Are You Really Needed?
I love you. I’m here to help. Sit in the circle.
This post is one man’s long over-due intervention for the creative professions.
I love my work. I enjoy helping people, particularly other business owners. I find creative people stimulating and the business of the creative professions fascinating. I get to travel and learn. I’m building a great team of amazing individuals who inspire me. I thrive on the sense of higher purpose that drives it: we are on a mission to change the way creative service are bought and sold the world over.
And we’re doing it. We’re doing it better than anyone else on the planet, I believe. Our impact keeps growing and I expect it will be felt long after we are all gone.
All this is incredibly fulfilling, but it didn’t start out that way. I didn’t pursue my passion in the beginning – I was just trying to feed my family. I had uprooted us from the city, moved us to a little mountain village for quality of life reasons and had no idea where the money would come from. The final decision was between launching Win Without Pitching or buying the local fly fishing shop. It was a close decision that could have gone the other way.
This work has always been interesting to me (or I wouldn’t do it) but it was never “my passion.” About five years ago I was speaking to a friend from my big agency days and he said to me, “You’re lucky. You’re pursuing your passion and you’re doing it from a beautiful place.” My reaction shocked even me. I screwed up my face, a bit horrified, and blurted out, “This isn’t my passion!”
Again, I love what I do; I’m driven by the never-ending grand mission and the idea that I can make a lasting impact on a small part of the world, but I started this business because I needed to feed my family. Of the two choices in front of me, I could pursue my passion (fly fishing) or I could chase what I saw as a massive unmet need in a market I understood but was hoping to escape from. I chose to chase the need.
The Problem of Passion
Too many creative professionals start creative firms for the wrong reason – a designer’s passion for design and his desire to design for a living.
While passion is a good thing, it alone is not enough rationale to start a business, particularly a business in a field that is as crowded as design. (I use design here as a surrogate for advertising and other creative services as well.) This passion is at the root of many poorly-run businesses and poor business practices like free pitching.
I want to pose some questions for you to consider before I begin to address them:
1. Why did you start your firm?
2. You’re in the marketing business but are you a marketer?
3. Should you really be in business at all?
Was it The Fun or The Money?
I believe there are two reasons most people go to work in the morning: fun and money. Now ask yourself, when you started your firm was your primary motivation the fun or the money? Creative firms are almost always started in pursuit of the fun. It’s the thrill, the passion, the creating and the adrenaline rush of presenting. You might go years sacrificing money for fun, telling yourself and your employees that to do so is an investment in the future. You might take work that you shouldn’t, because “it’s good for the portfolio.” You’ll stay up all night crafting ideas that you might pitch for free in the morning because it’s a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”. Then you’ll do it again the next week.
And in the beginning it is fun. You’re in business for yourself, eating what you kill. You’re a professional artist and people are validating your artistry by actually paying for your work. You’ve got a cool office, a thin phone and great eyeglasses. Life is like a rock ‘n roll tour bus: everyone is young and good looking and staying up late working on the latest project, sure that it will be a hit. There’s a combined sense of creating something that’s bigger than all of you. The music is always on, there’s always beer in the fridge and sometimes there’s even sex in the washroom.
And then, just like in all the rock n’ roll movies, you wake up after awhile – somewhere before ten years if you’re lucky, maybe as late as 25 years if you’re not – and realize it’s not fun anymore. You face the fact that there is no money. The people around you that were once part of the fun are now a burden, dragging you down creatively and financially. Now you want nothing more than to get off that bus before you end up looking like Keith Richards. You’re tired of having fun and you realize that what you really want is to make money.
Dr. Don Shows the Way
Let me tell you about my dentist. I live in a village of one thousand people in the middle of nowhere. It’s on the shore of a 92-mile long lake set between two mountain ranges in the interior of British Columbia somewhere between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean – a short nine-hour drive from Vancouver. This remote village is filled with people who have no business being here. In this place we all ask each other the question, what are you doing here? We’re all doing the same thing – living a certain lifestyle trying to obtain a higher quality of life, but the question that immediately follows is, How did you get here?
