Pensamento do mês
Todos os meses a APAP encia aos seus Associados o Pensamento
Estes pensamentos correspondem á transcrição, em "episódios" de
um excelente livro "The Win Without Pitching Manifesto", do Blair
0 Project presentation (4.10.2011)
I We Will Specialize
II We Will Replace Presentations with
III We Will Diagnose Before We Prescribe
IV We Will Rethink What it Means To Sell
V We Will Do With Words What We Used to
Do With Paper (1.3.2012)
VI We Will Be Selective (4.4.2012)
VII We Will Build Expertise Rapidly (3.5.2012)
VIII We Will Not Solve Problems Before We Are Paid
IX We Will Address Issues of Money Early
X We Will Refuse to Work at a Loss
XI We Will Charge More (06.09.2012)
XII We Will Hold Our Heads High
Tudo começa com um senhor,
chamado Blair Evans, que, por sua vez, começa um livro
chamado "The win without pitching
manifesto" com a definição de
[pich] To attempt to sell or win approval for one's ideas by
giving them away for free, usually within a competitive,
E justifica o porquê da sua obra dizendo:
"A Manifesto of Business Practices for Creative
The forces of the creative professions are aligned against
the artist. These forces pressures him to give his work away
for free as a means of proving his worthiness of the assignment.
Clients demand it. Designers, art directors, writers and other
creative professionals resign themselves to it. Trade associations
are powerless against it. Consultants and outsourced business
development firma earn their living by perpetuating it. And
conferences put the worst offenders from all sides on stage and
have them preach about how to get better at it.
It is a mistake to look to the creative professional to deal
with this issue. Free pitching and speculative creative will only
be beaten one firm at a time, with little help and much loud
opposition from the professions themselves. This battle is but a
collection of individual struggles; the single artist or creative
firm against the many allied forces of the status quo.
But while collectively the battle may seem lost, a revolution
is afoot. Some creative firms are fighting and winning. They are
reclaiming the high ground in the client relationship, beating back
the pitch and winning new business without first having to part
with their thinking for free. They are building stronger practices
amid the forces of commoditization.
This treatise contains the twelve proclamations of a Win
Without Pitching firm. It describes a trail blazed by owners of
creative businesses who have made the difficult business decisions
and transformed their firms, and the way they go about getting new
business. They have resisted the profession-wide pressure to toe
the free-pitching line. They have gone from order-taker suppliers
to expert advisors and have forged a more satisfying and lucrative
way of getting and doing business.
Their path, described in these pages, may not be your path.
Not everyone has the heart or stomach for revolution. It is up to
you to read and decide for yourself if you will follow."
I - WE WILL SPECIALIZE
We will acknowledge that it is the availability of substitutes -
the legitimate alternatives to the offerings of your firm - that
allows the client to ask, and compels us to give, our thinking away
If we are not seen as more expert then our competition then we
will be viewed as one in a sea of many, and we will have little
power in our relationships with our clients and prospects.
The world does not need another generalizing firm. There are
enough full service advertising agencies and marketing
communication firms. The world is drowning in undifferentiated
creative businesses. What the world needs, what the better clients
are willing to pay for, and what our people want to develop and
deliver, is deep expertise. Expertise is the only valid basis for
differentiating ourselves from the competition. Not personality.
Not process. Not price. It is expertise and expertise alone that
will set us apart in a meaningful way and allows us to deal with
our clients and prospects from a position of power.
Power in the client - agency relationship usually rests with the
client. His power comes from the alternatives that he sees to
hiring us. When the client has few alternatives to our expertise
then we can dictate pricing, we can set the terms of the engagement
and we can take control in a manner that better ensures that our
ideas and advice have their desired impact.
When the alternatives to hiring us are many, the client will
dictate price. He will set the terms of the engagement. He will
determine how many of our ideas and how much of our advice we need
to part with, for free, in order to decide if he will chose to work
It is first through positioning our firm that we begin to shift
the power in the buy-sell relationship and change the way our
services are bought and sold. Positioning is the foundation of
business development success, and of business success. If we fail
on this front we face a long, costly uphill journey as owners of
THE PURPOSE OF POSITIONING
Positioning is an exercise in relativity, Our goal when
endeavoring to position ourselves against our competitors is to
reduce or outright eliminate them. When we drastically reduce the
real alternatives to hiring our firm, we shift the power balance
away from the client and toward us. This power shift allows us to
affect the buying process and increase our ability to part our
thinking for free, from having to respond to wasteful and
inefficient tenders or requests for proposals (RFP), and to
otherwise devalue our own offering or increase our cost of
THE THREE STEPS OF POSITIONING
Positioning is strategy articulated and then proven. These
components of strategy, language and proof are laid out here as the
three steps we must take to build deep expertise and meaningfully
differentiate ourselves from others:
- We must choose a focus
- Then articulate that focus via a consistent claim of
- And finally, we must work to add the missing skills,
capabilities and processes necessary to support our new claim.
What we call positioning, others more serious about the
business of their craft call fundamental business
strategy. The first step - focus - is to answer the strategy
question of "What business are we in?". Choosing the focus for our
firm remains The Difficult Business Decision. Too often, we decide
to not decide and so, in our minds, leave open the possibility that
we may continue to do all things for all type of clients. In
creative firms the world over - firms populated and run by curious
problem solvers - the avoidance of The Difficult Business Decision
remains the root cause of most business development problems.
We can easily complete the second and third steps of positioning
once we have summoned the boldness to tackle the first. For reasons
hardwired into the brain of an artist, however, most of us fail in
this vital first step.
THE BENEFITS OF POSITIONING
We can measure the success of our positioning by gauging our
ability to command two things simultaneously: a sales advantage and
a price premium.
A sales advantage - to possess a sales advantage means
that when and where we choose to compete, we win more often than
A price premium - to command a price premium means that
when we win, we do so not by cutting price, but while charging
Winning while charging more is the ultimate benefit and key
indicator of effective positioning, for price elasticity is tied to
the availability of substitutes. The more alternatives to our firm,
the less power we have to command a premium over our competition.
If we do not win while charging more than it is likely we are
attempting to run a business of ideas and advice form a position of
weakness; or we are trying to compete outside of our area of focus;
or we have avoided The Difficult Business Decision altogether and
have chosen, by not choosing at all, to run a business without a
focus or a fundamental business strategy.
Control - Beyond the combined benefits of a sales
advantage and a price premium, positioning brings us control in the
form of increased ability to guide the engagement. We are hired to
for our expertise and not for our service. It is a mistake to
believe that the service sector mantra of "The customer is always
right" applies to us. Like any engagement of expertise, we often
enter into ours with the client not truly knowing what he needs,
let alone recognizing a route to a solution. For us to do our best
work we need to leverage our outside perspective. We need to be
allowed to lead the engagement. We need to take control.
Our ability to control the engagement diminishes with time.
Sometimes we lose control slowly and other times quickly, but we
always lose it. It is important, therefore, that we enter the
engagement with as much control as possible. Indeed, business
development can be viewed as the polite battle for control. If we
do not win it here, before we are hired, there is little point in
It does not come easy to us to ask for control when we have
little power in the relationship. To jockey for the power position
seems at odds with our belief that we should demonstrate our
enthusiasm for winning the business. We are optimistic,
enthusiastic people , but it is time to admit that our enthusiasm
has not always served us well.
WE ARE THE SUM OF OUR CHOICES
We are lucky to do what we love. And we deserve to be able to do
it. But as business owners we need to accept that loving our craft
is no substitute for making intelligent business decisions.
Passions for design does not grant us dispensation from facing The
Difficult Business Decision. Once we have chosen to make our
passion our business, we take on responsibilities to our clients,
families and employees. Among other things, those responsibilities
includes the need to generate a profit above and beyond the
salaries we pay ourselves. It is from this profit that we build
strength and create many forms of possibilities for ourselves and
everyone involved in our enterprise.
Who among us, when faced with the question, "Would you chose to
be weak or strong?" would chose to be weak? We face this choice on
physical, emotional, spiritual, financial and other fronts. We face
it in our personal lives and in business. Some choose to be strong
because they wish to rule others. Some choose to be strong because
they wish to help others. Some chose to be strong because they've
experienced the alternative and never want to be weak again. What
we chose to do with our strength is our decision, but as a business
owners we have an obligation to chose and then to pursue the path
we have chosen. No one consciously chooses to be weak. In business,
weakness is often a symptom of not making The Difficult Business
THE COST OF CREATIVITY
One of the hallmarks of creativity is a fascination with the new
and the different. Properly harnessed, this fascination allows us
to bring fresh thinking to old problems and ensure that our
offerings to our clients are always evolving. Un-harnessed, our
firm-wide desire for the new and the different can lead us to avoid
The Difficult Business Decision. It can serve as a rationale for
not having to chose a focus, for not eliminating the
We can chose to let our fascination and passions go unbridled.
We can choose to remains a "full service" firm doing all things for
all people. This lack of strategy will make us relevant to everyone
with marketing or communication needs. It will indulge our desires
to do something different every day, and to make every engagement
different from the previous ones.
When we make this choice, however, we invite all kinds of
undifferentiated competition as well as some highly differentiated,
specialized competition. We invite numerous alternatives to hiring
our firm and we place the power squarely with the client. In this
competitive environment we will never be the expert firm, we will
never command the respect or margin we want, and we will never be
free of the pitch.
We must recognize that as individuals we are inclined against
the narrow that drives deep expertise, but we must also recognizes
that our business must have this focus if it is to prosper. We must
see our protestations, rationalizations and justifications for not
facing The Difficult Business Decision for what they are: excuses.
While some make business success look easy, we know that the best
rewards are the ones for which we've worked hardest. As creative
people running business we are in is made harder by our inclination
to preserve our options, to pursue something we've never done
before, to reserve the right to do it differently this time.
THE PARADOX OF CHOICE
We stand in a room full of doors. As highly curious people, we
want to see what is behind every door. This is our desire as
artists - to satisfy our curiosity and solve the problems we
haven't previously solved. On some level, however, we know that if
we are to drastically reduce our competition and benefits from the
resulting power shift, we must pick one door, walk through it and
never look back. Our personal desire for variety is suddenly placed
at odds with the fundamental need of our business to focus. Is I
possible, however, that on the other side of the door we face there
is not one long gray hallway, not one empty boring room, but more
doors - more choices? Is it possible that what lies on the other
side of the door is not the death of our creativity, sure to be
snuffed by routine and boredom, but just enough focus to harness
the full potential of our talents?
The answer, of course, is that it is possible, but we will never
know for sure unless we walk through the door and close it behind
FUN AND MONEY
Fun and money have long been the two reasons we go to work in
the morning. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that in
the beginning it was mostly about the fun. We were doing the work
we loved. Others validated our expertise by actually paying us for
it. There were late nights of shared purpose with colleagues,
everyone doing what needed to be done to vow the client.
