Being good at selling doesn’t mean being a sell-out

Creatives and their rocky relationship with selling

Creatives seem to be born with a natural aversion to selling. But the sooner they get over it, the better.

Consider this scenario:

Two senior project designers: Alex and Kaye.

Alex’s designs were far more well-crafted than Kaye’s. His files were super clean, nothing misaligned. He spent so much time perfecting details, and beautifying presentations to the last pixel.

Meanwhile, Kaye did not spend as much time on details, and worked quickly. Kaye was articulate and persuasive when explaining her thought process. Alex, on the other hand, had a difficult time expressing himself confidently. But his designs were always spot-on, a visual delight, sheer perfection.

A few months later, Kaye was promoted and Alex was not.

“The promotion doesn’t seem fair,” one of the project managers told me. “Alex is a much better designer.”

But the responsibility of a designer goes beyond the visual craft. Designers are thinkers, problem-solvers, collaborators, strategists, and communicators.

And communication sells an idea.

Alex spent 100% of his time obsessed with the details, while Kaye concerned herself with presentation skills aside from ideas and execution, and knowing the role of design in business, and understanding clients. She functioned as a well-rounded designer — she wasn’t a genius craftsman, but she was creative, insightful and she used that, plus business smarts, to deliver results, solve client’s problems, and make the company look good.

“She talks well,” that’s why he was promoted, the project manager said.

“What’s wrong with talking well? I wish I had that skill,” I said.

Craft isn’t everything

I first heard this phrase from Chase Jarvis, creator of Creative Live, the best example of the business of creativity. It’s a reminder to us designers to not get too obsessed with our visuals at the expense of other communication skills. Well-rounded designers make the most positive impact, on their own clients or audience, as well as to the next generation of designers.

Think of Michael Beirut, talking about typefaces in the documentary Helvetica, or Debbie Millman, host of Design Matters podcast, and speaker at countless design conferences. Or Paula Scher, who appears in the documentary series Abstract, on Netflix. That’s the dream — the moment they open their mouths and talk about design, you’re sold. Their ideas grip you. Their stories inspire you. And all of them are part of successful design businesses.

The problem is sometimes we forget that design is a business.

Jim Antonopoulos, in his blog post Why some designers can’t sell, shares his picture of a designer who can:

Someone who:

sells ideas to a boardroom full of people

builds brands that resonate with the right people

designs customer experiences that actually work

looks for problems and builds a product to fill the gap and solve the problem

isn’t afraid to fail

knows what a pipeline is

understands the importance of revenue and profit

understands the difference between design and art

That’s another version of the dream.

This is what we should aspire to be as creatives. People who can build good relationships and know and understand clients, come up with design solutions that we are convinced solve their problem, and present them with the same passion and conviction with which we dreamed them up.

Craft is wonderful, and details are important. Taking some time away from obsessive kerning to work on presentation strategy does not make you a horrible designer. As much as we invest in design skills, we need to do the same with other areas such as communication and people skills, facilitating team interaction, and nurturing client relationships.

Excelling in craft, and presenting your work (and all the soft skills that go with this) are all intertwined. One cannot be done completely and effectively without the others. Our industry suffers when we do not take the time to be knowledgeable and skilled in presentation and business. And the reverse is true as well — it suffers even more when we are too good at the selling game and we don’t spend enough time on creating the best design work we can.

Designer Joshua Taylor wrote recently that Designers shouldn’t code, they should study business.

There are a lot of designers out there that are starting to think seriously about how their decisions impact their companies. In general, our focus on user research and analytics has helped a ton in giving more credence to the voices of designers. We’re also seeing great examples of design led companies and designers impacting the core of big businesses — like Airbnb, Pocket, Facebook, Google, Slack, and a loads of others.

I would argue that those companies are as successful as they are because they have designers that are focusing more on what those businesses need than on how perfect every pixel is going to look.

Selling is not evil

Many creatives live in a bubble, and leave everything concerning sales and presentation to others, the “more outspoken ones”.

I felt that way a lot. I felt insecure, lacking in confidence to sell. I felt like I didn’t have good enough relational skills.

But here’s a different perspective on selling that changes the psychology of it all. Sales guru and author Zig Ziglar says:

The sales process is something you do for somebody, not to somebody

Selling is a service offering something good, something you believe in, to someone to make their lives easier, to solve their problems. It’s not about you making a sale.

The only time you should be shy or hesitant to sell is if you don’t have any value to offer.