My dentist is great at what he does and he clearly loves his work. When I asked him for his story – how did you get here – he told me, “Well, I fell in love with this place and wanted to live here, but there was no work. So I looked around and asked, ‘what does this place need?’ It didn’t have a dentist so I went to dentistry school and then started this practice.”
“You mean you weren’t a dentist first – you weren’t passionate about dentistry,” I asked?
“No,” he replied. “I was a computer programmer.”
I was stunned. “It must have taken you a while to retrain as a dentist?”
“Five years,” he replied.
Are You a Marketer or a Producer?
There are two fundamental perspectives on business: a product-based perspective, and a market-based perspective. Producers try to sell what they know how to build. Marketers build what they determine they can sell.
There are many definitions of marketing, but the one that rings truest to me is this: “Identifying a need in the marketplace and matching a product or service to that need at a profit.”
This definition clearly describes an assessment of market need before the question of product or supply is even broached.
The world is filled with design firms that were founded by people who know how to, and have a passion for, design, regardless of the market’s need for more graphic or web design services. It is these firms – the producers who produce what so many others produce – that cannot Win Without Pitching.
Making the transition from a pitch-based agency to a Win Without Pitching firm begins with a reversal of perspective – looking to the marketplace and posing the dentist’s question: what’s missing? There are an almost infinite numbers of answers to that question, but another web design firm or another full-service advertising agency are almost certainly not among them.
One of the reasons a client can ask a creative firm to solve their problem as proof of the firm’s ability to solve their problem is the client has the power in the buy-sell relationship. The power is rooted in the availability of substitutes – the alternatives available to hiring the firm. Winning without pitching begins by altering the power structure in the buy-sell relationship through reducing the number of legitimate alternatives to the firm’s offering.
This is the power of a market-based perspective. Marketers intentionally build businesses and brands for the expressed purpose of meeting unmet or poorly-met need. As a result, they deal from a position of strength which allows them to control the buy-sell process and command a price premium.
Producers, on the other hand, love to produce, so they do so and hope they can find someone to purchase what they make. They find themselves at the opposite end of the power spectrum from marketers, dealing with price pressures and forces that increasingly commoditize their offerings.
In every speech I deliver there is a certain percentage of the audience that cannot even imagine what it’s like to have the marketer’s power in the buy-sell relationship. To them, winning without pitching seems impossible. These are the producers, and usually they are the most passionate about their craft.
Should Your Passion Be Your Business?
It is not the primary purpose of your business to make money, but it must make money. Consider profit the primary by-product of your purpose. With no or little profit it does not make sense to frame your purpose as a commercial enterprise. Remember the last part of our definition of marketing: “…at a profit.”
Do you subvert profitability for fun, consciously or otherwise? Do you, years into your enterprise, still only earn what you might as someone else’s employee – but with the added uncompensated risk of having your own employees? Do you rationalize a lack of financial reward by telling yourself how much fun you’re having or how fulfilled you are creatively?
Passion for design is a wonderful thing, and properly harnessed it can be a competitive advantage. Passion alone is not enough reason to start a business. This passion to produce without regard for the market’s needs has created a glut of undifferentiated advertising and design that is driving the global free pitching problem.
My dentist would tell you that his passion is hiking, fishing and other outdoor pursuits, and his commercially-framed purpose, some variation of helping people. He built a lucrative business of purpose that allows him to pursue his passion (that is why he loves what he does), but it was a business for which he made sure there was a need.
My own passion, at the time I made the decision to start this business, was fly fishing. In the end I choose not to make fly fishing my business, instead going where I saw the larger opportunity.
Are You Really Needed?
I ask again, is there really a need for what you do? If your firm disappeared today, what meaningful consequences would your market suffer? Would you really be missed, or would other, similar firms seamlessly step in and fill the void?
If your answers to these questions leave you deflated then congratulations – you’ve just come face to face with the reason why new business development is so hard, why financial reward is so elusive and why it feels like you’ll never be free of the pitch.
The real journey begins right here.
(This is a newly-updated post that originally appeared a few years ago. A few things have changed since then, including my idea that you go to work for fun and money. Today I would characterize those two motivators more broadly as impact and reward, but editing for that would take some of the fun out of this piece so I left it in. Also, my dentist retired a few years back and now spends his days in the back country, pursuing his passion. – Blair)