We were kindred spirits all with the same passion for our craft.
We celebrated our wins together and commiserated the losses
together. In those early days the studio was more college dorm room
or rock'n'roll tour bus than place of commercial enterprise.
Then suddenly, it wasn't fun anymore. Those that once inspired
us has became a burden. Employees became overhead. The late nights
were too much. Somehow the money and the respect we hoped for never
followed. The money, especially. For a long time we were in denial
about the money. We didn't need it; we were having fun. Then, when
we faced our reality and decided we did need money, we did so
grudgingly. Now, we're tired of having fun and we're willing to
admit that we're in this, at least in part, for the money.
There are greater causes by which to frame an enterprise, and
there are nobler metrics by which to measure the value of effort.
But we cannot escape the fact that the money is both a necessity in
life and the most basic scorecard of success in business. Even if
it is not the validation we seek, is the most basic of tests that
we must pass: Is there a need for our efforts great enough to
sustain and nurture them?
The good news is that there is no fun like making money, because
financial strength affords us all kinds of options in our business
and personal lives. The path to financial strengths begins with
facing The Difficult Business Decision. There are some exceptions
to the proclamation that we must specialize, but is unlikely that
we are one of them. Until we make a brave decision, success will
elude us and we will look at the market and complain about the
economy or the clients, all the while knowing that it was us. The
problem has always been us, and our struggle with focus. We are at
the root of our free-pitching problem, and we alone have the power
to free ourselves from the pitch. The client will not free us. Our
trade associations can do little to help us. Our competition will
not cease to give their ideas away for free.
The revolution we must fight is within. There is no enemy. We
are victims only of a creative mind that makes choosing a focus
more difficult for us than most. A lucrative future where our
enterprise sustains us and nourishes our creativity is within our
control. We must simply choose to take control, first by
specializing and shifting the power back from the client toward us,
and then we can begin to shape our future.
II - We will Replace Presentations With Conversations
We will break free of our addiction to the big reveal and the
adrenaline rush that comes from putting ourselves in the
win-or-lose situation of the presentation. When we pitch, we are in
part satisfying our craving for this adrenaline rush, and we
understand we will never be free of the pitch. Presentation, like
pitch, is a word that we will leave behind as we seek conversation
and collaboration in their place.
We, in the creative professions, are addicted to the
presentation. We crave the sweaty palms, the increased heart rate
and the heightened perceptions that come from standing at the
precipice, addressing expectant faces and not knowing whether our
reveal will elicit the approval and adulation we crave or the
uncomfortable silence of failure. It is this not knowing-the soon
to be hero or goat sensation-that propels us. We love presenting so
much that we are willing to do it for free. This is the dirty
little secret of our profession.
We will never be free of the pitch if we do not overcome our
addiction to the presentation. Henceforth, we must work to
eliminate the big reveal. To wean ourselves of our addiction, we
must take the first step of changing our behavior with our existing
clients. Once we have accomplished this, the second step-changing
the way we behave with prospective clients in the buying
cycle-becomes possible. We will explore how to take these two
steps, but first let us examine the hidden costs of pitching.
PRACTITIONER OR PERFORMER?
Even when we pitch and win, we lose. We devalue what should be
our most valuable offering and set up the wrong dynamics between
the client and us. We must move away from the place where the
client sits with arms crossed in the role of judge, and we take to
the stage with song and dance in the role of auditioning talent.
While both parties find the showmanship of our craft titillating,
the practitioner's is a stronger place than that of the performer.
It is this practitioner's position from which we must strive to
operate. Practitioners do not present. Stars do not audition.
PRESERVING THE SURPRISE
A successful presentation requires surprise. It depends on a big
reveal in the form of a key diagnostic finding, a dramatic
strategic recommendation or a novel creative concept that is at
odds with expectations or set against a backdrop of uncertainty.
Preserving the surprise requires us to keep the client at arm's
length and let our knowledge pool up behind a dam that will only be
opened at the presentation. While we protest against the client's
selection process that keeps us at bay and asks us to begin to
solve his problem without proper collaboration or compensation, we
often acquiesce, in part, because his process allows us to meet our
need to present. In this manner, we allow-or even deliberately
create-an environment that leads to a higher likelihood of failure
in order to preserve the dynamics of the presentation.
At a time when we should be conversing, we are instead
cloistered away preparing for the one-way conversation called the
presentation. We behave this way in our engagements with existing
clients, so when prospective clients ask us to bridge massive
communication gaps by presenting to them instead of talking with
them, it is only natural for us to agree.
STEP ONE: IMPROVING COLLABORATION WITH EXISTING
Making the big reveals small and reducing our dependency on the
presentation requires us to work more closely with the client. This
creates a challenge: how to invite him in without allowing him to
drive? This delicate balancing act of bringing him closer without
conceding control can only be achieved when we establish and
communicate the rules of the engagement. Alas, another challenge:
we've never been fond of rules.
When we do not clearly spell out how we will work together we
leave a void that the client is quick to fill. Thus begins the
erosion of the power we worked so hard to obtain by following the
first proclamation. Nature abhors a vacuum. If we do not drive the
engagement, of course the client will.
When we establish the rules of collaboration-to use first with
our clients and then with our prospective clients-we ensure that
all engagements begin with both parties understanding how we will
THE RULES OF COLLABORATION
In our firm we will adopt the following policies that will allow
us to bring the client closer without sacrificing control:
We will agree with the client on the strategy before any
creative development begins. By including the client in our
strategic development processes, we will help ensure we never find
ourselves presenting creative rooted in ambiguous strategies. We
will not develop, nor share with the client, creative of any kind
before the challenge has been diagnosed and the strategy prescribed
and agreed to.
Continuous Reference to Strategy
Immediately prior to presenting any creative, we will review the
agreed upon strategy with the client. In this way we keep the
discussion around the creative focused and measured against the
strategy. Any time we come back to the client to share new ideas or
concepts we will set the stage first by reviewing, once again, the
strategy that guides us.
Freedom of Execution
We welcome the client's input on the strategy and in exchange we
ask him to grant us the freedom to explore various ways of
executing it. This means we invite him to say, "That blue isn't
bold enough to deliver on our core value of strength." But we
explain that he is not invited to say, "Make it darker."
Suggestions on this front are always welcome, but dictates are not.
We value our clients' insight into marketing strategy, but we need
the creative freedom to explore the destinations implied by the
strategy. The client must ultimately approve of our
recommendations, and be satisfied with the outcome, but he must
also let us explore along the way.
Fewer Options of Better Quality
When we present creative options we will strive to limit them to
as few as practical. There is an inverse correlation between the
quantity of creative options we present to the client and the
confidence we have in their quality. When we present options we
will recognize our obligation to recommend one over the others. We
will be careful not to cede our expertise by asking, "Which one do
you like?" We will direct all discussions around the creative back
to the strategy and ask if we are accomplishing our goals. It is an
abdication of our responsibility and our expert position in the
relationship to share all of our endeavors with the client and then
ask him to choose.
Only We Present Our Work
Whenever our diagnostic findings, strategic recommendations or
creative solutions are presented to anyone in our client companies,
it will be personnel from our firm that does so. Our key client
contacts may assist us, but our work does not get presented without
our involvement. One of the benefits we bring to our clients is the
advantage of an outside perspective, one that is not saddled with
perceptions of bias or a hidden agenda. We will not allow proper
guidance to be sacrificed at the altar of company politics.
If we are to replace presentations with conversation and
collaboration, this combined act of bringing the client closer
while continuing to lead the engagement is vital.
OUR MISPLACED FEAR OF POLICIES, RULES AND
Some of us will enforce the above rules of collaboration as
policies and others will view them merely as helpful guidelines.
For many of us, considering adopting policies is akin to a
claustrophobic person considering entering a coal mine. One of the
costs of creativity is the abhorrence of routine-the dislike of
systematic ways of thinking and behaving. This characteristic of
our hardwiring that contributes to our creative problem-solving
abilities keeps us from establishing policies on how we work. It
causes us to perpetuate the process void, that by implication, we
invite the client to fill.
While we dislike routine, the client-and ultimately, any
consistency of success-demands it. We must, therefore, reconcile
ourselves with the fact that routine will be imposed. Once we
accept this we can face the question, "Would we prefer to have
routine imposed on us, or would we prefer to be the ones who take
the lead and define the rules of the engagement?"
There will come a day when we are happy to hear from the client,
"Ahhh, of course!" instead of the previously desired, "Oh-I love
it!" On that day we will know that we have been working
collaboratively and we will know that our addiction is behind us.
Then we can work on removing the presentation from the buying
cycle, taking us one step closer to eliminating the pitch.
STEP TWO: ELIMINATING BIG REVEALS IN THE BUYING
At first, it's hard to contemplate the client hiring us without
a presentation. The presentation seems like a natural and necessary
step, until we ponder the question: "How would we conduct ourselves
in the meeting if we were not allowed to present?" Without a
presentation, all that is left is conversation-intermingled talking
and listening un-separated by one party performing for the
Once we decide we will no longer pitch our ideas for free, what
is left for us to present? Credentials? The most basic information
about our firm already listed on our website? Surely we can convey
these points in a conversation, without the need of a podium,
projector or props.
Once we have eliminated our own need to present, the only
reasons left to do so are the client's. But on this, the client
shall not have his way. He may not recognize it yet, but the
presentation serves neither our interests nor his.
Presenting is a tool of swaying, while conversing is a tool of
weighing. Through the former we try to convince people to hire us.
Through the latter we try to determine if both parties would be
well served by working together.
The tone of a conversation, in which both parties endeavor to
make an honest assessment of the fit between one's need and the
other's expertise, is entirely different from the tone of a
presentation, in which one party tries to convince the other to
hire her. Presentations build buying resistance; conversations
FRAMED BY OUR MISSION, WE PURSUE OUR
Let's consider for a minute what we are trying to accomplish in
the buying cycle, in this meeting with the prospect in which we
once played the role of presenter.
First, let us focus on our business development mission-our
highest calling and purpose. Our mission is to position
ourselves as the expert practitioner in the mind of the prospective
client. We must resist the temptation to sacrifice our mission
for money or other short-term gains. This mission should guide
everything we do in the buy-sell relationship. It is a
contravention of such a mission to try to sway someone to hire us
through a presentation. This simple idea is radically at odds with
what most of us have been taught. It is not our job to convince
the client to hire us via presentation or any other means. As
we will see in the fourth proclamation, convincing has no place in
If we have failed in the first proclamation and we have not set
ourselves apart from the competition, then we may never see the
truth in the second. Obtaining the expert position and replacing
presentations with conversations will remain an unachievable
Objective: Determine Fit
While our mission is to position, our objective at each and
every interaction in the buying cycle is simply to see if there is
a fit between the client's need and our expertise suitable enough
to take a next step. That's it. It is not our objective to sell,
convince or persuade. It is simply to determine if there exists a
fit suitable enough to merit a next step. Our mission is to
position; our objective is to determine a fit.
