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11 posts from February 2008

Common Mistakes in Marketing Luxury Brands

Starbucks BMW

Don't associate your products with other brands unless they perfectly mirror a lifestyle.

High-end brands are being extended across categories -- and faltering.

Brands that offer services and brands that contribute to lifestyles (such as Starbucks) can't cross over into luxury goods, and vice-versa, without thinning their brand. Can you imagine a Starbucks BMW? A Godiva Porsche? No way. There's no parity between them. But I believe in the Eddie Bauer edition of the Ford Explorer... barely.

Everyone has their own internal weights and measures when it comes to rationalizing a purchase, but I think it's fair to say this: A jacket is a jacket and is not a car. Don't overreach your category, your brand space, and what your customers will believe. It's better to cross-promote your products to another brand's audience than to badge your products incorrectly or mash your products up to try to be unique.

Don't price based on cost of goods. Price on aspirations.

People are more likely to rocket due to perceived value, not real value.

The luxury category has fragmented by budget. Audiences are asked to pay closer and closer attention to nuanced categories, with the idea that they'll always aspire to a product out of their budget.

This is known as "rocketing" in a product category, see the fantastic book Trading Up for an in-depth treatise about New Luxury or "masstige" marketing and how it differs from the old mindset about luxury goods and how the market is evolving luxury into new forms.

Don't tell a completely new story about your brand when you've already staked your ground.

If you didn't start close to the luxury space, you'll never create cachet around your product without expending a vast quantity of capital to change perception. Start a new brand if you really want to get in the game.

Don't make more! Limited quantity equals controlled demand.

Easy to understand in theory, but very hard to pull off when people start beating down your door waving fat wads of cash. Companies often cave and produce more when they should just have a plan in place as to how they can extend that demand into a new (similar) offering.

And last, but certainly not least:

Don't horse it up.

"Less is more," more or less. With clean design and smart production tactics it's relatively easy to convey an aura of luxury and exclusivity.

This is the expected first route for a designer to take with a luxury product, so don't think you have to beat a path through the weeds to engage your audience and emerge with something too novel from a branding perspective. Does it really convey the right feeling if the design is incredibly busy? Unless you're conveying some level of sophistication, your audience will have trouble understanding why they should pay 2 to 10 times the price of the competition.

Channel Marketing + Sales = Branding

Not Worthy

I love it when marketing managers talk about how it's their job to help funnel leads to salespeople, and that they can't control anything after that magical transference of responsibility.

I also enjoy it when salespeople talk about how they spend too much time sifting through weak leads from those same marketing managers to close a sale.

Or when I enter a store after being enticed by a compelling marketing promotion and hot price on some product I can't wait to purchase (phone, climbing gear, and chocolate all come to mind), only to be ignored by the salespeople.

The truth is, we're all in this together: designers, marketing managers, and salespeople. And we have to work together to create compelling communications that support our brands, drive through sales, and ensure that our customers keep coming back.

You'd think the big dogs in the consumer marketing space would have wised up to this new truism of the Information Age: you can't assume that people will like your brand if they get stoked by great marketing and let down by poor service in any channel. There was a great post on Ideas on Ideas about this recently, related to blogs and their influence on purchasing decisions, but I think there's a broader point to be made than just bad service = big word of mouth = bad branding. Often bad service can cascade into a larger problem because of poor continuity between sales channels.

I remember being stunned as I walked through Best Buy last month, to be greeted by every single salesperson I passed. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven after so many years of terrible service there. We had dropped in to purchase a microwave for my wife's office, and they were able to direct us to options right off the bat, without having to sit there and decode the boxes to figure out which one would be the wisest purchase. We'd researched the purchase on the Internet, made sure to call ahead and ensure the products were in stock, and then were helped by a real person right on the spot to make a no-pressure purchase.

What made the experience so great?

Every single point, from Internet to phone to in-store, was high-touch. Swift. Too the point. Propelling us to the purchase, no matter where we chose to make it, and with us feeling like we were in control of the situation. In every channel.

This is the holy grail of retail. The ability to cultivate a positive experience that extends across every touch point in the sales process, from consideration to purchase to happy customer to long-term customer/company relationship.

And why is it so rare?

