DO YOU NEED AN AGENCY?
Though the computer has certainly turned the creative services industry inside out, an effective advertising and marketing campaign is still much more than tapping a few keys. Someone has to research the market place, conceptualize the campaign, visualize the tools that will sell your product or service. A strong effective corporate ID is more than the CEO typing his or her initials in a fancy font. It takes artistic talent. And beyond the creativity and planning, implementing a solid marketing campaign requires organization, administration, more research and lots of analysis. And yes, money too, sometimes lots of money.
Which is why many companies go directly to vendors today. With the right vendors -- you can save money, get a top notch campaign, and be more involved in the creative process. If you know how to find, select and communicate with creative vendors -- you can become your own advertising manager. If not, you've just bought yourself a ticket to chaos.
An agency is essential for any company or organization that is without marketing direction. The agency's first job is then to figure out what the client needs to accomplish in order to succeed. An agency, combining science, experience and intuition, designs a plan and keeps the client on track. At least, that's what a good agency does.
Think of an agency like your general practitioner. Just as a GP may also be a cardiologist, your ad agency may also specialize in, say, broadcast advertising or public relations. The problem with agencies, like doctors, is that they simply cannot keep up in every specialty area. The reverse problem is that, unwilling to pay an agency, some companies try to give too much power to a loose assemblage of creative "specialists," freelancers who may know a lot about their field, but little about marketing or advertising as a whole. You might allow a graphic designer, for example, to design an entire advertising campaign. That person may be skilled visually, but may not know about placing media, writing copy, studying demographics, determining market share or implementing a public relations campaign.
Bookkeepers, bankers, accountants and financial advisers all deal with money, but they perform distinctly different functions. Creative vendors sometimes offer overlapping services, based less on what they can do, than what they will do to make money. Unable to tell one from another, you, the customer, may be at the mercy of an unqualified vendor. Yet, here's where it gets tricky. Since what the creative vendor sells is creativity, sometimes you get your best work from the rebel, the iconoclast, the one who breaks rather than follows the rules. That makes selecting your creative team even more difficult.
WHO ARE THESES PEOPLE?
Other than word-of-mouth, customers may have no way to easily assess the merits of one vendor over another. Other than the Better Business Bureau, consumers may have little recourse when they get less than paid for. The level of professionalism varies widely. Some excellent creatives have terrible phone skills, cannot manage their time or money, may be too artistic for your needs. Since the final product is unique and artistic, getting an estimate that measures apples to apples is sometimes impossible.
Like athletes or actors, commercial creative vendors must win to survive. Their income is directly related to their talent, reputation and ability to produce original work on command. Finding the right creative vendors for your needs is a lot like assembling an athletic team or producing a film. But even with talented players, pennants and Oscars are not easy to come by.
HOW DO THEY THINK?
Unlike their fine art cousins (and many double as fine artists on the side), commercial artists have a clear mandate, and it does not come from within. The creative vendor is paid to achieve goals set by the client -- by you. Usually that means, the final product -- an ad, a brochure, video, jingle, CD-rom, photo -- is supposed to make money by selling a product or service. Or the client may want to teach, to communicate key information in order to train or influence a targeted audience. While the fine artist wants to create his or her own soulful masterpiece, the commercial artist never loses sight of your goals needs. A brilliantly artistic work may be an advertising dud if it does not tell the client's story or sell his widget.
The creative vendor lives from assignment to assignment. Unlike traditional jobs, each creative assignment may be wildly different from the last, perhaps requiring research, new equipment and materials, or untried procedures. A videographer may need a $50,000 camera, a printer may buy a $7,000,000 color press, while a writer could use a $2 pen. The final product may be unique or stamped from a cookie-cutter mold.
Some creative vendors work for an hourly or daily wage, while others estimate a cost per project or, in some cases, require a royalty based on the success of the project. Rates may vary enormously and quality is not necessarily tied to cost. A $40,000 video may look almost identical to a $10,000 production. A brilliant hungry artist may sell a drawing for a song, or a song for a pittance. The artist may work from home, an office or a studio. There is no dress code, no simple stereotype, no personality profile that covers this diverse population. A three-piece suit does not imply conventionality any more than a nose ring implies creativity.
14 TIPS TO HIRING CREATIVE VENDORS
(1) Don't Shoot from the Hip
(2) Sometimes You Have to Search
Simply scanning the Yellow Pages will lead you to many photographers, but few illustrators, yet illustrators abound if you know where to look. While most video producers are "in the book," few audio techs or web designers currently are.