In accepting any invitation to present in the buying cycle, we
sacrifice our mission and reduce the likelihood of arriving at our
Once we have obtained power through the sacrifice and hard work
of following the first proclamation, why, for reasons other than
our own personal needs and the profession's long ingrained habits,
would we voluntarily give up that power through the sales pitch of
THE ROLES THAT WE PLAY
The dynamics of the relationship with the client are shaped
early, before he hires us. Here we establish the role that each
will play throughout the engagement. Most selection processes set
up an audition atmosphere where one party commands and the other
complies. We must never allow ourselves to be placed in this
presenter/complier role where the terms and next steps of the
relationship are dictated to us. If we assume this lowly role that
is offered to us early, we will never be able to exchange it for
the loftier expert practitioner role that is required for us to do
our best work.
In this manner, how we sell shapes what we
sell. It impacts our likelihood of delivering a high-quality
outcome and it affects the remuneration we are able to command for
NOW, THE TRUTH ABOUT PRESENTING
Alas, you may have guessed that we will never be completely free
of the presentation. That is not the goal of this, the second
proclamation. The goal is to be free of our own need to
To be truly free of the pitch we must change the tone of these
meetings with our prospective clients and move from the
presenter/complier role to that of the expert practitioner. This we
do as a doctor or lawyer would, through conversation and
collaboration and not through presentation.
III - We Will Diagnose Before We Prescribe
We will take seriously our professional obligation to begin at
the beginning, and we will never put our clients or ourselves in
the position where we are prescribing solutions without first fully
diagnosing the client's challenge.
There are four phases in our client engagements:
1. Diagnose the problem/opportunity
2. Prescribe a therapy
3. Apply the therapy
4. Reapply the therapy as necessary
While it is common practice in the creative professions to
prescribe solutions without fully and accurately diagnosing the
problem, in almost every other profession such a sequence would
render the professional liable for malpractice. Too often we are
guilty of this flawed process and our clients are guilty of trying
to impose such a process on us through the pitch. We owe it to
ourselves and our clients to stand firm on this most basic of
professional practices and to never agree to begin working on a
creative solution to a problem that we have not fully explored.
In a process that pits multiple firms against each other and
asks each to present solutions, the client does not have the time
to invest in meaningful diagnostics with them all. So he
abbreviates the diagnostic phase; he dictates the process,
marginalizes it and proclaims that his self-diagnosis is valid
enough for us to proceed.
But how many times have we proceeded based on the client's
self-diagnosis only to discover that it was wrong? How many times
has the client come to us stating, "I need X," only for us to
discover that he needed Y?
It is more likely that the client's perspective will be wrong,
or at least incomplete, than it is that it will be whole and
accurate. We know this. Doctors know the same of
their patients. Lawyers and accountants know the same of their
clients. The customer is not always right. More correctly, he
usually has strong ideas and a strong sense that he is right, but
is locked into a narrow view and weighed down by constraints that
seem to him to be more immutable than they really are. When the
client comes to us self-diagnosed, our mindset must be the same as
the doctor hearing his patient tell him what type of surgery he
wants performed before any discussion of symptoms or diagnoses. Our
reaction must be, "You may be correct, but let's find out for
The Practitioner's Perspective
One of the advantages the outside expert brings is perspective.
And one of the hallmarks of creativity is the ability to see
problems differently, and thus find solutions others cannot see. To
bring our perspective and problem-solving skills to bear we must be
allowed time and freedom to diagnose the client's challenges in our
own manner. Design is not the solution-it is the process. We cannot
be effective, responsible designers if we allow the client to
impose his process, or truncate or otherwise marginalize ours.
But let us not place all the blame on the client. Doctors face
self-diagnosed patients as often as we do, but we are far more
likely to proceed with such a flawed approach than any medical
practitioner. We let the client dictate and drive the diagnostic
process, usually because we have not bothered to understand,
formalize and explain our own. We have not taken control on this
issue. We have not correlated our likelihood of high-quality
outcomes to working from a defined and meaningful diagnostic
process. We have not made this case in our own minds and we have
not made it to the client. So the client intervenes and fills the
void in our own working process by deciding how much information
and access we will be allowed in the pitch. Lacking our own
process, we have little means to push back and argue for a better
To reverse the trend and live up to our professional obligation
to diagnose first, we must map out and formalize our own diagnostic
process. Then, when we are next in a situation where the
prospective client is dictating to us, we must make the case that
the consistency of our outcomes is rooted in the strength of our
process, therefore we must be allowed to employ it.
The Nature of Successful Clients
In Aesop's fable "The Frog and the Scorpion," the latter
approaches the former at the riverbank and asks for a ride across
on the frog's back. But the frog is not so stupid as to readily
agree to this favor, for surely once out in the river the scorpion
will sting and kill him, as scorpions do. The scorpion protests
that it would be silly for him to kill his carrier, as it would
ensure his own death from drowning. The frog sees the scorpion's
logic and agrees to the engagement. Once in the middle of the river
the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, who, with his last breath,
asks the scorpion why he has just killed them both. The scorpion
replies that he cannot help himself. He is a scorpion and it is in
his nature to sting.
The lesson here is not that clients are stinging scorpions that
cannot be trusted. The lesson is that the most successful clients,
whether owners or executives, have achieved their success in part
because of their ability to take control-their ability to rise
above and orchestrate others. This is their strength; and
even though it is not always in their best interest, it is in their
We are liable. Like the frog, we are the guilty party when we
let the client control the engagement and dictate to us how we will
go about understanding his problem. Just because it is in the
client's nature to lead, does not mean he should be allowed to do
so at all times. It only means that, like the scorpion, he will
attempt to do what it is in his nature to do.
Learning From Other Professionals
Other professionals do not suffer nearly as much as us in being
dragged into engagements where the client or patient has been
allowed to dictate the diagnostic process. Interestingly, many of
us have discovered that these other professionals make the worst
clients. The reason they avoid the problem we do not, and then
create problems for us when they become our clients is the
same: they take control.Other professionals are
taught to drive the diagnostic process or risk their professional
credentials. When they become the client in the practitioner-client
relationship they do what they always do: they attempt to take
control. And we let them. The result is usually an engagement gone
The Root of Bad Engagements
When we think back now on our worst client experiences we can
see that most of them were rooted in this mistake of letting a
dominant client direct the engagement, beginning with a
self-diagnosis that we took at face value. Thinking we are in the
same business as retail clerks, somehow convinced that there is
truth, or even nobility, in the line, "The customer is always
right," we took the money and did as we were asked.
When these engagements go wrong we cannot understand how the
client can possibly blame us. "We only did as we were told," we
rationalize. We see him as demanding and difficult. He sees us as
irresponsible order-takers not worth the money he is paying. He
responds with more angry demands and again we comply, giving him
what he wants. The spiral continues until finally we part, each
blaming the other.
If design truly is a process, then we will define and guard that
process and we will walk away from those clients and situations,
like the pitch, where the process is dictated to us, or where we
are otherwise asked to propose solutions without a proper
The Polite Battle for Control
The control that we need in order to do our best work includes
the imperative to bring our own methodology to the engagement.
Throughout the buying cycle we are constantly gauging whether or
not the client recognizes and values our expertise to the extent
that he is willing to grant us this control. Does he see us as the
expert who merits the reins of the engagement, or does he see us as
the order-taker supplier that needs to be directed?
Possessing our own formalized diagnostic methods, whether they
are proprietary to us or not, goes a long way to our positioning in
this matter. Like any other competent professional, it is
reasonable to expect that if we address similar problems on a
regular basis then we would have a formalized way of beginning the
engagement. It follows that we would demand to be allowed to follow
our own process and not readily agree to use one developed by the
client or his procurement people. It also follows that when a
client comes to us self-diagnosed, we would feel the same sense of
obligation to validate that self-diagnosis as any other
A good client will begin to relinquish control once he has the
confidence that the expert practitioner knows more than he
does, or has the tools to learn more. Formalized
diagnostic processes are such tools.
From here forward we will view the act of prescription without
diagnosis for what it is: malpractice. We will assert the
professional's obligation to begin at the beginning and walk away
from those that would have us proceed based on guesses or
IV -We Will Rethink What it Means to Sell
We will acknowledge that our fear and misunderstanding of
selling has contributed to our preference for the pitch. We will
embrace sales as a basic business function that cannot be avoided
and so we will learn to do it properly, as respectful
It is time for us to address our fear and misunderstanding of
the basic business function of selling. We recoil from the "s" word
because we see selling as the distasteful act of talking others
into things. We see it as the act of persuasion. And while we are
comfortable with our role as persuaders in a marketing
sense-putting our clients' messages in front of groups of their
desired customers-we bristle at such persuasion in the intimate
setting of sales, where the interaction is more human and the
product we are selling is us.
If we are any good at what we do, we believe, then we should not
have to talk people into hiring us.
A Tale of Two Salespeople
We have all been the customer in situations where the product or
service we were presented with was not the best choice for us. In
some of these situations we were aided by the respectful,
considerate salesperson who also saw the poor fit between our needs
and his product and so, appropriately, steered us away. But it is
not this salesperson that we remember when we consider the
necessity of selling our own services. For we have also been in
these situations, but aided by another salesperson-the person for
whom the transaction was all about him and his need to sell us his
product. This second salesman sallied forth, intent on getting the
sale, leaving us feeling violated and angry.
Perhaps the motivation of this second salesperson was rooted
within his forceful personality. Maybe his incentives were aligned
solely to sell to us rather than to help us. Maybe he was a victim
of poor training, suffering from a misunderstanding of what it
means to sell. But it is this second salesperson-the one at ease in
the discomfort and adversity he created-that we conjure up when it
is time for us to sell.
The Two Functions of Business
Making things and selling things are the two basic functions in
business. For our business to succeed we must succeed at both.
It is true that if we are exceptional at the first we may
experience times in the life of our business where merely being
adequate at the second will carry us, but over time all things will
revert to the mean. No matter how good we are there will be times
when we are required to sell. We can wish this away, we can
continue to avoid it, we can hide behind the pitch and kid
ourselves that as marketers we are taking a more noble path to the
same goal; but the truth is that until we embrace the fact that we
are salespeople too, and we learn to master this craft as well, we
will not achieve the success that we desire. We cannot be
in business without embracing selling. We must, therefore,
overcome the stereotypes and learn to do it
Here, too, the pitch has not served us well. We have used it as
a tool to avoid selling. As painful as it may be to give our
thinking away for free and to act like puppets in the client-driven
buying cycle, sometimes it is far easier to suffer the ignominy
that at least allows us to practice our craft (even if for free)
than to conjure up the sleazy salesperson and try to talk someone
into hiring us.