Because there's a weak link somewhere in the chain from product creation to marketing to sales. And most often, this is related to your channel marketing strategy not lining up.

Companies that grok this spend a lot of time refining their business process on a regular basis -- because they know it's the only way to ensure the customer experience is optimal. It doesn't always boil down to a bad marketing promotion or a bad in-store experience. Often the things that can hobble a corporation's branding efforts in the long term are all about how they do business.

Marketers like to segment out Internet, phone, in-store, email, etc. in their marketing plans and focus on increasing the effectiveness of each channel. They think about the synergy of how each channel works together to ensure a continuity of experience until a customer engages in a purchasing decision. Where necessary, they'll work around issues with legacy sales systems, weak infrastructure, wonky in-store policies, and other hurdles in the background to ensure that customers keep getting funneled into a sales decision. And this is where their brand truly suffers.

Usually one channel is less mature than another. Some companies are slam-bang great at Internet, but they are terrible in the store. Others have some of the best phone service around, but the online experience is weak. Some companies like to focus their marketing dollars on the channels that perform best, such as online, often to the detriment of hiring the killer staff that will make their in-store sales rise more swiftly.

But I digress. Let's focus on the places where channel marketing can break down, from the customer's perspective.

Customers don't expect much. But they do have real expectations when it comes to how they'll approach you -- and what kind of behavior they'll tolerate. Let me share some of these expectations with you:

  • If you're going to sell something online and in a store, sell it over the phone too. Even if your business model doesn't support it. Customers expect high-touch -- unless you're Fry's Electronics -- and the sale will probably cost you less than the in-store one.
  • Be ready to accommodate multiple forms of payment. In any combination.We take cash, Visa, MasterCard, and American Express. Oh, and gift cards too. But you can't use a gift card online and a credit card to cover the rest of the purchase. So you'll have to go to the store, because we can't take your purchase over the phone. Our computer system can't handle that. And the store isn't close to you. Sorry about the inconvenience.
  • If you don't have it in the store / online / on the phone, secure one for your customer promptly. If you have it on the floor as a sample and it isn't in stock, don't just say: "Sorry, sir, we don't have it." Go find it at another store or have me buy it online with you and then send it to me. Or, alternatively, you could go back to talking with the other salespeople behind the counter while the 4 other customers wander around the store and, like me, eventually leave without making a purchase.
  • If you say you'll call me or email me when the product comes in, actually contact me. Don't wait until I call back in a week or two, ask when said product will be in the store, and be told, "We got a big shipment in just a few days ago." This means you don't have a method for CRM within your store that carries into another channel. I wouldn't complain if you sent me an automated email that was triggered when my product was stocked.
  • Don't send me to a third party to purchase it, if you can. If you make a great product, why would force me to search around for it at the mall? Sell it to me directly and make more money, via phone or Web.
  • Don't think that since you carry that hot product everyone wants, you can treat me poorly in any channel. Yes, I would love that new smart phone that everyone seems to be coveting. No, I will not put up with waiting in line forever, being on hold on the phone, and/or returning over and over again to the Web site to see if it's back in stock. Take my money and send it to me when you get some in. Make it easy for me.

I think most of what I've listed here is fairly obvious and clear to most marketers. But the proof is in the performance: you need to invest in each channel appropriately, and continue analyzing the effectiveness of the customer experience in each channel, to ensure that customers aren't falling out because of inconsistent experience or overcoming your own internal struggles to improve.

In the end, what customers experience in the sales process for a consumer product will likely hold more weight than the quality of your advertising, your marketing, and sometimes even your product quality, if it's on parity with the competition.

Do you really want to risk dragging the equity of your brand down in the long-term? If you aren't retaining your current customers and helping to foster brand loyalty in the long term, then how much money are you really throwing away?

The Benefits of Design Thievery

Award Winning

In my very first days as a fledgling graphic designer, in love with the potent combination of Emigre and Ray Gun that my high school literary magazine editor had foisted upon me, I combed through the local bookstore for anything that could explain to me, in a nutshell, all of the skills I'd need to learn to become a graphic designer.

I found plenty of Graphis Annuals, back issues of Communications Arts, and a number of books that recounted the history of graphic design. What I really dreamt of, in those days, was a book that could teach me everything that I'd need to know to design a logo, create a typeface from scratch, put together an annual report, art direct a photo shoot. You name it, I wanted to know how to do it well.