That's why alternate sources, like this web site, exist. Local publications often run annual listings and the Chamber of Commerce will know some, but not all, of these often elusive vendors. Mostly you will find them by asking your colleagues -- "Who do you use?" When you spot a logo, a TV commercial or print ad that you admire, call the company and ask who did the work. Agencies that subcontract their creative work may consider vendors' names to be a trade secret, but with a little detective work, you can find the people whose work appeals to you. But be careful. Creative work that attracts you, may not necessarily attract your customers.
(3) Check Portfolios and References
Traditionally, a large company might ask a number of vendors or agencies to present fresh new ideas, then select the vendor that offered the best. This is an ideal scenario, but applies only to companies willing to pay the price for high end creativity. It is not legitimate for a small company to make many vendors jump through hoops for a tiny job, and true professionals will politely decline or charge a small fee to make such a presentatioin. It is also not legitimate for a consumer to "borrow" a clever idea from one vendor and ask another to produce it, unless both vendors are compensated.
(4) Value the Work
Similarly, if you think advertising or training are "necessary evils," you may do best to do the work yourself. One corporation owner told a series of vendors that he "hated creative types." They are all "one step below dentists, tax collectors and lawyers," he announced at each interview. Then he asked to see their portfolios.
A clever name, an appealing logo, brilliant marketing or package design can turn a sleeping product or service into a winner. Most creatives spend their lives imitating original ideas that worked for earlier companies. But the most valuable bit of creative work is the one that runs ahead of the others. That idea must, at first glance, appear the most risky since no one else is doing anything similar. The local cartoonist who invented Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a true creative and, appropriately, earned millions. But it took an equally clever marketing person to make the idea fly.
Would you offer a creative vendor half of your newfound gain if that person could double your profit? Think about it.
(5) Don't Expect Miracles
The bottom line is that the employer needs to work in partnership with the creatives. Depending too much on their talents can be as dangerous as not valuing the work.
(6) Understand What You Are Buying
It is the vendor's job to tell you what you need to know, to make you just knowledgeable enough to be helpful, but not knowlegdeable enough to be intrusive. Unless you prefer to operate on blind faith, you need creatives who can communicate well enough to guide you through the creative process. Not all can, and this is one argument for using an agency, especially when your marketing needs require a dozen separate independent creatives, each with their own opinions, tastes and values. Unfortunately, not all agencies know how to communicate either. Some are too pompous, some are too quiet, some are as confused as you.
One approach is to study up. You can get the same instructional tapes, books, videos and CD-roms that your creative vendors use. You can take a seminar or evening course. You can call around and talk to professionals in each field. Is this the equivalent of learning accounting before hiring an accountant? Yes. It's cheaper, but a lot of work, to do it yourself.
(7) Avoid Low Bid Thinking
Unfortunately, most buyers want a marketing palace. Nothing less than the Taj Mahal will for them. They see a TV commercial and would "something like it, but not expensive." They see the logo for a Fortune 500 firm and what something "cheap, but just like it." Instead of telling them the truth, creative vendors may attempt to build the Taj Mahal with cardboard budgets. The result is often a disaster for both parties.
Remember, you are not hiring someone to sell you a book, but to WRITE one. The more creative and comprehensive the project, the more it will cost. It is that simple. No one expects to pay for a Geo Metro and drive away with a Cadillac, but reasonable intelligent people do expect to get a $5,000+ logo for $150. Why is that? Probably because we are all used to seeing very expensive advertising free on television and in magazines, on billboards and in newspapers. Big companies spend millions of dollars to attract our attention using very high quality work. Because this costly, sometimes very artistic work is all around us, we often forget that the people who produced it spent a lot of money.
The problem with the creative services industry is that there are a lot of wannabe vendors, people so inexperienced or so untalented that they too are fooled into thinking they can provide high value work for rock bottom prices. But an artist selling $150 logos eventually disappoints the customer or dies trying.
There are plenty of options for the low bid thinker. He or she can buy stock photos or illustrations off the internet, or get a piece of software that will outline a marketing plan, or buy a pre-packaged radio ad with a "donut hole" space to insert his name and phone number. Much of this is very good stuff and highly affordable. That's because it is being sold and sold and sold again by the owners. It is not original.
Some people have no trouble spending $1.99 for a fast food burger at lunch and $24.99 for a rare bit of prime rib at dinner. Others are burger people all the way. If you are one of those, please, stick to clip art.
(8) Understand Your Bill
As the product evolves and becomes clearer, the buyer's opinion of it evolves as well. Because the work is so subjective, it is especially important for you and your vendor, to have the financial details clearly spelled out in advance.