Salesperson: Facilitator of Next Steps
The good news is that selling, when done properly, has nothing
to do with persuading. It is not our job to talk people into
things. The first salesperson had it right: selling is about
determining a fit between the buyer's need and the seller's supply
(our very objective) and then facilitating a next step. Sometimes
the proper next step is to part ways, sending the client on to
another provider who is better able to serve him.
We might argue that the high-pressure salesperson is going to
sell more stereos than the respectful facilitator, but it is not
stereos that we sell. We sell ideas and advice-the very contents of
our heads-and so how we sell impacts what we are able to deliver.
We cannot disappear immediately after the transaction is concluded,
and leave the client to wallow in his buyer's remorse. After the
close, our clients are stuck with us for a long time.
Yes, we must sell. But there is only one way we can afford to
sell: the way of the respectful facilitator.
Let us think for a minute on how difficult the respectful
approach is if we have not followed the first proclamation (We will
specialize). If we have not specialized and set ourselves apart
from our competition in a meaningful way then all we have left is
convincing. Convince or pitch: these are the options of the
A New Model for Selling
We have already established that our objective in each and every
business development interaction is to determine if the fit between
the client's need and our expertise is suitable enough to take a
next step. This in itself implies the subsequent job of determining
and then facilitating that next step. Let's explore a new model for
Proper selling can be distilled into three steps, based on the
client's place in the buying cycle. These three steps replace the
art of persuasion.
To sell is to:
1. Help the unaware
2. Inspire the interested
3. Reassure those who have formed intent
The first thing we must understand if we are to approach selling
properly and respectfully is that the client's motivation, and by
necessity, our role as salesperson, evolves as he progresses
through the buying cycle. He moves from unaware of his problem or
opportunity, to being interested in considering the opportunity,
and finally, to intent on acting on it. As he progresses in this
manner, our role must change from one of helping, to inspiring, and
ultimately to reassuring.
Buying is Changing
The psychology of buying is the psychology of changing. Selling,
therefore, is change management. The very best salespeople are
respectful, selective facilitators of change. They help people move
forward to solve their problems and capitalize on their
opportunities. The rest talk people into things.
The next steps in this model of facilitating change are driven
by the client's need to move forward to solve his problem, not by
what we as salespeople have or have not done. The model does not
ask, "Have we obtained a meeting?" It doesn't ask, "Have we
presented a proposal?" The focus is on the client and whether or
not he has recognized and begun acting on his need.
Step One: Helping the Unaware
When we encounter a client who is unaware of any problem or
opportunity that would require our services, what do our reflexes
or previous training tell us to do? Convert the no into a yes? Try
to obtain a meeting in order to attempt the conversion in
If we are narrowly focused experts then we should be able to
succinctly articulate our expertise, and concisely describe to the
client who we help and how, over the phone.
To request a meeting after the client has told us he does not
see a fit is to admit that a) we need more time with him to explain
what we do because we haven't been able to capture and communicate
it succinctly, or b) we're looking to talk him into something.
That is why, when we find ourselves saying, "I'm going to be in
the area and I'd like to come by to see you…" we cringe at the
words coming out of our mouths. Such behavior creates buying
resistance that we will have to overcome later in the relationship.
It causes us to sacrifice our mission (to position ourselves as
experts), and it creates the dynamics for an expensive sale that
will see us poorly positioned to lead the engagement once
No-for this future client, we must take the long road of helping
him, over time, to see that perhaps he does have a problem. We do
this primarily through the dissemination of our thought
leadership-our writings on our area of expertise.
Real Thought Leadership
Over time, true thought leadership positions us as experts in
our field and creates the opportunity for some of our thinking to
trigger in the client the idea that perhaps his performance in a
certain area could be improved.
The role of our thought leadership is to educate, not to
persuade. The future client should be smarter for reading it, we
should be smarter for writing it, and, one day, when the client
does experience a problem in an area on which we've written, our
guidance may be helpful to him in seeing the opportunity within his
problem. Until that day, we continue to cement our position as
leaders in our field through our writing. Experts write.
When we sit down to write about our area of expertise we will be
confronted quickly with an assessment of our success in following
the first proclamation. Are we adding to the millions of words that
already exist on a subject? Are we retreading well-worn ground?
(e.g.: A brand is a promise, or, Is your
brand authentic?) Or, are we delving deeply into meaningful
subjects for wisdom that truly helps?
Writing our way forward is a long-term approach that requires
the patience of a farmer versus that of a hunter. But it is the
only effective, respectful way with the client who says no and does
not see the fit between his need and our expertise.
We can build a business with enough people saying no to us every
week, provided many of them agree to subscribe to our thought
leadership and we are diligent about future follow-up.
Step Two: Inspiring the Interested
The unaware future client sits at his desk reading our thought
leadership on an emerging media, technology or school of thought
relative to his business. His awareness grows, and he begins to see
that his organization is lagging in this area. He assesses his
situation. He begins to gather more information. He considers the
discomfort of falling behind. He looks to the future and now
imagines the benefits of being out front. He considers the risks of
taking action, weighing the pros and cons. He is interested in the
opportunity in front of him but not yet intent on taking
The interested future client looks for inspiration to move
forward. This is where we as creative people excel. We are among
humankind's most natural inspirers. Our work is inspirational. Our
skill in commanding and leading a room is inspirational. Our
ability to come at problems from previously unconsidered angles and
our passion for solving the problem not yet solved are both
inspirational. We excel here, in inspiring the interested.
Let us be clear: our goal with such a prospect is to inspire him
to form the intent to solve his problem; it is not to inspire him
to hire us. At this stage, hiring us is but a possible future
consequence of his deciding to take action. Our focus needs to
remain on the client, helping him to facilitate the change in
himself that he is considering.
Forms of Inspiration
Our portfolios are our best tools of inspiration. They show the
client what could be. They show him what others have done. Our
examples of our best work paint the picture of the beautiful world
on the other side of his pain. Inspiration is the primary role of
our website, our brochure, our sales collateral and our in-person
portfolio review. It need not even be our own work that we show
here to inspire the interested, just inspirational outcomes.
Like anyone, we play to our strengths. And, like anyone, our
strengths become our weaknesses when we go to them too often.
When we get ahead of ourselves and attempt to inspire the
unaware, we create buying resistance and set up the wrong dynamics.
Trying to inspire someone who does not recognize that he has a
problem is a recipe for defensiveness and resentment. Inspiration
is something we must save for the interested.
Step Three: Reassuring the Intent
The interested prospective client sits across from us and,
through our portfolio, views examples of organizations that have
mastered the challenge he is now considering. Through our examples
and our conversation, he begins to envision a future of wonderful
possibilities. Inspired by what his company could become, he
summons the resolve to commit to solving his problem. In this
moment he says to himself, quietly, "I'm going to do this." His
arrival at the decision triggers a change in brain chemistry that
brings a euphoric lift; the bigger the decision, the higher the
He turns to us, excited and grateful for the strength we have
given to move forward, and says, "This is fantastic! This is what
we need! You people are great! I'll get back to you." And he means
it. He truly means it.
The Emergence of Doubt
Our mistake is in thinking this is the last step. It is not.
What goes up must come down. After only a few hours, the client's
euphoria wears off and he slips into a hangover of doubt called
buyer's remorse. Now he questions everything, including his
decision to move forward. He considers all the things that could go
wrong, all the reasons why this might not make sense.
As natural inspirers, our tendency is to do exactly the opposite
of what is required at this moment. Playing to our strengths, we
lean towards inspiration once again at a time when we should
It is not in the nature of most creative people to offer the
reassurance the client seeks here. We tend toward excitement at a
time when he requires calm. We speak of an organic approach to
problem solving when the client would be soothed by the logic and
consistency of hearing about our defined approach. We continue to
talk big-picture when the client now needs to process sequentially
and seeks to understand what the steps are that we would take
together. He asks questions of the smallest detail-questions that
seem meaningless and even odd to us, but are of the utmost
importance to him in his quest for assurance that he is not about
to make a significant mistake.
Alternative Forms of Reassurance
Closing-the last step in the buying cycle-is all about
reassuring. Let us remember that when a future client has formed
intent and asks us for a written proposal containing free
recommendations or speculative creative, his primary motivation is
fear of making a mistake. If we can keep this in mind and look past
his request to his underlying motivation, then maybe we can find
other ways to offer the reassurance he seeks. Most creative firms
take these requests at face value and simply comply. Win Without
Pitching firms offer alternative ways forward. Phased engagements,
pilot projects, money-back guarantees and case studies framed in
defined methodologies are among the many viable alternative forms
of reassurance. The key is to respond to the motivation
and not necessarily the request.
The Four Priorities of Winning New Business
To follow the twelve proclamations and Win Without Pitching does
not mean that we must always have our way. It is not our goal to
replace the client's rigid and often ridiculous selection process
with one of equal rigidity and absurdity. Let us be guided by the
following hierarchy of four priorities of winning new business that
will ensure we do not become overly rigid in our approach. The goal
is to win. The preferred means is to not pitch. A firm that does
not win will not last.
The First Priority: Win Without Pitching
We first strive to secure the business before it gets to a
defined, competitive selection process in which we are pitted
against our peers and asked to give our thinking away for free.
This is easiest when the client sees us as the expert and reaches
out to us first. It is also easier when we reach out to the client
at a time early in the buying cycle, when he is unaware of any
need; and we stay with him as he progresses through the buying
cycle, at first helping over time, then inspiring when appropriate,
and finally, reassuring at the end.
To Win Without Pitching is the ideal, but it is not always
The Second Priority: Derail the Pitch
We often do not become aware of opportunities until late in the
buying cycle-when the client has already formed intent, has already
put a selection process in place and has reached out to numerous
firms. In these examples our priority is to derail the pitch-to get
the client to put his process aside and take an alternative first
step with us. The twelve proclamations offer guidance on the
principles of derailing the pitch.
The Third Priority: Gain The Inside Track
There will be times when, try as we might, we cannot derail the
client's selection process. Some organizations' policies are too
strong. Some clients are too unwilling-even when they do recognize
and value our expertise. In these examples, we apply the same
principles laid out here, but our priority is now to get an edge
over the competition within the process.
When we do choose to participate in the client-directed
selection process we should do so with the perspective that every
competitive bid process has a preferred option. Somebody almost
always has inside information or access to hard-to-reach decision
makers. Sometimes the outcome is predetermined and the process is
but a veil of legitimacy. Our default assumption should be that
somebody always has the inside track. If we cannot Win Without
Pitching, if we cannot derail the pitch, then we endeavor to be the
one on the inside track. We begin to participate in the process but
do so while constantly gauging whether the client recognizes and
values our expertise. We ask for concessions. We ask for access to
decision makers. We negotiate what we will and will not write in a
proposal or show in a presentation. We measure the client's words,
but more importantly, his behavior-his willingness to treat us
differently¬-and if he grants us the inside track, then it may make
sense for us to proceed.