Much to my surprise, such a book did not exist. Twenty years later, such a book still does not exist. And that book never will.

It took me long into my career to learn the following: The only way to learn your best process for doing graphic design work is to do graphic design work.

Or, more specifically, you need to learn the accumulation of individual skills and talents that make up your favored design discipline, and then hone them until they're almost unconscious in their presence, and then practice them at your peak.

Bookstores nowadays are cluttered with monographs and catalogs of all types of design work. Such books are treasure troves of inspiration for designers, illuminating other designer's processes and their special ways of polishing their ideas into killer executions. They're going to give you new ways of thinking about the work and the raw fuel to push you in new directions to come up with better solutions in the future.

But they aren't really going to teach you how to be a better designer.

Wait -- doesn't reading design books make you a better designer? Doesn't it help you come up with better solutions? All these people that I read about are success stories. I can climb on their shoulders, glean their brilliance, and design the sleekest mousetrap around.

Well, the short answer is: Reading design books can help you succeed. But they sure aren't a substitute for doing the work. You only become a better designer through designing, or having a creative director that art directs the hell out of you until you learn the discipline.

Books, magazines, websites, music, other artistic mediums, etc. are aids in the process of gaining ideas. To borrow poet T.S. Eliot's critical note on the creative process -- shown here not misquoted, as it usually is collapsed into the old adage "Good poets borrow, great poets steal":

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

You could insert any artistic medium in for "poetry" in the above quote and it would hold true. Other designer's work is a launch pad, not a chance for you to rip them off wholesale. You don't copy other people's executions to make your work better. That would be unprofessional. Instead, you weld your theft into a whole of feeling which is unique and your own.

After you've been in the game for a decade or so, it can seem like the same ideas keep marching through. You keep your work unique by putting the right spin on the idea, clothing it something fresh. How many Western-themed invitations do you think have been made in your lifetime? What about a 1950s kitsch theme? These design motifs get recycled over and over again. The ideas behind them are what matter. When I left college, everything in the design world was new to me. Every idea seemed to spring unbidden in its novelty from brainstorming sessions with my creative teams. But after what seems a short 12 years, it became apparent that there are no new ideas under the sun. When embarking on a new project, if you stumble upon something fresh, it's 99.99% likely that someone else has already thought of it and maybe even won an award for it in a design magazine. But it's also likely that it hasn't been done in your market category, which is a certain kind of novelty that the market will easily bear.

For that 0.01% with the fresh, new idea -- we envy you. It's the graphic design equivalent of visiting Antarctica, quiet and mysterious, always cold and yet full of exotic wildlife you can't find anywhere else. And you can't step foot there. Not easily, at least. You need all sorts of permits and special dispensations. So put that aside for the moment. The day you can visit will come.

I've seen that the most potent, original ideas spring out of imagination and empathy and experience much quicker than leafing through a stack of magazines. It always feels like the magazines come out halfway through a project, when we've concepted work to the point that we feel like we're exhausted, and then we whip out books to see if there were any approaches we missed. Those approaches rarely make the cut, as they're usually derivations on a theme. This is the same reason why I discourage young designers from using stock photography websites to look for ideas. Then you're just fitting your ideas to their imagery. Ideas create imagery, not vice versa.

Want to have fresh ideas? The trick here is so simple, it's almost counter-intuitive. Instead of looking outward for inspiration, look inward. You need to see into your own emotional experience to find the right solution. That experience can include what you've seen before in life, encompassing everything from design books to personal experience, forged in radical combination and recombination with other ideas bouncing around in your mind and with your team. Ideas come from emotions and visualizing yourself in the place of your audience. The execution comes out of your own hands and your own unique artistic vision.

So remember... the seed of that great concept may have been inspired by something you've seen in a magazine. Just make sure, in the end, it's yours.

Idea Professionals, Beware of Microconcepting

I was watching Martin Lindstrom's "Brand Flash" this morning on when a thought struck me like a brick. Now I'm going to lob it at you.

The AdAge segment was regarding, an online marktetplace a la eBay, where people can post marketing briefs and have people post ideas solving the brief. The best idea receives payment and can be utilized. I have no idea what happens to the other ideas and whether they can also be used by the client without payment.

