Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Bigger Isn’t Better, It’s Just More Expensive

As a one-person design firm, I have always been content with my decision to be a solo practitioner. Especially in recent years, the opportunity to collaborate and create fluid creative teams has increased, making bidding on larger and more complex projects a lot more feasible. However, there has been a lag between the expanded capabilities of independent contractors, and how these are perceived by some clients. Many of us have been unfavorably compared to large agencies due to assumptions about their supposed greater benefits.

Big agencies have historically cultivated images of greater power, sophistication and resources. They also have the ability to convey a sense of status seldom associated with small firms. I think respect for independents is on the rise because more and more clients are starting to realize the following:

Big agencies prefer big clients. The status thing works in both directions. If you’re not the client bringing in the most revenue, that can have an effect on how your project is prioritized. As more and more professionals start their own ventures, those that don’t fit the ideal client model of the big firms may not register on their radar. The good news is, there are also increasing numbers of excellent small firms who provide agency-level work.

Big agencies charge more to cover their higher costs. Large staffs have to be paid regularly. They also have to be housed in large offices with all the necessary support. Maintaining a large firm with a massive overhead is a monster that has to be fed constantly. That creative director you’re meeting with? He may make $100/hour or more, but you’re paying his firm upwards of $300/hour just to sit in the same room.  And he probably won’t be doing your work – that will be done by a junior or mid-level designer who makes a fraction of the CD’s salary.

Big agencies hand off work to junior associates. Usually, senior management focuses on developing new business. Once clients are landed, they often get shuttled to junior associates. This can happen anywhere, but the larger the firm, the more prevalent the practice can be. At a smaller agency, the person you signed with will typically be the person who works on your project and will nearly always be responsible for your project and with whom you will work.

Big agencies are less nimble. Large staffs also mean that you will have layers of management to deal with that don’t exist in a smaller firm. Because of their scale, large firms tend to be less agile than smaller ones. This can be a problem with the ever-increasing rate of change in the business world. Fewer people mean less bureaucracy and more flexibility.

Big agencies can no longer claim a technology advantage. The competitive advantage big agencies once had in research has been eclipsed by online tools available to firms of any size. Technology has made the monopoly big firms used to have on these resources a thing of the past. 

The use of big agencies is being questioned in many quarters for good reason. Responsiveness, flexibility, working with a senior creative, less management, way lower overhead (with resulting lower fees) and a level technology playing field mean that you have a lot more options than before. Obsolete assumptions can be expensive. 

When it’s time for your next design project, go small.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Newsletters: An Effective Way to Stay in Touch

On one of the forums I follow, there was a conversation about the best way to reach out to clients for new work, whether directly or as referral sources. The consensus was that they are a rich resource if approached correctly. Some felt that individualized outreach worked well. 

For me personally, I have had very good response to my (mostly) monthly newsletter. I have found it to be an efficient way to remind my client base that I can help them with their design and communications challenges in more ways than one.  The forum was for designers, but I think the principles hold for any professional service. Here is what I said:

Creating content that is meaningful and useful to your readers is at the core of newsletter effectiveness. So you need a very good handle on what motivates your readers and what their problems are. They are not interested in your accomplishments, except as it relates to the problems they want to solve. I have read that newsletter content should be no more than 15-20% promotional. I had mine down to less than 5%, and still got feedback that it was too “sales-y.” So now I let my readers connect their own dots and confine anything about me to a column about what I’m currently working on. Readers are quite able to see from that that I can provide services beyond what they may have already gotten from me.

My last newsletter had an example of content intended to be immediately useful to clients. It was about how not to make design decisions in a group setting. Besides being applicable to other types of decision-making, it was an opportunity to train my clients to behave in ways that work for me and also get them the best results. Besides having a pretty good open rate, I have gotten several positive emails about the article, which is usually the norm.

As far as tracking goes, if you use the MyEmma newsletter service, the stats are generated automatically and easily accessed. I have used Emma for over two years with great satisfaction. They have been especially helpful in customizing the template I use, and their customer service is great.

If you would like to see how I do my newsletter, this is a link to the last one, shown above.
And of course feedback and critiques are always welcome!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Two Great Blogs

It’s been uncharacteristically busy lately. You would think it would slow a bit as summer comes on, and it did for a minute. Then it went right back to normal, which around here is low-level crazed. In the smallish interval, I got acquainted with two blogs that I think are very worth sharing.

The first one is by a colleague, Julia Reich of Julia Reich Design in western New York. Like me, she practices in a fairly remote area. Recently she led a roundtable on the joys (or not) of being a designer in the sticks at the annual Creative Freelancers Conference. Wish I could have been there, but her report makes up for it. Read it here:

The other blog is (ahem) my daughter’s new blog. Lest you think that the only ism for me is nepotism, I have never been a slavishly adoring mom, as Caitlin will be the first to tell you. I do think she has a great talent for writing, and since she seems to have inherited the Snarky gene, she’s quite amusing. She has many insights into the life of a young urban 20-something. Check her out here:

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Dynamics of Social Media

I ran across this infographic on a Pinterest board just now and was amazed at how well and succinctly it sums up the mystifying relationships among the principle social media. Up to now I believe this issue has largely been the province of academia and Wall Street, so of course I had to share it with my faithful readership.I do wonder where LinkedIn would fit in here, but apparently it isn't a big enough waster of time, or else has insufficient scope for work avoidance.