The Fourth Priority: Walk Away
In the sixth proclamation (We will be selective) we will discuss
the need to walk away. There will be many times when it makes sense
to do so; but for those prospects that would otherwise meet the
parameters of clients we can best help, walking away is the fourth
priority. We walk away when we cannot Win Without Pitching, when we
cannot derail the pitch and when we are unable to gain the inside
track. Good prospective clients who recognize and value our
expertise will grant us one of the above. The others are not worth
sacrificing our mission on in a long-shot attempt to out-pitch
others, one of whom almost certainly has gained the inside track
ahead of us.
We Are Salespeople Now
In following this fourth proclamation, we will embrace sales as
one of the two basic business functions, and we will go about this
function in the manner of the respectful facilitator. We will look
for those that we can best help. We will seek out those that see a
fit between their needs and our expertise and who are willing to
let us lead the engagement. And then we will facilitate the
appropriate next steps: we will help the unaware, we will inspire
the interested and we will reassure the intent. With this last
group, we will look beyond their requests for proposals and free
thinking to the motivations behind them, and we will suggest
alternative ways forward. Those that see us as experts will grant
us at least some of the concessions we seek and allow us to Win
Without Pitching, to derail the pitch or to gain the inside track.
From the rest, we will walk away.
V - We Will Do With Words What We Used to Do With Paper
We will understand that the proposal is the words that come out
of our mouths and that written documentation of these words is a
contract-an item that we create only once an agreement has been
reached. We will examine all the reasons we ask, and are asked, to
write unpaid proposals and we will never again ask documents to
propose for us what we ourselves should propose.
When we look back at the proposals we have written and we
consider the engagements we have won, we can easily conclude that
it was rarely the written document that secured the business. Those
engagements we won were the ones for which we were best suited. The
suitability of the fit was apparent to both parties throughout the
conversations in the buying cycle. The written document did little
to sway the decision.
Just as we are leaving behind the pitch, the presentation and
persuasion, so too are we abandoning the written proposal and
thereby freeing up the dozens or even hundreds of hours we
previously devoted to it every year. We have long been conditioned
to think that the written proposal is a necessary step in the
buying cycle. It is not.
The document that we write is the contract. It serves as public
verification of an agreement we have already formed with the client
in conversation. The agreement is an oral understanding that covers
the scope of work, timeframe, budget and the basic terms of the
engagement. While the agreement may be subject to minor details,
all of these issues are addressed in conversation
first. The paper is produced only once the agreement has
Overinvesting Creates Buying Resistance
The buying resistance that we engender in the client is partly a
result of the obvious investment we have made in the sale. When we
spend hours on a lengthy written proposal, one that diagnoses and
prescribes for free, it sends the message that we need the client's
business. We clearly imply to him that he has the power in the
relationship. Beyond giving him the upper hand, we also make it
difficult for him to be honest with us. Let's face it, No is the
second best answer we can hear. If the client does not see a fit
between his need and our expertise, we want to hear so as early in
the buying cycle as possible. The more heavily invested we appear
to be in the sale, the less likely the client will tell us what he
is really thinking. When he thinks we cannot bear to hear no, he
will simply stall or defer or deliver a string of maybes. Most of
the time, he will do so behind the shield of a request for a
We want to operate from the practitioner's position where we
have not overinvested in the sale, where we are not trying to talk
the client into hiring us, and where we invite him to say no early
and often. In this environment, there is no room for the written
proposal, which, like the presentation, is a tool of swaying.
Why the Client Asks for a Proposal
Even at first reading, the logic of this proclamation (We will
do with words what we used to do with paper) seems obvious, almost
irrefutable. This straightforward approach of using conversation
rather than writing to determine a fit makes perfect sense for both
parties, but it is rarely practiced in the creative professions.
The written proposal is the norm and not the exception.
Let us explore the many reasons why the client asks for a
written proposal and see how many of them are valid.
To Keep the Hordes at Bay
The over-supply of undifferentiated creative firms has
necessitated a process that keeps the client from being
overwhelmed. He uses the written proposal as a tool to help him. It
allows him to keep the masses at arm's length and still give him
something upon which to determine a next step. If we have succeeded
in following the first proclamation and we have built an obvious
specialized expertise, then we make it easier for the client to let
us in. Otherwise, he will use the written proposal to keep us
We must embrace the challenge implied by the request for
proposal (RFP). If we see the RFP as a tool for keeping
undifferentiated firms at arm's length, then we will take up the
challenge to break through the proposal process and gain validation
that the client does indeed recognize and value our expertise. When
he does not, he will use the proposal, and its supporting selection
process, as a means of maintaining distance. The better clients,
when they do recognize expertise, will crack open the façade of the
proposal process and agree to a proper conversation. The question
is one of merit: is the expertise of our firm deserving of such
This challenge aids us in determining very early in the process
whether or not the opportunity is worth pursuing. For if the client
does not recognize and value our expertise then we have
failed-failed to build true expertise, failed to demonstrate that
expertise or failed by pursuing an opportunity that is not properly
aligned with our expertise. In most of these cases it is
appropriate for us to retreat. We can do so without having
overinvested in the opportunity. We can do so with our integrity
intact and with possible future business opportunities
In sorting through many similar firms, the client seeks to grid
out their likenesses and differences. Undifferentiated firms gladly
participate in this process. By not following the first
proclamation, these businesses operate from positions of little
power. Thus, all they can hope for is to win based on service (as
demonstrated by compliance to the client's process), personality,
price, or by beginning to solve the client's problem within the
proposal. The process itself is an exercise in homogenization that
reduces each firm to samples of its work, ill-informed guesses at
possible strategies and hourly rates. True differences do not shine
through in written proposals.
If we are pomegranates then we will resist being pushed into a
process designed to compare apples to apples.
To Measure Value
Value = Quality/Price. The client's challenge in determining the
value of our services is that the quality of an idea not yet
delivered is difficult to measure. This leaves him with two
options: he can over-weight the decision toward that which he can
measure (price), or he can ask us to deliver the idea (for free) in
an effort to determine its quality.
By following the third proclamation (We will diagnose before we
prescribe) we demonstrate that our ability to do our best work is
rooted in the strength of our diagnostic and strategic development
processes. A client asking for unpaid ideas in a written proposal
is like a patient asking for a diagnosis and prescription from a
doctor he refuses to visit or pay.
The flaws of the proposal process are one more reason we must
see the request for a proposal as a challenge to be met. Either we
leverage the power gained by our expertise to impact the client's
process and replace the proposal and accompanying presentation with
conversation, or we walk away and leave this client to another
To Gain Inspiration
The most common, and costly, business development mistake shared
by creative firms around the world is that of mistaking interest
Clients often ask creative firms for proposals before their
intent to act on their problem has been formed. In these situations
we must recognize that while the client is simply seeking the
inspiration to help move him forward, sending us away to write is
not likely to achieve it. We must learn to measure the client's
intent; if his decision to act on his opportunity has not yet been
anchored to a future date or event (a decent indicator of intent),
then the written proposal is not the tool to help propel him
forward. If the engagement has not yet moved from his wish list to
his to-do list, then it is still inspiration he seeks.
We are better off in these cases exploring our previous work for
examples of inspiration, or examining with him his competitor's
work or other best practices from further afield. Sometimes such
explorations merit a small paid discovery engagement, and sometimes
they are merely part of the conversations in the buying cycle; but
we must not mistake the seeking of inspiration for the will to move
Sometimes the answer is no. Sometimes the answer is probably
not. And if this is what the client is really thinking, then this
is what we should be keen and able to hear. But when we push too
hard-when we pitch, present and invest in a written proposal-we
often make it difficult for the client to be honest with us. In
these cases he will use the written proposal and its supporting
process to not say anything to us when he really would like to say
no. If the answer is no, we want to hear it; therefore, we want to
make it easy for the client to say it. It serves neither of us when
we lob a written proposal over the fence and wait patiently for a
To Shop Around for a Better Price
We are under no obligation to provide the client with a
reference of services, process and price just so that he can find
someone else to do what we would do, the way we would do it, but
cheaper. Res ipsa loquitur.
Of all the reasons that a client might ask for a written
proposal, none can withstand the stronger logic of having a
conversation with an expert of few equals. When we fail to make
this case then we must understand that we have failed in setting
ourselves apart from the competition, or we have created buying
resistance through our need to present or persuade. When we follow
the earlier proclamations, we make following this fifth one
possible; and in this way we continue to march from order-taker to
expert, one step at a time.
Getting Paid to Write Proposals
One of our new mantras that we will repeat to ourselves and our
potential clients is: We do not begin to solve our
clients' problems before we are engaged.
Many times, the client's situation, or the probable solutions,
are so complex or technical that we need to better understand the
challenges if we are to propose and quantify responsible solutions.
Such engagements demand that we begin our diagnostic work in order
to present a plan. But let us not make the mistake of doing this
diagnostic work for free. No-understanding and diagnosing the
client's situation is vital to the success of any engagement, and
it is our work here at the very front of the engagement that will
largely determine whether we succeed or fail in our endeavors for
the client. We must charge for this work.
Doctors charge for MRIs. Accountants charge for audits. Lawyers
charge for discovery. And we charge for our diagnostic work as
well, whether it is a brand audit or discovery session that we
conduct ourselves, or outside research that we commission.
For these complex challenges in which we must diagnose before we
can even begin to quantify a prescription, our clients pay us to
write proposals via a phased sale that begins with a diagnostic.
The outcome of the diagnostic phase is two parts: findings and
recommendations. In our findings we deliver our diagnostic
discoveries, and in our recommendations we include a plan to move
forward, complete with timeline and budget. In this way, we get
paid to craft the proposal those times when it is necessary to
Contracts and Proposals
Our proposal is indeed the words that come out of our mouths:
"We propose to do X for you, over Y timeframe, for Z price." Once
we have agreement on the proposal, then we write up the contract
for signature. Let us be clear to our clients and ourselves: we are
not in the proposal writing business. And let us make a promise to
ourselves that we will no longer ask a document to do what we
ourselves should do: propose.
VI- We Will Be Selective
Instead of seeking clients, we will selectively and respectfully
pursue perfect fits-those targeted organizations that we can best
help. We will say no early and often, and as such, weed out those
that would be better served by others and those that cannot afford
us. By saying no we will give power and credibility to our yes.
Most of us do not suffer from having
too few clients. The problem with our client roster is usually one
of quality, not quantity. We sometimes attempt to compensate for
the quality of our clients by adding more of them; but we know that
having numerous small, unsophisticated or otherwise inappropriate
clients is no reparation for having the right type and size of
If we are to build a lucrative expert firm then we must regain
this balance of a small number of high-quality clients. Once
regained, we must accept that our client base will turn over and we
must understand that this churn is healthy. Our client
relationships should not be life sentences.