While Martin Lindstrom believes that this is going to become a trend in the marketing industry -- that sites will spring up to fulfill people's need for concept generation at a price point lower than you'd require from a marketing professional, I kindly disagree.

My wife went to school to get a professional photography degree, and her teachers repeated time and time again the following:

"Yes, there will always be amateur photographers out there in the world that will get a lucky shot that's as good as yours. But you aren't going to be hired to shoot one lucky photograph. Clients will expect you to always shoot good photographs, day in and day out. That's why they pay you the big bucks."

Yes, for the lower-tier corporations and nonprofits, it's likely that these sites will pull away their business from designers and agencies. However, for larger corporations, using this kind of site is like playing roulette. Who's going to shepherd the idea to completion, time and time again? Who's going to be the professional that can spin ideas out over and over again, without fear of luck running out? Sounds easy to bring in the right idea, but still difficult to execute well.

For designers, the danger of having an idea marketplace is that once you've heard a good idea, you'll never forget it. Hear three or four good ideas, and the best attributes of each idea will combine to form an even better idea. This is great for the end clients but terrible for designers. You aren't being paid for that idea being utilized, even in a minor capacity. Ideas have value outside of their execution and need to be acknowledged as such.

I think the smart creative professionals will keep clear of sites like However, much like how has revolutionized the stock photography model and created a new microstock category, will definitely create a new category of lower-tier talent servicing lower-tier clients for low numbers of dollars. For now, I will coin it microconcepting.

I'd love to hear your thoughts as to how a designer would position themselves against a site like this. Let's start to sharpen our arguments as to why diversity of thought isn't as good as being a partner with a seasoned creative professional.

The Design Client's Bill of Rights


When do clients get upset? When they expect something common -- such as a swift response to an email -- and you don't write back for a day. Or when you show two concepts when the contract said four. Or, heavens forbid, you show up for a meeting 15 minutes late and don't call them well ahead to warn them.

No matter whether you're flying solo or working within an agency, there are key expectations that every client considers a given: timeliness, transparency, value, and respect.

Read these next paragraphs in the voice of the client that appreciates you most.

The Design Client's Bill of Rights

1. Timeliness

I know when I'm getting deliverables, how long I have to review them, and when I need to pay you for them. Up front, on a schedule, net 30 or 60 -- this must be clear from the start of our engagement.

Additionally, we will keep to scheduled meeting times and you will not be late without warning. I am always exempt from rebuke for tardiness, as I am busy working to ensure your work is approved with your best interests in mind. However, if you're billing me by the hour and my lateness is costing me money, please gently let me know.

Once a schedule is set, your work will never be late, unless an unforeseen circumstance arises and you contact me well in advance of the deadline to ensure that my superiors do not clobber us for the possible appearance of unprofessionalism. If we change the scope of our project, I expect you to negotiate a new schedule with me that allows the work to proceed to the best of your ability without compromising fully our initial time frame.

2. Transparency

I need to know where we're at in the project at any time.

I need to know the thinking behind the work that you show me, the work that I choose, and when necessary the work that I decline. I am your advocate in my corporation/organization and need to be able to own the agency's perspective when I speak before my boss, my CEO, my peers, and the general public. Do not assume that you will be able to participate in every meeting within my company to defend the work.

I need to know the impact my project will have on my customers, my company, and the world at large, not to mention sustainability issues and ethical concerns that may transcend the work and damage our reputations.

3. Value

I am always seeking fairness in agency/designer fees. I will mindfully defer on negotiating minor fee changes if my project has a major, provable impact on brand equity.

That said, my corporation will usually require me to bid work through multiple agencies, so be aware that the cost of your work will always be factored into the overall value of our potential relationship. If you're underbid, that doesn't mean I'll always choose the lower bidder. I will choose the best vendor for the project.

Don't hide costs or penalize me for the lack of forethought in your bidding or my strategic approach. Work with me as a partner to help me understand where we need to meet, both fiscally and professionally, so that both of us win.

If you can't do the work for the costs you estimated, let me off the hook quickly enough to allow me to engage with another vendor before my boss fires me, or bring me options that both of us can live with, being mindful that I may not return to work with you again -- no matter how great the final result can be.

