How Did Agency Creatives Get So Good at Selling (Themselves Short)?

by Joan McArthur

January 25, 2017

If you deserve a raise, ask for it (after you’ve read this, of course)


Photo © Shutterstock/Singkham


It’s impossible to achieve your creative goals without pursuing the rewards you deserve. But focusing on rewards can kill your creativity . . . right? Herein lie the seeds of the all-too-familiar creative person’s narrative. It certainly was mine. I thought generations after me would be more secure in embracing the business side of themselves and their chosen career. But I’ve checked around, and guess what? Uh, no.


Here’s the story creatives often tell themselves (and anyone who’ll listen): “I’m creative; I don’t have to bother with [money] [business] [f*@!ing timesheets].” Or . . . “I’m not a sell-out; I’m not in it for the money.” 


Sound familiar? Here’s the real story: “Damn. The minute they think I’m focused on money, they won’t trust my creativity.” And, sadly, here’s the story behind the story: “Any day now, they’re going to figure out I really can’t hack it . . . it was all luck.” Or . . . “The next assignment could easily be the time I’m finally busted: I don’t know what the f*@! I’m doing.”


Fact: Creative people can act maddeningly entitled yet be hopelessly insecure. It’s just about impossible to be a working creative person and not have fear, doubt and insecurity.


Yet when it comes to selling the agency’s work, there’s nothing more persuasive than the true commitment—and raw passion—of the creative team who’ve lived with and sweated over a project since it walked in the door. Indeed, in the award-winning agencies we look up to, the creatives are the ones who elevate selling to an art. (Just don’t call them salespeople.)


It’s time for creatives to have a little faith in their talent. It’s not that fragile, and it’s not going anywhere. And you’re certainly not at risk of looking less creative by being more involved in the agency’s business, numbers, selling . . . and money. Especially yours.


So how about if we replace all these bogus and destructive narratives with the real substance that will walk you confidently into the boss’s office for a conversation about money and recognition. And all with your creativity intact.


In the best of all worlds, your agency has the following things in place:


1. Their mission

2. Their values

3. The creative director’s objective(s) for you and for the creative department.


This comprises the agency’s vision. And so it follows that all of it has been embedded into every employee, certainly every creative. Certainly you. If your agency has these key elements in place, you should be able to predict the outcome of any conversation around what’s due you when it comes to money and recognition.


Now let’s re-enter the real world. The odds are often steeply against you having the benefit of a clear and actionable agency vision, including your creative director’s specific objectives. Without this blueprint of expectations for you and your work, you’re working in the dark. How the heck are you supposed to know how you’re doing? The result: you are negotiating in the dark, too. No wonder you’d just as soon skip it.


Okay, now the good news: You are entitled to know, in great detail, what’s expected of you. And whether you report directly to the ECD, or to an associate creative director, you need to have that conversation before any other. And, just for fun, you ought to find that mission statement and the list of the agency’s stated values. At the very least, you need just two things from whoever makes the decision about your standing and future in the agency.


First, you need clarity. It’s not enough to hear that the ECD expects a “high standard” of creative work. Or “breakthrough” work. David Droga, founder and CD of Droga5, says this: “I just care about doing stuff that has
a positive influence. Creativity is a lazy way to describe it. A tenet of that is being original and relevant and emotional [...] doing work that touches a nerve.”


This is clarity. Of course it has to be strategic. Of course it has conform to the brand’s values. But Droga has given a clear direction for the work, a direction that work can be judged against. And that a creative person can be judged against, too. This is direction that doesn’t dictate the execution, or box-in the thinking. In fact, like a solid brief, it frees the creative team.


The second thing you need is agreement. It’s a fool’s errand to trust everybody’s memory on what this critical (strategic!) conversation was about. You need your mandate written out in detail, and jointly agreed upon. Getting your hot hands on an actual document gives you a tangible set of expectations, in black and white, to take back into the money/promotion discussion.


Finally, you need to understand—and celebrate—the fact that you’re a creative person. With the ability to create magic. What a rush. You have a complicated mind . . . and a complicated job. To succeed, you need clear, solid direction and at the same time, the sense of total freedom. You need to feel safe so you can take risks. And although it’s become a cliché, you need to fail to find your way.


Okay, so you have massive insecurities, but they need not derail you. Remember, you bravely face the unknown every day—and every day you surprise yourself and prevail. In truth, it takes real creativity to produce work that feeds the artist and also moves the business.


So go ahead and be as insecure as you want, but don’t ever let it get in the way of appreciating what you contribute. Without creative people we would live in a grim world indeed. And now it’s really up to you to make sure that the right people appreciate it, too.


Before founding Joan McArthur Training & Consulting, Joan McArthur was ECD at top-tier agencies in North America and an instructor at OCAD University.


This article orginally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of Applied Arts.


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