Our Business Development Goals
Clients hire us at times of need. We generally solve the most
pressing problems at the beginning of our relationships, and over
time the nature of our work slides toward the tactical end of our
offering. Thus, our positioning with the client changes. At some
point we become less of an outside advisor and more of a partner,
and then, ultimately, a supplier. Eventually we part ways. The
transition is inevitable; the only variables are time and the point
The optimal engagement length will differ from firm to firm and
from client to client, but we must embrace the idea that turnover
is healthy, and the subsequent idea that our business development
goal is to manage such turnover. If it is our desire to grow our
practice, then we accomplish this by ensuring that the new clients
we take in represent increased opportunity over that of those
Selectivity is one of the defining characteristics of the
expert. It builds credibility, reduces buying resistance and
creates the conditions where it is possible to replace
presentations with conversations.
A clear understanding of our goals-a small number of slowly
revolving high-quality clients-makes it easier for us to adopt this
selective approach. We will not win every opportunity, nor do we
need to. From this we should take comfort and patiently go about
finding those that we can best help in a manner that is more
focused and less frantic.
Retreating Where Others Advance
Clients can smell selectivity. It is one of the early cues that
signal to them to drop their guard and participate in meaningful
discussions of fit, or raise it and retreat behind the protective
cover of "the selection process" where they ask for credentials,
proposals and presentations.
It is human nature to follow what retreats from us and to back
away from what advances. Confucius famously said, "Speak softly and
people lean toward you; speak loudly and they lean away."
Buyers prefer to be politely vetted by a seller who has clearly
defined parameters of the nature of the work he will do, the type
of client he will take on, and the budgets with which he will and
will not work. The client's experience in dealing with the
selective expert versus the enthusiastic generalist who barges
headlong into every opportunity is night and day different. One
invites him to advance; the other causes him to retreat.
Back Again to the First Proclamation
Selectivity begins with positioning-the very focus of our
enterprise. Our public claim of expertise must describe who we help
and how, and in this description those that would be better served
by others should be able to select out. The client should be able
to determine from a sentence or two whether our expertise is likely
to meet his needs.
The narrower our claim of expertise, the more integrity we earn.
By staking a narrow claim we build the credibility for the client
to assume we have capabilities beyond our claim, whereas a broad
claim generates the opposite reaction. The client knows the great
difficulty of amassing broad expertise, and when such a claim is
made he assumes our true expertise, if any, must be much smaller
than what is declared. In his very first interaction with us, in
reading the words on our website without having even met or spoken
to us, he makes judgments on our integrity that will impact the
dynamics moving forward.
The first proclamation lays the foundation for all others,
including this, the sixth. If we have succeeded in specializing,
then selectivity becomes easier for us.
In Pursuit of No
No is the second best answer we can hear. If the answer is no,
we want to hear it as soon as possible, before we and the client
unnecessarily waste valuable resources. When an opportunity first
arises, therefore, we try to see if we can kill it.
This is contrary to how we typically act, but it is a powerful
approach that lets us weed out poor fits early and eliminate those
opportunities where the client would not hire us in the end (or
those where we would regret that he did). If the opportunity is
right and we retreat just a little, the client is likely to follow.
The retreat-and-follow is an important test of how much the client
recognizes and values our expertise. It tells us if he sees a fit
and indicates to us the power we have to lead any engagement.
Our inclination is to avoid the questions to which we think we
may not like the answers, but here again we must learn to fight our
tendencies, demonstrate the selectivity and efficiency of the
expert and march headlong into these conversations in pursuit of
no. There are many common reasons why an engagement might not make
sense: money, the nature of the client's need, his willingness to
let us lead, geographic location, the depth of our experience. We
want to develop the habit of putting on the table for early
discussion these or any other concerns we, or the client, might
Reversing the Dynamics of Objections
The dynamics of objections are such that when one party raises
them, it is incumbent on the other to address them. Our tendency is
to avoid areas of potential objection, but they cannot be avoided
forever. Eventually the client raises them and we are forced to
address them. Such dynamics are easily reversed when we learn to
raise the objections first and place them on the table for the
client to address. Instead of waiting to hear, "You seem
expensive," we might say, "I'm a little concerned about the ability
an organization of your size has to afford us." In this manner we
want to learn to lean into potential objections. If the objection
is going to kill the deal, then let's kill it early.
Bridging the Expertise Gap
It is okay for us to accept work outside of our area of
expertise, provided: we have the ability, we have the capacity, we
can do it profitably and we are not deluded into thinking that such
work immediately merits expanding our claim of expertise.
If we are well positioned then we will possess capabilities
beyond-often well beyond-our declared expertise. When potential
clients approach us with needs within our capabilities but outside
of our central expertise, it is vital that we handle these
enquiries with honesty. When our claim of expertise is broad, we
are inclined to respond to such enquiries with what the client
expects to hear: "We can do that!" This reply builds buying
resistance and makes it difficult to replace presentations with
The target is not the market. We take precise aim at the smaller
target and are happy to hit the wider market. Our claim of
expertise should be a lot narrower than the sum of our
When we encounter an opportunity within our capabilities but
outside of our expertise, we owe it to the client to tell him that,
yes, we can do this, but no, it is not why we are typically hired.
We owe it to him to reiterate our claim and point out the gap
between what he needs and what we do. From there, the client can
make the decision to bridge the gap or not. He can decide that our
experience translates to his need and that he would rather work
with someone who is honest about her strengths. Or, he can decide
to look for someone whose expertise more closely aligns with his
need. If the gap is to be bridged, it's better if it is the client
who does so. The dynamics of objections, and the need to reverse
them, apply here, too.
On this point of accepting work outside of our expertise, let us
remember that we never want to be enticed into competing for it. If
the client bridges the gap and says, "I think you can do this," and
it makes sense for us to do it, then we are within our rights to
take the work. If his statement is followed by an invitation to
compete for the work, however, then we are better to decline, point
him in the direction of a firm better aligned with his need, and
get back to looking for our next perfect fit. He may advance when
we retreat, he may be worth following up with after he has spoken
to other firms, but he may also disappear and never return.
Regardless, we do not want to sacrifice our mission and be dragged
into competing for work that is outside of our expertise.
The Passion Dichotomy
Who are we without our passion? It is an asset that drives us
into the problems we solve. It is the motivational engine for
finding the best solutions to the challenges we face. Surely,
displaying such an asset in the buying cycle is advantageous? But
here, too, we must beware and, to an extent, fight our natural
Passion can be a tiebreaker when the client believes the level
of expertise to be equal among his considered options. When we play
up the tiebreakers of price, chemistry and passion, however, we
tacitly imply that when it comes to measuring us on the most
important variable-expertise-we are no better equipped than others
We must be free to use our passion, without forgetting that it
can easily become a liability. The client may view our display of
passion as an invitation to take control and an admission that our
expertise may be lacking. Let us use our passion but beware that we
do not over use it and allow the client to use it against us.
Selectivity Deepens with Expertise
As our expertise deepens, so too does our ability to be
selective. Expertise forces selectivity.
The generalist is drawn to the problem he has not yet solved.
His curiosity trumps all else. He feels no discomfort in operating
outside of his area of expertise because such an area is broad,
shallow and loosely defined. He pursues with passion the new and
When the transition is made however, and he becomes used to the
benefits of deep expertise-when the client ceding control to
someone deserving of such control becomes the norm-he will not be
easily enticed back to operating from the powerless position of the
When given a choice to operate from the position of power that
comes with deep expertise or to pursue work outside that area for
clients who will not allow him to lead, the expert will refuse. He
will refuse not because it is written here to do so, but because he
will never want to retreat back to that place of generalist
order-taker. He will be wary of situations in which he does not
have confidence in his ability to find the best solution-in which
the landscape and challenges are unfamiliar and he has to admit to
his client, "I've never done this before."
Once he grows accustomed to operating from the position of the
practitioner, the expert will take pains to ensure that his future
clients grant him such a position. In this manner, his expertise
will force his selectivity, but in the beginning it will not be so
easy. Selectivity is something he must learn. He must put his
passion in its place and walk away from those opportunities where
he is not viewed as the expert.
And so must we all.
VII - We Will Build Expertise Rapidly
We will view our claim of expertise as a beginning and
as a rallying cry for perpetual progress. Once focused, we will
work to add to and deepen the skills, capabilities and processes
from which we derive our expertise, and we will commit to the idea
that continuous learning is mandatory.
We address here the third of our three steps to positioning our
firm. First we select a focus, we then articulate that focus via a
claim of expertise, and finally we work to quickly add proof to our
When we put our flag in the ground, heads turn. The competition,
seemingly oblivious to us before, suddenly takes notice. Those that
do not claim meaningful territory are rarely attacked. What is
there to defend, after all? This is one of the indulgences of the
generalist: it is an easier life. It is not as lucrative. It is not
as fulfilling. It is, however, easier. Nobody attacks the
The truth about the average human being is that, regardless of
what he claims to want, he will avoid the difficult decisions and
the undesirable tasks, even if they represent the path to the
outcome or future he desires. The proven reality is that most
people will change their desires, even their values, before they
will change their behavior.
Now, the question we must face is, are we most people? Will we
stay on the old comfortable path where we can avoid attack? Will we
choose denial and continue to shape our beliefs to conform to our
old behavior? Or do we have it within us to do what we know must be
done to build an expert firm: a firm that delivers to our clients
our best work, a firm that brings to us the fulfillment of a career
well managed, and a firm that provides to our families the security
and prosperity they deserve? Will we do what we know needs to be
Making the Claim Real
Putting one foot in front of the other, we begin by choosing a
focus and articulating a claim (the first proclamation). Then we
change the way we sell (proclamations two through five). We become
selective about our new clients and the work we do for them (the
sixth proclamation). And now that we have momentum and we begin to
taste the benefits of expertise, here in the seventh proclamation
we make a promise to ourselves that we will see how far we can go.
We commit to deepening our expertise, rapidly and forever, so that
we can find out just how good we can become.
From the moment we make the claim, we find ourselves in a race
with no finish line. It is a race in which the greater our lead,
the more we have to lose; therefore, the faster we feel we must
run. This is not the easy path. Once we are on it, however, moving
past the stationary generalists on the sideline, we realize we
would not have it any other way. We would rather race to fulfill
our potential than stagnate in unchallenged contentment.
The Importance of Proving Our Expertise
A claim is just a claim; anyone can make one. Our claim of
expertise helps us break through the clutter of competition and
gain attention at the very first interaction with the prospective
client. But from then on, it is incumbent on us to prove our claim.
The further we progress into the buying cycle, the more the proof
of our expertise aids us. Without proof, we find ourselves having
to pitch-having to begin to solve the client's problem as proof of
our ability to solve his problem.