4. Respect

If I smell oversized ego, or if you tell me I just don't get it, then you're history. I'm responsible for my business and have to live with the consequences of your recommendations.

I expect you to convey, through everything that you do for me, the knowledge that you care and respect our shared partnership. We have a relationship that is predicated on our focus on creating meaningful design communications. This can influence everything: how you dress, how you talk, how you describe your work to my boss, how we catch a beer after work and you respect the client/designer boundary. We aren't friends. We are colleagues.


If you have the ability to do so, you should write up expectations for what your clients should expect of you right as you're hired.

If you can't return an email in two hours, tell them. If you need one to two days flexibility on your project milestones because you're overloaded in your studio, tell them up front. Don't surprise them along the way. If you do, you'll risk diminishing your long-term relationship and chances for success because of something unspoken, unfulfilled, or unwittingly ignored.

Not Just Clients. Thought Partners.

Thought Partnership

Yesterday I heard words from a new client that made my face light up, as it's the kind of client relationship I think we all truly seek: thought partnership.

If designers want to be seen as agents of change, not mere decorators, we need clients to see us as thinking about their needs outside of the work at hand.

Standing tall as a holistic thinker, you can enter into larger, bolder discussions that will help shape and change more than just their marketing -- you'll change the quality of their business. You'll show them an outsider's perspective on their customers, the community they play in, and their overall corporate strategy and brand. Otherwise, you're just taking orders. Without being a party to the larger discussions happening within your client's organization, you can't begin to originate the kinds of ideas that can create positive change on a large scale for the good of their customers.

That said, don't forget the "partnership" part of your role. Just because you're orbiting the client's hairball (to borrow Gordon MacKenzie's phrase) doesn't mean you get to take pot-shots. A good portion of your designer-client partnership is being cognizant of how your ideas are going to influence their organization. Some ideas you originate and share with the client will change the way they do business. The same goes for you. The client often shares ideas with you that dramatically influence how you do business. It's a two-way street, and many designers forget in the heat of the battle over which concept and what idea that without the client there to support your business, you don't have a business. And without the client being part of the ongoing conversations you're having to help grow their business, then you're just designing things on demand instead of really making a difference.

The Crasstige Manifesto


A day will come when people will pay more -- by an order of magnitude, I expect -- for things that are not only well made and technologically sophisticated and desirable in the marketplace, but also intentionally crass and funny and ironic and over-engineered and technologically overblown and completely painful to look at.

I'm not talking about vintage revival, chuckle-inducing wagon-wheel coffee tables and 100-dollar torn t-shirts emblazoned with witticisms that elicit stares from fashionistas as they paw through the clothing racks at the upscale boutiques. I'm not talking about fashion shows where people parade down the runway with outfits that look like they're cobbled together with urinals and clothing dredged from dumpsters. I'm definitely not talking about gangsta styling with mass appropriation of high-value items that are then paraded through high-production-value videos on MTV to sell albums full of cringe-inducing props to Dom Perignon and Courvoisier.

For starters, I'm envisioning those who drive cars inspired by the Edsel or the Delorean, because it's crass enough to be cool. I'm envisioning people who spend vast quantities of money for clothes that are just so ugly it's like you're looking at a train wreck. I'm envisioning big hulks of stereo technology that completely dominate your living room, like modern sculpture on crystal meth.

In short, I'm envisioning people standing on the very edge of popular fashion and technological innovation, leaping off of it, landing flat on their face in the mud, rolling around in it, and making sure that everyone knows they paid through the nose for it.

This future trend would come to be known as crasstige. I've Googled the term and it hasn't appeared on the Internet -- until now. And as I'm the one throwing my stake in the ground, let's venture a real definition of the term:

crasstige (n., adj.):

1) a high-cost product that intentionally goes against the grain of popular taste and fashion in its design. Example: Wow, that $2,000 hat he bought is so ugly... It is completely crasstige.

2) a category of products that, when consumers purchase them, immediately broadcast their frustration with traditional notions of luxury. Example: Bob is a real crasstige sort of guy. He bought the Scion xQ with the argyle pattern.

But here's the twist -- the little quirk that makes the idea of crasstige so interesting and of-the-moment:

3) a mashup of attributes between different product categories, creating a new item that seems on the surface to lack functional utility. Example: That's some crasstige handbag you've got there... Yep, it's hip, it has a refrigerator compartment, a clock radio, it checks my stock prices, and I can plug in a little doodad that checks my blood sugar.

