Creative Strategies For Creative Business

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Emily Cohen, who labels herself “a brutally honest consultant,” has consulted and worked with many leading design firms across the country. Through these experiences, she has developed, tested, and curated key business insights and strategies that have helped firms become more effective, profitable, and fun to work at. Cohen conducts strategic business planning retreats and provides confidential, best-practice insights and advice on staff, client, and process-management strategies. She shares her expertise through speaking engagements, guest posts, a Skillshare class, webinars, industry activism, and, most recently, in her new book: Brutally Honest, No-Bullshit Business Strategies to Evolve Your Creative Business. Here she talks to me about designer-advocacy and more.

In your book, “Brutally Honest” you note “there are no magic bullets.” Why not? Because every situation and individual is unique, seeking a magic answer to different challenges and situations is both impossible and slightly dangerous. While there may be best business practices one can be inspired by – many of which I outline in my book – not every practice works for everybody or in all situations. We work in a very fast-paced business climate, so we all tend to seek that easy answer – the “magic bullet” – that works for everyone. This isn’t always possible. Sometimes the solutions required to fix a problem or challenge are multi-dimensional, involving changes to various areas of your business and, often, need more time and thought to implement than a “magic bullet” answer would. For example, many firms think a good project management technology will solve all their problems. But, in fact, technology doesn’t define process, it only facilitates your existing process. So, if you have a broken process, the technology won’t solve the problem.

All creative people have something in common, what is it? And is it something that can be monetized?Interesting question. I do try to avoid generalizations so I don’t want to say all creatives have one thing in common. But, I would say that many creatives (but not all) are people-pleasers. They seek to make everyone happy and avoid conflict at all costs. Being a people-pleaser can have costly implications (e.g., not billing additionally for scope creep, allowing others to walk all over you, not being honest during performance reviews). Clearly, this is not a trait that can be monetized. However, I do believe there can be a nice balance of ensuring client/team satisfaction, while still ensuring that everyone wins, not just them, but you as well.

You have been incredibly thorough in developing “no-bullshit business strategies” but how does one know when one is slipping into the bullshit realm?Not all people may realize that they are slipping into the “bullshit realm,” because they are often individuals that are either already very full of themselves that they aren’t even aware of how they come across or they are so insecure that they overcompensate by being uncomfortably, and inauthentically, overconfident. Those that bullshit are often full of hyperbole and tend to be wind bags, make exaggerated statements, and talk at length but have very little substance, value, and/or meaning behind what they are saying. Often, they don’t even believe what they are saying, they simply talk for the sake of talking. I’m not sure those that do bullshit are even aware of what they are doing. Therefore, it is often up to those that are more honest and authentic to be the voice of reason and manage those that “bullshit” accordingly.

You have also collected a trove of wisdom and tips. What are the variables that invariably need attention when developing a business?Thank you. I’m very proud of the book, which is an accumulation of my expertise and industry insight, and really tried hard to provide tangible insight and advice. But, no amount of good advice will help if you aren’t fully open to new ideas, committed to change, and don’t put up unnecessary roadblocks along the way. Humans have a tendency to quickly fall back into their bad behaviors and/or do what’s most comfortable. That’s why, in my book, I’ve listed many of the more common excuses creatives often use to avoid moving forward. For example, many creatives say “I’m an introvert” as an excuse for why they don’t actively pursue new relationships. I call bullshit on any excuses that people use to avoid moving forward. There are many ways to skin a cat, and you can easily overcome these excuses by thinking of creative solutions. Another variable is time. Change and growth takes time, it’s not something that happens overnight. If you don’t dedicate enough time to your business, it will stagnate. It’s that simple.

Since you are being brutally honest, should (or can) every designer start and run a creative business? Doesn’t it take something very special to do it right?I feel strongly that not every designer should run a creative business. Yet, many still do. In my experience, those that run a successful creative business, should be entrepreneurial, risk-takers, and understand that their role is not actually designing, but leading a business, which means embracing various “un-fun” responsibilities like financial management, new business development, and client/staff management. If you plan on starting your own firm because you think you will make more money or want to design cool stuff, you are sorely mistaken. Sorry.

You have worked for designers, helping structure and promote their businesses for a long time. What have you learned from this experience?That designers, in general, are kind, wonderful human beings. If I were to make one global generalization that is it. I’m really honored to work with such an incredible community of passionate, talented, and truly nice people.

What has changed in the creative business realm, especially in terms of client / designer relationships?Our industry changes quite a lot, which can either be exciting or challenging. In fact, I devote the last chapter of my book to industry trends. I’m certain that when I reprint the book – or write the next edition – these trends will be outdated and new ones will arise. However, one very dangerous­ change that is, in my belief, an ongoing challenge that has had damaging consequences, is that we, as an industry, have lost control of our value by allowing our clients and others to undervalue what we do. I think we must retake control and start pushing back when others don’t appreciate our insight and expertise. It’s about standing up for ourselves when our clients art direct us, when they are disrespectful, o
r when they ask us to sign contractual terms that either limit our right to show our work or include work-for-hire language without appropriate compensation. It’s also about not compromising on price. We should charge what we are worth and demonstrate that our expertise and services have positive impact on our client’s business goals. There are many firms, both large and small, local and national, famous and emerging, that are practicing behaviors that hurt our industry and we need to hold everyone more accountable to these damaging practices that have long-term implications. That’s the end of my speech.

The design field is fairly civilized compared to more cut throat industries. But how does one address the issue of competition?

Embrace it. Better to know your enemies. In fact, be friends with them. There will always be competition, that’s business. But, per my earlier speech, if we all practice consistent and ethical behaviors, then we can compete purely on our personality, talent, and quality not on anything else (like who has the lowest price).

And to follow that up, how do the “old guns” compete with the “young guns”?

By staying fresh and current. By embracing change and by continuing to evolve and grow. What we shouldn’t do is blame each other’s generation, but rather be inspired, learn from each other, and even seek opportunities to collaborate.

You get down to the nitty gritty of business. Once designers were reluctant to use the “B” word. Now it is a necessity. Is there a range of business acumen that a designer must have or is it all the same?I do believe that understanding the business aspects of our profession is good for everyone, even those that don’t own a firm. I’m a full believer in complete transparency and that it’s in our best interest and it’s our duty to train the next generation. It’s helpful to everyone, including our staff, if they understand and are exposed to every aspect of running business, from contracts to proposals to pricing to how to manage clients and projects and everything in between. After all, design is a business. Not only that, but if designers don’t have business acumen, how can they understand or appreciate our client’s own businesses and solve their problems?

Finally, what drives growth? Should creative strategies include growth as a key principle or come naturally?It really depends on how you define “growth.” Growth can be accomplished by growing in size, offering expanded services, or by making more money (sometime this involves quality over quantity or sometimes quantity over quality) or all three. One can even define growth more personally and creatively, in terms of learning new skills and improving or expanding work developed. Each of us has to decide for ourselves where we want to grow and how that can be accomplished. One undercurrent of successful growth, I believe, is to have well-defined goals and plans for the future. You can always pivot, but without a clear direction, you may meander into areas you didn’t want to go.

Actually, finally, what are the up and downsides of growth?Growth can be expensive, a bit terrifying and often involves moving beyond one’s comfort zone. But, without growth, stagnation may occur either financially, personally, creatively or in the types of work you do and services you provide, and, at the very worse without growth, one may risk becoming obsolete, which is never good.