The proof that we desire to build, and that our future clients
need to see, is rooted in our skills, capabilities and processes.
These are things that we must never cease to build-assets to which
we must never stop adding. Let us explore some means we have
available to us to deepen our expertise.
Starting With Focus
The good news is that the very act of focus is likely to build
depth. If we were to take two people of similar intellect and
abilities and charge the first with building a business with a
broad focus and the second with building a business with a narrow
focus, we would find that the second person would build a depth of
expertise exponentially greater than that of the first. He could
not help but do so, for when we narrow our field of thought we
think deeper. We need not be smarter or more creative than our
competition, only more focused. Focus is powerful, but it is just
the first step in building deep expertise. Other steps follow.
The Requirement to Write
Writing gets us found. Writing helps to cement our position as
experts. Most important of all, writing about what we do is the
fastest way to deepen our knowledge. Writing at length on our
expertise drives us into the deep crevices of our territory. As
focused experts, we benefit from repeated observation of the same
challenges. Writing is the tool that helps us formalize our
thinking on these observations. It forces us to tighten our
arguments and therefore our understanding. Writing might not come
naturally to us, it might be painful at times, but the rewards are
significant and the exercise is mandatory. If we are to be experts
we must write.
The skills we must possess or acquire in order to succeed in a
differentiated creative enterprise are: consulting first, writing
second, artistry third. The problem-seeing and problem-solving
skills of the advisor, along with the ability to lead others
through the engagement, trump everything else. Writing follows, for
writing both proves and deepens our expertise. The artistry,
increasingly, is the commodity. It is inexpensively acquired from
those that neither have, nor attempt to cultivate, the first two
skills. We must take control and we must write.
Formalizing How We Work
If we were paid to dig a ditch of a specified depth, width and
length, our first attempt would be completed at quality X, in
timeframe Y. If we were to dig a ditch of those same specifications
every day, we can assume that the quality of our output would
increase and the time required would decrease. Repeated observation
and problem solving is bound to improve our quality and
We can also reasonably assume that over time, through trial and
error, we would happen upon an efficient approach that allows us to
deliver at quality and speed with consistency. In
almost any of our repeated endeavors, it is the strength of our
processes that drives the consistency of our outcomes.
If we want to build deep expertise we must take pains to
document how we work, to define how we will work in the future and
to continuously refine and improve our approach. Working from a
defined process leads to the very consistency of quality that a
potential client tries to discern late in the buying cycle, when
our role is to reassure. Nothing reassures the client more than him
drawing the powerful inferencethat little variability in
process equals little variability in outcomes. Every one of
the firms he is considering can demonstrate an ability to do great
work, but the question he wants answered before he buys is: "How do
I know I'm going to get their best work?" When we are able to
demonstrate strong processes, the client can decide for himself the
implications of our processes on the consistency of our
Training and Empowering
If we have no meaningfully defined processes, then there is not
much to train our people on. But once we commit to defining and
improving how we work, then we must commit to training our people
on such methods.
Training and other forms of individual professional development
are vital, for a creative firm either has a culture of continuous
learning or it does not. We must make the commitment that in our
firm all our people will feel compelled to keep up with their
associates and excel past our competitors. When our new employees
come to work for us they must feel as though the learning never
ends and the pace of learning never lessens. We race together.
We build a culture of continuous learning by hiring for skill,
by developing it through training, by empowering our people to form
their own professional development plans that we will approve and
fund, by holding them accountable to these plans, and, most
importantly, by leading with our own example. We go first, and set
the example of pace and determination required to be part of our
All Will Not Follow
While creative people have a proclivity for generalist
tendencies that allow them to explore the new and the different,
most will select a path of deep expertise once it is shown to them
and they have experienced the benefits. Without that experience,
not all will be convinced to join us on our journey.
The culture of tolerance and inclusiveness that we've always had
in our firm still applies, but now it applies only to those willing
to pull their weight. When we choose to follow the twelve
proclamations and make the transition from order-taker to expert,
we commit to the idea that perpetual learning and continuous
improvement are mandatory. Everyone involved in our enterprise must
buy in, pull his weight and push the rest of us as we push him.
Those who do not will be shepherded on to other firms where the
collective desire to realize potential is more in line with their
The One Who Eddied Out
We know the principal who eddied out-the owner of the creative
firm who enjoyed early success for many years only to have that
success leave him for good. He started on his own during good
economic times or with one large benefactor client and he rode that
current for years. Then things changed. The economy turned or the
client moved on and the principal's easy success vanished.
For years now he sits wondering what went wrong. What did he do
to deserve such misfortune? What he cannot, or will not, see is
that his misfortune is rooted in his early success. He was not
forced to make the difficult decisions early, so when faced with
them late he remained certain that the decisions and the effort
could be avoided, and success could be had the old way once again.
Now clients no longer beat a path to his door, and he blames the
market or he laments that times have changed in a manner he cannot
comprehend, for reasons he cannot see.
As others move past him, making the brave decisions and doing
the difficult work, he remains, with his reminiscent stare, bobbing
in the calm at the side. He stays there for us, as a reminder of
what we will become if we ever stop learning, if we ever give up
VIII - We Will Not Solve Problems Before We Are Paid
Our thinking is our highest value product; we will not
part with it without appropriate compensation. If we demonstrate
that we do not value our thinking, our clients and prospects will
not. Our paying clients can rest assured that our best minds remain
focused on solving their problems and not the problems of those who
have yet to hire us.
A pitch-based business development strategy devalues our
thinking and emphasizes the more commoditized parts of our
offering. If we do not value our thinking, the client will not. He
uses many cues to try to ascertain our value. He looks for signs
from us of how we value ourselves. How can we diagnose and
prescribe for free one minute, and later ask for hundreds or
thousands of dollars for similar thinking?
We must strive for a consistency in our behavior that says we
know our own worth and we will not be led into selling ourselves
short. We must address our own negligence in standards around this
behavior, and simply agree that there is a line that separates
proving our ability to solve the client's problem from actually
solving his problem. We shall not be lured into crossing over this
line before we are paid.
This pervasive challenge of giving our thinking away for free is
easily remedied. It is as simple as deciding we will no longer do
it, writing this commitment into a policy statement, and then
stating to the client with polite conviction, "It is our policy to
not begin to solve our clients' problems before we are
It is irresponsible of us to use our identity as artists as an
excuse for not forming business standards and policies. Clients lay
policies on us as though they were law and we respond with
preferences and inclinations. No-we must respond with policies of
our own. We encounter far less client resistance when we preface
our requirement with the words, "It is our policy that…"
Free Thinking is Not Just Free Creative
Many of us weigh the free-pitching problem and feel proud that
it does not affect us. "We don't do speculative (spec) creative."
But our designs are merely the application of our strategy; and our
strategy, when arrived at responsibly, is rooted in a thorough
diagnosis. Each of the phases that precedes design or any other
application work has a value at least as high as the application.
Like creative, this thinking that precedes it should not be given
away for free.
The line that separates proving our ability to solve the
client's problem from actually solving his problem begins at the
diagnosis. We correctly collect preliminary diagnostic information
in the buying cycle in order to assess the client's situation and
make a determination of our ability to help. But we should
not progress so far as to share our diagnosis with the client
before we are hired and appropriately paid. Beyond that, we
certainly should not be prescribing strategy without proper
diagnosis and compensation. Free pitching is free thinking,
Our need to not begin work without appropriate compensation does
not end once the client commits to working with us. The transition
from intent prospect to new client takes place through a series of
steps, each an escalation in his commitment. While we do not doubt
his word when he speaks it, we must remember that he is not fully
committed until he has parted with his money. Every client
reserves the right to change his mind until he parts with his
The escalation of commitment begins with a private one, when he
says to himself, "I'm going to do this." From there he moves to
shared commitment when he says aloud to us, "Let's do this." He
then further escalates his commitment by signing his name to a
legal document, be it a contract, letter of intent or memorandum of
understanding. But even now he is not truly committed. It is not
until he has parted with his money that he is fully committed to
moving forward with us; and even then we will still have to
reassure him through the inevitable period of buyer's remorse.
We must recognize this escalation of commitment as a natural
series of steps, and simply ensure that we do not begin to solve
the client's problem until he has completed all of them, the most
important being the last: payment. One third to one half of the fee
portion of the engagement is appropriate, or even the entire fee
for the first phase in a phased engagement.
There is no need for us to be tentative about stating our
requirement for a deposit before we begin working for the client.
We simply say, "We'll get started as soon as we receive the
deposit, as is our policy for all new clients." We need not
apologize for being responsible business people. Never again should
we find ourselves attempting to clarify issues of payment after we
have begun working on the engagement. This is the simplest of
business tests, one for which there is no longer any excuse to
fail: for all new clients, we will be paid in advance.
IX - We Will Address Issues of Money Early
We will resist putting ourselves in a position where we have
overinvested in the buying cycle only to find the client cannot
afford to pay us what we are worth. We will set a Minimum Level of
Engagement and declare it early in conversations so that if the
client cannot afford us, both parties will be able to walk away
before wasting valuable resources.
Let us commit to memory the Win Without Pitching rule of money:
Those who cannot talk about it, do not make it.
We claim to have been raised in a family or a culture where it
is impolite to talk about money, but we know this is only a
half-truth, don't we? In every culture it is impolite to talk about
money in a personal setting. Just as ubiquitous as this rule is its
corollary: in every culture it is considered a sign of poor
business acumen to avoid talking about money in a business setting.
We must reconcile these two conventions and not confuse social
mores with sound business practices. One of the goals of our
enterprise is to make money; therefore, we must form the habit of
talking about it early and often.
The Stress of Money Conversations
How often have we found ourselves deep into a business
development opportunity, heavily invested in time and other
resources, only to learn at the end that the client's budget was
far below what was required for us to do the job? How is it that we
get so far with such a gap in vital information? How is it that we
allow ourselves to do so much work without first having a
meaningful conversation about the financial fit between both
The client has a budget, or at the very least, budget
limitations, and we should have our own parameters that define our
minimum client size. With each party having such criteria, it
becomes easy to determine as early as practical if there is a
financial fit. But for many of us, it is not easy: money
conversations are a source of stress.
When we take stock of the stress in our life, it is easy to see
that almost all of it is caused by things that are either out of
our control-or, more often, things that are within our control that
we are avoiding. Stress is caused by the things we do not do. The
root of this money stress is not in the conversations themselves,
but in not having them when we know we should. Overcoming this
stress begins with deciding that from here forward we will talk
about money early and often. As soon as the opportunity arises we
will lean into the discomfort of the topic, deal with it
immediately and eliminate the stress from the subject. In time we
will learn to do this with ease.