Some buyers want to pay "on approval." If they like it, they buy it. This seems reasonable to the buyer, but can be a heart attack in the making for the vendor who invests dozen, perhaps hundreds of hours in the creation of the work. And, to be blunt, whether the vendor likes the work may have no effect on whether it is an artistic or economic success. In the long run, the value of the creative product is determined by how well it sells or teaches. For that reason, creatives may require a deposit, usually half the estimated total, and the balance due on acceptance and delivery. There may be a contract. If you don't like the final work, you may still have to pay for it.
You should understand what you are buying, but not to excess. Don't require a creative vendor to justify every nut and bolt used in the creative process. Expect that an agency will "mark up" a subcontracted service such as photography or printing. This is normal. You may ask how much it has been marked up, but do this at the outset of the project, not at the end.
It is legitimate to ask how much services cost per hour or per day, but it is not fair to haggle over how much time the vendor worked. Most creatives work many hours over what they charge. If you distrust the vendor or don't like the rates, don't hire that person again. But do not destroy the critical relationship by talking about money at inappropriate times. An original creative work is NOT simply the sum of its parts. If it were, you could get one at K-Mart.
(9) Frame Each New Project
Creatives are problem solvers and the good ones work like Houdini. Your job is to frame the "box" from which they must escape. You provide the goals. They provide the results. The vendors uses all the tricks and skills and tools available to achieve the results you have ordained.
Creative vendors need boxes from which to escape. The financial, material and time constraints of the project are part of the box or frame you create. When that is done, stand back and enjoy the process. If the escape artist never emerges, either the box is too small or you hired the wrong guy.
(10) Get It in Writing
Some creatives, because they too are unsure of the outcome, resist written summaries. Some clients, because they do not want their overweaning expectations dashed, do the same. But a professional agreement between a creative vendor and a client ALWAYS includes some form of written agreement.
(11) Learn to Lose Control
But at some point, to be creative, the vendor must also take control in order to cause change. Creatives deal often in human emotion. Their goal is to make people do something, learn something, buy something new. To do that, they often must be dramatic and direct, they must draw attention and make an impact.
Many companies run from an opposing mindset. They focus on sameness, on quality control, on tight tolerances of time and material, on mass production. Therefore, in a small company especially, it may be hard for the leader to allow a creative vendor to "break all the rules" when the leader's job is to enforce them. Creatives cause leaders to see things in new ways and, simply to show their own authority, a leader may reject the change out of hand. This is a frequent trouble spot when controlling independent clients meet creative independent vendors. Sparks may fly and they can be, depending on personalities -- colorful or destructive.
If the buyer is not able to give up power to a creative, no change can occur. So it is the vendor's job, this time, to frame the experience. The creative must be able to ease the buyer in and out of control in a way that is not threatening. The creative must reign in his or her ego at certain points and let it fly at others.
(12) Who Owns What?
So it is up to the vendor and the buyer to write down what is actually being sold. Are you buying an illustration or just the right to use it under special circumstances? Starving artists tend not to bring up this issue, often because they do not understand copyright law, and often because they do not want to lose a job by haggling over rights. A photographer, for example, usually "sells" a photo, but retains ownership of the negatives. A videographer may edit images into a tape that the buyer "owns", but retain the right to make all duplicates, to own all raw footage, or to make all edits in the future.
The copyright issue is based on the notion that a creative person makes a living by being creative, not just by cranking out work. If a work of art increases in value or generates income, it makes sense that the creator should benefit. But it is a complex field and creatives may not even know they have had an original idea. And what is an original idea when nearly everything original is recycled?
From the buyer's view, it is important to get things in writing, ask for as many rights as possible, and respect the fact that the artist deserves a fair payment for the work supplied. The creative vendor should, likewise, be up front and honest about what rights are being sold, should know if the work is original, and should know what compensation makes it all worthwhile.
(13) Learn to Praise
Once you have a creative team, remember to contact them after the fact. It can't hurt when the next job comes around.
(14) Please Follow Up
Or worse, clients may produce creative tools because "we needed it," and then never fully use them. Hundreds of brochures lie in the basement. Closets are full of unseen videos. Marketing plans and reports lie smoldering in filing cabinets. Web sites hang in cyberspace without promotion, without updates.
"We tried marketing," a small business owner said. "It was a pain, so we stopped doing it." What this business owner does not realize is that, conscious or not, she is marketing every day. But as the philosopher says, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will do."
© 1997 J. Dennis Robinson
Mr. Robinson is owner of Ideaworks, a creative services agency in Portsmouth, NH. With Tim Dubuque he is also owner and creator of the regional web site SeacoastNH.com.
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