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Separating Yourself As A Design Agency Is All About The Little Things. Avoid These 3 Mistakes And You’ll Attract Great Clients

Michael Clarke

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Being an agency owner is humbling.

Every day, I bump into a brand new “learning moment.” But one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in building my design agency, Clarke, is that there are so many other components to being successful besides just “being creative.” To tell you the truth, creativity is just one measure for success from one design agency to the next. And I’ve found that clients look for things like trust, accountability, honesty, and a positive partnership, more than they do shiny case studies.

The same goes for the culture of your team internally.

One of the things I’ve always believed is that nobody wants a difficult process. Clients don’t. Employees don’t. And as the founder, I certainly don’t. Which means, as a team, it’s our responsibility to always question what’s keeping everyone involved from doing great work, easily and effectively.

The thing I encourage our team at Clarke to come back to, over and over again, is to remember that a creative environment is a “no jerks zone.” There are a lot of firms that deprioritize this quality or emphasize the importance of “the work” over everything else. But the reality is, clients, want to know their business is appreciated. Employees need to know their work is providing value. Which means the entire relationship, business to business needs to be approached with a mentality that cares about the little things: being on time, communicating with respect, valuing the people involved, etc.

So, when it comes to building a team of designers, or a design agency, I actually encourage others to highlight more than just the creative work that’s been done in the past. At the end of the day, people want to work with great people—and that means being more than just “creative.”

Avoid these three mistakes, and you’ll attract great clients:

1. Instead of trying to present the perfect case study, present your thinking.

We always show new clients samples of our previous work.

It demonstrates we can do the type of work they need while also opening the conversation around what it is they actually want. Ideally, we do this with past projects that are pertinent to the client’s industry or expectations.

If there’s not a very clear explanation of how the example relates to their business, then they could get confused—or decide we’re not the right fit. Instead of understanding our team’s capabilities, they could see the sample and think, “That’s cool, but what does it mean for me?” Like if we show a publication layout to a client looking for informational pamphlets, they may be confused as to what we’re really trying to sell them.

However, we’ve learned that if we take the time to walk the client through the work to explain why we’re showing it to them, they’ll be much more receptive. If we say, “In your visual language, the circle represents the earth and its natural resources. And the triangle represents your commitment to technology, blockchain, and innovation, which reflects your brand position in a clear way,” then the rest of the conversation is going to move forward smoothly—as opposed to leaving the client in the dark.

Now, even if the sample applies to the use-case we’re pitching, it’s still expected that we’ll walk the client through the work. It builds our expertise as creatives, as an agency, and as a potential partner. And clients appreciate the time we’ve devoted to ensuring they understand what we’re offering.  

2. Improvising on the spot is great, but avoid “winging” your pitch.

A lot of people make the mistake of walking into a new sales call thinking, “Eh, I’m going to wing it.”

This could be fatal. Even if you don’t know the exact needs or expectations of this potential new client, you should at least have an understanding of their industry. Failure to do so could result in losing trust right out of the gate. Part of doing your homework for a new client includes reading through their website, checking out their social media presence, and researching the people involved. Take notes and make sure you’re comfortable with all the details.

For example, if you’re having an introductory call with a fintech company, then you need to be familiar with their product or services and their brand. Are they a category leader or a challenger brand? What is unique about their product or services? Who are their largest customers? You should also know the basic industry landscape, like who their direct competitors are, some of the disruptive trends, any new regulations that pose challenges or opportunities, etc.

Improvising ideas on the spot can be great, but when clients see you’ve done your homework, that’s when they’re the most impressed.

3. You can’t exceed client expectations if you don’t know what their expectations are in the first place.

Building a new relationship with a client is just like building any other: expectations are critical.

I used to immediately start talking about all the different things our agency could do, instead of stopping to ask what the client expected as their ideal outcome. Personally, I’ve made it a habit to ask, “What do you expect from an agency partner?” or “What do you think our relationship should be like?” You need to make sure you and the client are compatible from the start—and that means clarifying what both sides will do to meet everyone’s needs.

This helps both parties better communicate and understand what they’re looking for.

Regardless of whether or not these are mistakes you’ve been guilty of yourself, it’s important to remember a simple fumble isn’t the end of the world—or even your career. Acknowledging what went wrong and finding ways to do better in the future is key to growth, for both yourself and your agency.  

I have a proven history of multi-disciplinary design success across many business categories. My background gives me a unique perspective and understanding of how design and brands need to communicate in a rapidly changing culture.

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