You can make the point that if someone else has put in a lower price, it may mean there is something missing from the proposal which could influence the final outcome. It might not, because the consultancy may be pitching a low price for other reasons, but it could help the client to clarify whether or not the other consultancy will be able to deliver. You’re helping your client to be by enabling them to have a useful conversation.

The paradox of creative commerciality for business is not likely to go away. But the right approach to tackle it and the confidence to have a go will bring you closer to the clients you want to be working with.

John Scarrott is membership director at the Design Business Association. His DBA blog, Conversations With, is here.

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