Selling is confident matchmaking. You’re matching someone with a need with someone with a solution (which could be yourself, or for other sales people, their products)

A lot of us are scared of selling because we’re self-conscious and are worried about all the wrong things. It helps to separate yourself from the product and focus on meeting a need; see the other person’s need, and how much they want a solution.

Selling is about bringing value to someone.

Learn marketing

Last year, I got to speak with Learning Ritual instructor and coach Michael Simmons on a coaching call. I asked him how I can increase my value as a creative.

The more you can help your clients sell, the more value you are bringing to their business, he said.

And that’s what would make me more valuable to them.

I firmly believe every creative, especially in this digital age, should be studying marketing. Non-stop. Something new changes in the marketing world every day, you can’t ever stop learning. Advice that was given 3 weeks ago is now obsolete. It’s that fast. Yet it’s extremely relevant.

Content marketing, analytics, ROI, bounce rates — these should not sound like foreign words to creatives. Because in these practices lies the gold: understanding and using data to serve clients better. To make them more successful.

Digital marketing has evolved so much with the availability of data. Having instant feedback on the effectivity of your communication and creative work.

Recently the team I work for at ROHEI spent two months developing presentation slides on our social media performance. The endless questions, revisions, discussions allowed me to get really deep into the data (almost memorize it!) and analyze which social media posts and blog posts were working well. And to form data-informed conclusions. I am already looking at this quarter’s stats (after applying what we learned) and seeing that the engagement rates have more than doubled.

I have far more experience in creative fields than in marketing, but marketing can help me 3x, 4, 5x, the value of my creative work.

Being good at selling doesn’t mean being a sell out

Being good at selling means you are able to connect effectively with your market and bring them something they need.

Being a sell-out is the opposite. You do something you don’t want to do, or hardly know anything about, because you want the money.

Connecting with your market is the heart of marketing.

I’ve had to write pieces for members of demographic who are ahead of me in life — older, smarter, richer, better in every way. To market and sell to them meant hours of market research. Watching videos and reading reports and articles to get to know the audience. Our team conducted interviews with buyer personas to figure out what drives them.

With market research familiarity, you will be able to review a strategy as to whether it’s sound. How many times have creatives been misdirected and creative brilliance wasted because of a wrong understanding of the audience? What’s worse is that the business suffers and ends up wasting resources.

Knowing your audience is the heart of selling, and communicating, well.

Learn to love data

I’ve always been so impressed by people who can just spit out data during presentations. But after doing data analysis for weeks and finally being able to craft confident statements, I have learned to love the data and see that those who memorize it may have just happened to naturally. Because there were so deep in analyzing and understanding it. I can sometimes still see the charts I made, and the exact numbers in my head, like flashbacks or a dream.

Being involved in data analytics gives you a taste of how relevant your communication is, and gives you the expertise and confidence to be a consultant, not just an executor.

The science of creativity and the art of selling

“A copywriter is a salesman, not an artist,” says Robert Bly in The Copywriter’s Handbook

The idea of writing can be romanticized, and the creativity of many copywriters makes it seem like copy is a work of art. But it’s a product of research, strategy, and it’s designed to sell.

Using my creative skills in copywriting and content marketing has taught me essential principles of communicating to sell, not to impress. Studying the art and science of content marketing, and being able to track everything, really hones your skills as a communicator.

Because of the instant feedback you get on your creative work’s performance, you can easily assess and tweak, make improvements as you successfully contribute to the growth of your client’s audience. And knowing content marketing principles will teach you to effectively direct creative teams in executing on-strategy.

The lines between creative and marketing seem not to exist anymore. Creative teams and agencies these days are expected to be capable of:

Writing and editing

Video production

Graphic design

Content optimization and SEO


Campaign management

Measurement and analytics

This is a picture of the relationship of creators and marketers today. They can no longer be separated. Creatives are now essentially marketers and salespeople too.

Bring value to your ultimate audience

Going back to the earlier scenario with the two senior designers:

Kaye was bringing more value to the business than Alex. She focused on what clients (and the boss) found important.

Sales and marketing teach you how to put yourself in the shoes of your ultimate audience — your boss, or your freelance client. Having experience in marketing will teach you to focus on what’s at stake for them. You’ll be able to prioritize tasks with more wisdom.

Many things that might concern you as a creative, such as your typographic knowledge or your state-of-the-art equipment, will not be relevant. Don’t try to sell based on what you value — it’s what they value that matters. They’ll want to know how your great idea is going to meet their objective.

Your boss will want to know that your design is going to make the client ecstatic.

Whoever your client is, you need to know what they value and focus on giving them that.

When you do, you’re making them successful, and their success makes you successful too.

Writer • Communication Designer • Type Explorer |

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