The idea of a mashup is so popular in digital culture, it's inevitable that it will bleed into manufactured objects. An item denoted as crasstige would cross boundaries between convenience and utility and product categories for no real reason other than to be crazy. There is no single utility from a truly crasstige item. It's the inverse of the orderly universe of an iPhone.

This is not the kind of trend that will just appear on the street in one year, fully baked. I'm thinking this is the kind of snowball-becomes-an-avalance thinking that will surface when we emerge from recession, as a kind of conspicuous consumption gone haywire, fed by small artisans and then major corporations who smell a trend and dive into it with ferocity.

Like most trend predictions, I hope this one falls by the wayside, never coming to pass. But if it does, let us be ready for the ferocious parade of scary manufactured goods that further contribute to the clutter of the world, and vote with our pocketbooks as designers for items that connote elegant form, utility and function, meaning and sustainability, and some measure of grace.

As designers that seek order and polish, this is a trend that we will passionately hate. So don't shoot the oracle.

A Creative Brief Should Be... Brief

Creative Brief

See the title of this post.

A brief is digested, in all senses of the word -- a condensation of thought that indicates a clear strategic direction. Killer creative thinking comes from focus. You need a bull's eye to aim at, not a dartboard.

In my experience, there is an inverse correlation between the length of a creative brief and the quality of thought that goes into it. I have fond memories, as I'm sure we all do, of reviewing a brief in abject fear, realizing that the client is requesting work that communicates three or four different ideas within one piece. Many of them can be contradictory.

This is when you need to work with your client to narrow their strategy to the right key message -- one that is easily communicated and makes sound business sense.

The creative process can be easily co-opted for the express purpose of focusing the client's marketing or branding strategy in the work itself. This is a waste of time and money for the client and the designer, and no way to run a profitable business.

Ideally, a brief should never run longer than 2 pages. Everything else is just incidental detail. Do all those facts and figures and charts need to be in the brief? Can you communicate them in another way or provide them as supporting material? When I see a thicket of details in the brief, they are often secondary to the goal of the project. Everyone needs to share the goal before the details can fit.

The real litmus test to a compelling brief is when you polish up your designs, board them, meet your clients in the conference room, and introduce your work by sharing one to two succinct sentences that summarize the entire strategic direction of the project. At this point, their heads should be nodding expectantly, as they wait for you to reveal how you've clothed their business needs in compelling artistry.

The Designer as an Agent of Change

Change Timeline

The future of design is not design. The future of design is embracing change.

To take it further: I see design's real opportunity in this coming decade is to step up and acknowledge that design has always been an agent of change. It just took this long for interactive, as a communication medium, to mature enough to make that change visible to the eye.

There. I said it. And while we're at it...

Down with the tyranny of the professional designer! Down with their superiority complex in the face of a world full of 1 billion dreadfully designed web pages! Down with their PMS swatch books, organized by hue on their desks! Down with their eloquent pronounciation of obscure typeface names from minute foundries run by hotshot typographers in their late twenties who insist on spending at least a year on each Bodoni revival to ensure its legibility at 4 points!

I could go on, but I think you get the point. (And the sarcasm. I'm still working on my Bodoni revival as well...)

Design is a professional practice and a business discipline. It requires an enormous breadth of knowledge in aesthetics and an gigantic amount of thought to fulfill well. It requires an awareness of psychology and visual poetry. It thrives off foresight and insight as well as the willpower necessary to weather the stormy seas that come with large, challenging projects. That's all apparent to us, there on the front lines.

We've developed a fairly exclusive lingo and professional language to talk about design. However, the tools that we use are becoming increasingly democratic. We can't rest on our Photoshop and our Illustrator skillz anymore. Our discipline needs to evolve out of our tools and into the effect of our thinking.

In twenty years, I expect that most people will have on their desktop computer the kind of affordable access to the tools necessary to render, print, publish, upload, or animate the necessary materials to do good design work without a professional designer at arm's reach. Eventually, the so-called ivory tower where design theory is housed will be rocked by its inability to function in a business context. And hasn't this always been the struggle?

