Last weekend, I attended a small workshop hosted by Adam Thurman, who is the marketing director at Chicago’s Court Theatre. It was the best money I’ve spent on a workshop so far in my career. Why? Two main reasons.
You’ll recall that not too long ago, I put together a snazzy portfolio booklet, full of examples of my work and endorsement quotes from my clients. It included a long list of marketing collateral and branding services that I could supply. I sent these out to about 40 different theatre companies of various sizes whom my research had shown could likely afford to hire an outside designer when needed. To date, I’ve received only one reply to that mailing. It was Adam Thurman, and I was already attending his workshop. What went wrong?
This workshop explained it to me. Our first exercise was to write down our target audience. For others in the room, it was their ideal patrons for their theatre companies. For me, it was the kind of clients I wanted to attract and work with. My list included:
- People who believe art is greater than just entertainment
- People who are seeking to use art as a method of education or change
- People with a desire to mentor, grow, and nurture others
- People who would like a way to form better, strong, and more meaningful relationships with others in their community
- People who enjoy challenges and problem solving
Sometimes clients just need a thing drawn or designed, and I will certainly attack those jobs with the same verve I would for my long-term clients. But this list identifies my ideal client: an organization whose mission I believe in and with whom I can have an honest, stable, and productive relationship.
After I read these traits aloud, Adam expressed surprise. “Your website doesn’t communicate any of that,” he said. It’s a beautiful website, he went on to say, one of the most attractive he’d seen, and there was no doubt that I could create attractive and meaningful visuals. But that wasn’t enough. A lot of people can create good designs and illustrations. As a freelancer, I need to communicate that I can do more than that.
That portfolio piece I sent out, he said, should be my closing argument, not my introduction. My website and materials need to communicate what else I have to offer, which is being a partner and an ally. My brand promise is that I will be as invested in my clients’ goals as they will allow me to be. And I’ve not been communicating that. I’ve only been saying that I can make pretty things.
Marketing can be hard, but marketing yourself is the hardest challenge of all. It’s very difficult to look at ourselves and our business objectively and know what we’re doing right or wrong. My first mistake was not getting feedback from the right people. Plenty of people have looked at my website and said it looks wonderful, but they weren’t marketing people. Feedback on your own marketing from an experienced marketing professional is indispensable. This was the most important lesson from this workshop for me
My second mistake was incorrectly identifying my industry. In creating and refining my website and portfolio, I took my cues from other designers. I subscribe to design magazines, I read design blogs, I go to design workshops— and I followed those lessons and examples. But all those people are in the business of providing illustration and design; they make pretty things that communicate effectively. They are not my real competition.
My industry is theatre marketing, and I am offering more than just illustration and design. I am offering strategic marketing consulting, outside perspective, and a background in storytelling that is invaluable for marketing the arts. Finding a designer who is knowledgeable in marketing strategy AND affordable to the average non-profit is a rare thing, and a niche I mean to fill. So the second most important lesson I learned was to know exactly who you are talking to with your marketing.
I said that there were two reasons why this workshop was the best money I’ve spent. The first was that it identified a core problem for me. The second is that it also offered the solution.
I need to tweak my communications so that my potential clients know my brand promise and what I have to offer beyond design. I need to show that I know their challenges and their concerns with hiring an outsider to their company, and I need to address them head on. My potential clients need to be able to see me as part of their team and as the solution to their problems from the very beginning.
These challenges are no different from the ones I face working with my regular clients. When I create materials and advise them, I’m always coming back to their mission and the story they are looking to tell. But now I have the tools to turn that focus onto myself, and clarify exactly what the mission of Grab Bag Media is.
The first step will be revisiting my website design to put my mission and brand promise front and center. I’ve already started tweaking this blog to show what goes on behind the scenes of my work; I’ll be focusing on that even more in the future. I’ll be exploration more of the creative process I have with my clients rather than the technical side of how I create imagery.
I have a challenge ahead of me, but thanks to Adam’s advice, I know where to go from here.