It looks to be the creation of a site called (hard to see that tiny gray attribution at the bottom). They seem to be the inventors of demotivational posters as well. Kudos to them for pushing back the frontiers of snark.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Cheap Design is Expensive

I just sent out my quasi-monthly newsletter, and since there doesn’t seem to be a lot of overlap between my blog buddies and my newsletter list, I thought I would also post it here. Let me know what you think!

I was contacted recently by a business owner who wanted to place an ad in a magazine with a looming deadline. The owner said he wanted me to just resize an old ad and wasn’t interested in making any changes. Upon questioning him further, it appeared that the old ad had not been effective, but since another publication had put it together for him for free, he felt he could get some more mileage out of it.
I tried to explain that putting little or no thought into the content and look of an expensive display ad would make the ad basically useless, but he wasn’t having any of it. He insisted that the important thing was to have a presence in the publication and that the ad’s message was adequate. He seemed to think that readers would just somehow “get” what his business was all about and that they would know what to do (even though the ad had no call to action). He felt that spending money on the content and appearance of the ad was a waste, and I should just resize it and be done. Since I have an allergy to selling people useless stuff, I passed on the job.
This experience is not unique. Everyone who has ever been in business has had to deal with customers who are overly focused on price, and the design and marketing professions are no different. This is especially true in an ailing economy – customers tend to focus on the bottom line because it feels like they live and die by it. But, as we know, it is a mistake to bring a short-term focus to a long-term challenge, and that is what happens when make-do patches are applied to marketing tools. Re-using something that didn’t work the first time just wastes resources that would be better applied to finding a real solution that supports business goals over the long term.
And other businesses have their versions of this. If you are an accountant, it’s “Cheap accounting is expensive,” and if you are a mechanic, it’s “Cheap repairs are expensive.” Your investment in expensive ad space, printing and web development will be wasted if budget resources are not first used for developing message and design. Get your strategic content in place, and you will receive a much better return on those investments.
So how about all of you? what's your version of "Cheap _____ is expensive"?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Know Where Your Stuff Comes From

I have long been a reader of GraphicDesign:usa, a respected design publication with a long history. In their recent Green Newsletter , the editor, Gordon Kaye, had an article called “Computers Don’t Grow on Trees.”  In it, he made the point that the assumption that digital is greener than paper is simplistic, and overdue for challenge and examination. He included a link to another article on the re-nourish site addressing the debate. I decided to respond with the following letter: 

Thanks for your lead editorial in the latest GDUSA Green Newsletter. It is really refreshing to finally see a more balanced picture of sustainability issues in a national design forum.

I live on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, where growing and harvesting trees has been a way of life for over 130 years. The region is still mostly covered by trees, and not just in Olympic National Park. Reforestation has been a standard forestry practice since the early 20th century, now mandated by state law and modern forestry methods.

I have found that most designers who live in urban areas have almost no understanding about forestry processes. I didn’t either until I moved here in the late 70’s. I am now married to a commercial forester who manages the oldest tree farm in our region, 125 years old and very productive. I was disappointed in the digital side of the article on the re-nourish site. Its characterization of tree farms had many inaccuracies. For instance, monoculture is not generally practiced; tree farms are managed to mimic natural processes as much as possible; many of them are privately held and by small business people; and forestry in Washington State is highly regulated with a set of rules called Forest Practices. Habitat degradation and pollution are not beneficial to good tree growth, and modern forestry practices reflect this, as shown in the Finch in the Forest blog. 

I think the real problem is that most people don’t think about where their stuff comes from – any of it, not just wood products. For instance, many take it for granted that food appears in the supermarket wrapped in plastic and ready to go, without wondering how that happened. I noticed that there was no mention of blood metals in the re-nourish article. Beating up on wood products is a lot easier than taking responsibility for the innards of our MacPros, or giving up our internal combustion vehicles. Of course we will all benefit in the long run by learning to live and work more sustainably, but hypocritical finger-pointing and simplistic generalizations are not going to get us there. I appreciate your integrity in trying to present all sides. 

So what do you all think? Do you know where your stuff comes from? 

(Go here to learn more about blood metals.)

Monday, March 26, 2012

How Much is a Donation Worth?

Last week on the radio, I heard a report comparing how much money the major presidential candidates have raised – how much from PACs and how much from small individual donors (the one-person variety). Apparently Obama has raised as much from individual small donors as Romney has from super PACs. The story went on to focus on comparing each campaign’s number of dollars as a metric for the relative strength of the candidates.
 I think they’re focusing too narrowly – where the dollars come from is far more significant as a measure of relative strength. This obsession with absolute numbers can also happen when evaluating online and social media marketing campaigns: the sheer quantity of hits is assumed to prove success. But the true metric is conversion. You can have a million hits, but if none of them converts to a sale, who cares?
It’s the same with dollars from a super PAC: how many of those will convert to actual votes? The conventional wisdom says that more advertising = more people converted. True up to a point, but I would argue that a dollar donated directly from a person who also has a vote to spend is far more valuable.
When people directly invest their own money in a cause, they are investing philosophically and emotionally. Otherwise their wallets would stay in their pants. I think the dollars raised from individuals is far more indicative of voter sentiment than voting projections extrapolated from an ad spend. If so, Romney’s huge war chest may be less powerful than Santorum’s smaller pile, because the latter is mostly from individuals. And Obama’s may trump them both because it has both quality (small donors) and quantity (most money).
I guess it will come down to a test of whether big-bucks advertising can trump voter investment. Since one influences the other, this will be interesting.