I've worked at too many agencies where students straight out of school come into meetings with extraordinary ideas and compelling thinking that have no relationship whatsoever to the business problems at hand. I was one of those kids at one point (though I got an English degree with a focus in design and art history, not a design BFA), and I have fond memories of being doe-eyed in the midst of a crew of hunters busy polishing their guns before they set off to find some conceptual game to take down, slaughter, and present -- freshly cooked in layout stew -- to their hungry clients.

Design school today, in my mind's eye, is a tall building manufactured in the Bauhaus period, with perfectly placed windows that conform to a densely spaced grid, creating a pleasing sense of order. Within said building, each room is bursting with all sorts of ideas, pictures, words, images, and theories just yearning to shake the world to its bones. Some of my happiest days I was knee deep in collage clippings, huffing rubber cement, designing typefaces made of fruit I photocopied and hand-colored lovingly on posterboard.

Then reality happens. We intern and apprentice and learn the ropes and that idealism gets smacked out of us by reality. Business meetings happen. Clients ask us what we do. We have to codify what we do, put ourselves in a box, show the power of design in the work but be professional in the interim. We stumble over how to sell ourselves without sounding too visionary:

We solve business problems. We're passionate. We create implementations of ideas. We create influence, belief, understanding, results. We have a proprietary process. We ensures your success. We inspire decisions. We change behavior. Anyone can come up with an idea -- we just come up with better ideas. We create compelling brands. Brand experiences. Brand propositions. Meaningful brands. Increase brand value. We create meaningful experiences. Design can be a powerful force of change.

Does any of this sound familiar? I just went and looked at some agency websites and typed in phrases that I saw on their "About Us" pages. We're specialists in differentiation, right? Then why do our descriptions of what we do say the same thing, over and over and over again?

It seems like we always latch onto the most recent buzzwords and trends (experiential branding! Web 2.0!) instead of looking inward, at what design really excels at in a business context. It's not creating influence or belief or understanding. It's creating change. It always boils down to change. None of this wussy "design can be a powerful force of change" that I saw on a leading design firm's Web site. Design is the force of change. We can own it, today. Interactive has the ability to spread ideas like a gasoline leak that's caught fire. With social media in play, it only takes hours, if not minutes, to get a meme rolling. We can watch the bloom of it, organically -- observe the change happening in real time. The old guard still doesn't quite understand this, but when they do, we're so in business. Whole battles of opinion will play out like watching the Wimbledon tournament compressed into two minutes flat.

I have fond memories of the early to mid-90s, when it became standard business practice for businesses to realize that they absolutely needed a Web site. Your design firm would declare a competency in Web design and people would beat down your door to give you their business. I worked at agencies where we had no portfolio in Web site design and clients would be practically throwing projects at us. On the fly, we'd be creating code and learning Flash and generally falling all over the place, trying to learn what the heck we were doing. We were all tyros. There wasn't much need to differentiate ourselves. We were all in it together.

Accelerate. Five years later, everyone knows the technology. Now the best thinking wins the work. You fall out of the game or you try harder.

Another few years pass, along with a number of influential publications on the 360-degree brand. Experiential branding becomes the rage (agencies love it because it makes it easier to sell more services bundled within one company). Then social media/Web 2.0 strikes the market like a meteor. Oh wait, now we don't just sell ideas... we need to prove that we know how to speak to people online, in the car, on billboards, in the bathroom, in direct mail. The traditional communications disciplines of sales, marketing, public relations, etc. are converging on themselves like a reversal of the big bang.

This trend is not going to stop, as interactive has become the big bad beast that's overwhelmed all other disciplines. It will become the hub of the wheel, and all other disciplines will become the spokes radiating from it.

This puts us in a new space with our clients. In the past, clients came to us understanding what they wanted to change, and we would use design to try to make that happen. As we continue to mature design as a discipline, bolstering it with our learnings in research, anthropology, economics, psychology, sociology, and so on, companies will retain us to promote change separate of projects.

We will manage the brand experience, come up with tactical ideas and strategies to ensure their sales numbers were met, but first and foremost, we will be agents of change. Awareness, understanding, belief, action, reaction, sales, all rolled into one. We will not answer RFPs for tactical campaign work. We will be hired across all disciplines (not just advertising and traditional marketing) to effect change enterprise-wide across organizations. We will speak up regarding business process, customer service, inter-office dynamics -- you name it, it influences the brand, so it falls within our domain. Tactical marketing will always be in our arsenal but we'll be digging way deeper into our toolbox than sending out postcards.

I don't imagine this like the current retainer relationships major agencies have as agency of record. We would be tasked to serve the customer first and the company second -- since, if you think about it, the customer owns the company anyways.

We will differentiate ourselves from the dilettantes and homebodies because we will be bringing value to our client relationships as mavens of change. We will differentiate our agencies by creating our own methods of fostering change. There isn't just one way to do it right. The market will always prove that out.

We will have evolved our discipline enough to be trusted to take initiative when necessary. Ideally, we will function within companies as in-house groups and orbiting consultancies that provide the drive necessary to keep business growth happening (looking good to shareholders) and creating meaningful relationships with customers (fostering the love of customers).

Are designers really equipped to take on this challenge? No way. We will likely have to huddle together and gain the resources to pay it off in the long term. This is consistent with every other growth spurt in the design community -- we seem to hoover up whatever we need from any other discipline when it suits our needs. But the large agencies will get there quickly and stand on the vanguard until we all catch up. Our agency staff won't be designers and production artists and developers and account people. Start seeing a huge diversity of people that you'd never think would pass through the halls of a creative agency.

In ten years, we won't discover we're out of work because of We'll be busy as hell. It's just that we won't be creating logos and websites and videos. We'll be creating change. We will be hired to be agents of change. The logos just happen as a result of that.

And I can't wait for that day to arrive.

Good Marketing is Business Psychotherapy


"Finding a new creative agency can be like finding a new therapist. Why would you want to tell your story all over again to a new agency?"

One of my esteemed colleagues, Kara Costa, said the above quote in a meeting about how agencies are marketed. And she's completely right.

At agencies, we listen to our clients very closely. We provide them proper perspective. We unravel existing stories about their products, their brands, and how their companies functions. We help them forge new stories about themselves founded on the truths inherent in their brands. If things are dire, we write a prescription and make sure it gets filled.

As a result, client relationships improve with their customers. The agency, the company, and their audience relate on a deeper, more human level. Often, great marketing and strategic work from an agency can have an impact on how the company functions as a complete organism, making it healthier beyond the immediate deliverables at hand. A strong agency-client relationship can elevate an agency to be the company's therapist, easing them into the necessary efforts to create positive change.

There's a cost, though. Obtaining great design work can require as much introspection and effort as therapy. There is an emotional investment from both parties that creates a strong bond -- or painful friction, if the process isn't managed well.

Of course, friction is an essential part of any marketing work. A good therapist will challenge you in both direct and indirect ways, working to discern the best method to bring out your true nature. Without friction, there isn't change or growth. A good therapist won't just come out and say, "You should do this or you'll be sorry." They help bring you to an understanding contained within your own story.

And just like therapists, it can often seem like designers are only making observations about things already inherent in the client. This isn't devaluing the designer's role, only underscoring the intuitive nature of the designer and the quality of their insight. That's what we get paid for: active listening and reactive envisioning.

It's precisely for this reason that when strong client contacts depart for other companies, they have a predisposition to maintain their preferred agency relationships. I feel like this is part of the reason that agencies are constantly buffeted by the storms of agency reviews. People want to work with agencies that have a proven track record of listening closely to their needs.

You don't go to see a therapist for a few months, thank them for the hard work and effort, and then move on to start all over again. Wouldn't you hate it if you looked up and saw that your therapist was asleep while you were talking to him? Or that he didn't remember that in the third grade, you were taunted by your peers, which led you to lock yourself in the bathroom for a week and cry?

A ten-year client relationship, serviced by consistently excellent work, can evaporate in mere months without the shared experience that comes from working through business problems over time. That experience is the bedrock that keeps the relationship strong through turbulent business conditions. Companies don't get a chance to settle down into a comfortable, challenging relationship when people are flying in and out of their account. Without institutional memory, usually in the form of people and processes, trust evaporates.

What would happen if you treated all of your clients more like a therapist would: with deep respect, compassion, and focused attention on listening to exactly what their needs are. Would that give you the necessary edge to retain them?