A Minimum Level of Engagement
By following the sixth proclamation (We will be selective) we
agree to be more purposeful about the new clients we take on. We
agree to establish the criteria that define with whom we will and
will not work. Included in such criteria is budget, and
specifically the fees that such budget would represent. When we
commit to deliberately managing a slow, steady churn of a small
number of clients, we commit equally to the idea that each new
client must be of a certain size, representing a certain amount of
fee income. We owe it to our prospective clients to share such fee
expectations with them as soon as appropriate.
The annual fee minimum that we require becomes our Minimum Level
of Engagement. It is an approximate number (usually somewhere
around 10% of our total target fee income for the year) that we use
as a tool to quickly weed out poor financial fits, to escalate
discussions of short term tactical projects into discussions of
long term strategic engagements, and to help us begin the money
Soon after a need is initially determined, it is incumbent on us
to let the prospect know that we only work with a small number of
new clients every year and therefore can only add clients that will
spend at or above our Minimum Level of Engagement. We are not
looking to the client for an iron-clad commitment on this point, we
are simply saying, "This is the size of client it makes sense for
us to work with, so if you decide at some point that you would like
to work with us, we ask that you be prepared to commit to fees at
or above this level over the year."
Committed but Flexible
The Minimum Level of Engagement is a powerful tool that we want
to commit to using often, but without being overly rigid in its
application. There will be times when we choose to waive our
minimum, but let us not confuse the prerogative to waive it with
the necessity for using it in conversation. We want to develop the
habit of routinely sharing our Minimum Level of Engagement in every
first discussion of an opportunity with a new prospect, while
always reserving the right to waive it, if appropriate. Waiving it
without mentioning it doesn't count. Such behavior is simply a
failure to follow our own parameters of selectivity.
On Project Work
As selective experts, it is not in our interest to pursue
project work that is tactical in nature or well below our Minimum
Level of Engagement. This does not mean we do not take on project
work from time to time. Obviously, we undertake project work for
existing clients with whom we have larger, more comprehensive and
strategic relationships. We may choose to take on new project work
if it meets certain criteria, such as, if we have capacity, if we
can do it profitably, if it does not impair our ability to obtain
more appropriate strategic work from the client in the future and
if we do not have to compete for it.
Project work is a byproduct of pursuing a small number of more
meaningful engagements. We use it to fill gaps in capacity, but it
is not the mainstay of our practice. If we were to accept even half
of the project work that comes to us, then we would find ourselves
aimlessly building a tactical firm burdened by too many small
clients and projects, with the commensurate challenges of poorer
financial reward and less fulfillment. We will refuse more project
work than we accept, but from time to time we will accept it. It is
here that we would waive our Minimum Level of Engagement.
Waiving Our Minimum Level of Engagement
When we do choose to waive our minimum and accept either project
work or the occasional more meaningful strategic engagements just
below our minimum, we can still benefit from its power by keeping
it in place as an obstacle that we may or may not move aside.
Delivering our Minimum Level of Engagement early teaches us of
the client's ability to afford us. If we find that the client does
not meet our minimum, but for other reasons, may still represent a
lucrative opportunity, we can simply follow up with language such
as, "Before I say no, let me ask you a few questions." This keeps
the minimum in play and lets us continue to gather information to
make an assessment of the fit. In this way, we better manage the
dynamics of the buying cycle.
If we determine the fit is suitable and we decide we would take
this client on as one of our few exceptions to our minimum
requirement, we must ensure that removing the minimum is the last
thing we do before accepting the engagement. We never want to be in
a position where we agree to waive our minimum only to hear,
"Great, we'll send you an RFP," or, "Now we need to meet with a few
We use our Minimum Level of Engagement like any other objection
that we raise early for the client to overcome. Like the others, we
reserve the right to remove it. This is the power of no. When we
use it, it helps us measure and improve our place in the
relationship, and it's only as permanent as we need it to be.
One of the functions of business development is to keep bad
clients or other poor fits out. Like the gatekeepers at our
clients' companies, we must establish who is allowed in for
meaningful discussions and who should be gently guided away to a
more appropriate relationship with our esteemed competitor. The
fastest way to efficiencies in our business development approach is
to unabashedly uncover important information early and use that
information to make an honest and practical assessment of a fit.
The answer to the question, "Can and will the client afford us?" is
vital information that we must resolve to uncover as soon as
possible. Walking away from those that cannot pay us what we are
worth lowers our average cost of sale and preserves both our
positioning and any future business opportunities with the
Discussing money early is an easily formed habit that, once
acquired, helps us better make the decisions that shape the future
of our practice.
We Will Refuse to Work at a Loss
We will build our practice one profitable assignment at a time.
Excepting our carefully selected pro bono engagements and the
occasional favor to our best and longest standing clients, every
project will generate a profit that recognizes our expertise and
the value we bring to our clients' businesses.
We will strive to win while charging more and thus validate our
expert positioning. If we are not accomplishing this feat, then we
have not yet succeeded in implementing the earlier
We must dispossess ourselves of the notion that we can operate
on thin profit margins at the beginning of a new client
relationship and then work to increase those margins over time. We
know that profit margin, like power, only diminishes with time.
The tenth proclamation builds on the others before it: the need
for diagnosis before prescription, the need for selectivity, the
need to discuss issues of money early. Not only will we meet our
obligation to diagnose before we prescribe, but we will selectively
work for those clients willing to pay us for such an approach.
We Are Hired to Begin at the Beginning
Like the medical professionals that our four-phase model of
diagnose, prescribe, apply and reapply suggests, our highest value
offering is our ability to bring new perspective and understanding
to our clients' problems. Success at each phase depends on getting
the earlier ones correct. The first two phases of diagnose and
prescribe represent the strategic portion of the engagement-the
thinking phases that precede the doing. Our strength in these first
two phases is what sets us apart from our competition and keeps the
commoditizing forces of the profession at bay. The thinking that
precedes and wraps our doing is our value-added differentiator. It
is the basis of our deep expertise. Our opportunity for profit
margin in the engagement is greatest in these first two phases and
diminishes from there.
No client will willingly allow us to reverse this natural trend
and command more profit margin as time goes on. We must admit that
an approach that sees us sacrifice significant margin to win
business with hopes of making it up later is rooted either in
naivety, a false agreement with a client who is telling us what we
want to hear, or in our own dishonest intentions of hoping to find
profit that is not visible to the client.
A key test remains to win while charging more. When we win by
charging less, price becomes our positioning that we wear like an
albatross with that client forever: we become the price shop.
In our enterprise there will be no loss leaders. As experts, we
will not discount with new clients today for the opportunity to
make money tomorrow. We will save the use of discounts for our best
and longest serving clients at times when they need our
Legitimate price negotiations are fair game. If, from time to
time, we decide that it makes sense to cut price to win the
engagement, we must ensure we never cut so deep as to jeopardize
its profitability. By seeing that every engagement is profitable,
we ensure that our firm is profitable. By allowing an engagement
with a new client to begin unprofitably, we set up what is almost
certain to be a relationship of mutual discontent.
Alternatives to Discounting
We may negotiate from time to time, but before we cut price we
will ensure we have explored all the alternatives.
Clients may attempt to negotiate because they are unsure of the
value of our services. In these situations we can consider
guarantees as alternatives to discounting. Not guarantees of return
on investment-for too many variables remain out of our control. Not
guarantees on our entire spectrum of offerings-for they may be used
against us late in the engagement. It is appropriate to guarantee
the first phase-diagnosis and prescription-of a phased engagement
in order to reassure the client of the value of moving forward with
us. There is far less risk in this guarantee than there is in
pitching free ideas and hoping to get paid.
Clients may see the value of our offering but attempt to
negotiate based on their inability to pay. In these situations,
before we discount we should consider offering favorable terms that
let the client pay over time.
Holding Our Ground
Sometimes clients will see our value and will be able to afford
us, but will negotiate to get a better price nonetheless. Often,
negotiating success in these cases goes to the party most
comfortable talking about money. The one with the least emotional
baggage on the subject will do better at holding his ground. By
following the ninth proclamation (We will address issues of money
early), we work to ensure that that party is us.
Two Rules for Discounting
When we have explored the alternatives and still we choose to
discount, we will adhere to two rules:
We Leave it to Last
First, we will ensure that cutting price is the last thing we
do. We will search for and address all other objections before we
agree to discount. In one final sweep before we agree to accept
less we will ask, "If we were to agree to this price, is there
anything else to stop us from deciding to work together right now?"
If no objections or next steps remain, then we can cut our price
and take the engagement. If there remain steps to be taken or
objections to address, then we will do so before we discount.
We Put it in Writing
Second, we must ensure that such discounts are clearly
identified in all written documentation, including contracts,
estimates and invoices, in order to remind the client of the true
value of our services. Our failure to abide by this rule will
almost certainly cost us in the future as the client "forgets" this
proper value and references only what he previously paid. By
recording our discount in all price documentation in this way, we
ensure that such a discount does not set a precedent for new
pricing moving forward.
Our Pro Bono Clients
We will build a lucrative expert practice one profitable
engagement at a time, and then use the strength of our firm to help
those that need it most. For these carefully selected charity
clients, we will work for free.
We will leave to our competitors the unseemly practice of
working for charities for free in the beginning in hopes of
up-selling them to paid services. We will let others choose their
charities based on the business connections they hope to make in
the boardroom, but not us. We will treat charity as charity and not
confuse it with business development.
Among those charities whose causes align with our values, we
will work with the neediest, commit to them unselfishly and
sacrifice any opportunity to benefit financially from this work. We
will thus give ourselves the courage to ensure that every
for-profit engagement is indeed profitable. This relieves the
burden of the mushy middle of barely-profitable clients and
This is the emancipating duality of pro bono work: it is the
charity we must do, and it gives us the courage to turn away work
that would be only marginally charitable or questionably
Every one of our for-profit engagements will bring us profit.
Our carefully selected pro bono clients will bring us nothing but
fulfillment. We will leave to our competition those clients that
would neither bring us profit nor merit our charity.
Using Pro Bono Work to Build Expertise
In the early days of a firm, there can sometimes be little
foundation on which to build expertise. Here, pro bono-or even
deeply discounted work within the selected field of focus-might be
required to build that expertise. In these cases, there is no shame
in being upfront with a prospective client about working cheaply or
for free to amass expertise. Such an approach is valid, for a
period of time. If we truly are trading profit for expertise
building, then we will be honest and direct with our client about
it. To do it quietly is to employ the generalist tactic of
competing on price.
WE WILL CHARGE MORE
As our expertise deepens and our impact
on our clients' businesses grows, we will increase our pricing to
reflect that impact. We will recognize that, to our clients, the
smallest invoices are the most annoying. Through charging more we
will create more time to think on behalf of our clients and we will
eliminate the need to invoice for changes and other surprises.
By following the money
proclamations-getting paid first (VIII), talking money early (IX),
refusing to work at a loss (X), and now, charging more-we develop a
confidence that attracts better clients and weeds out poor fits
without wasting resources. Proper employment of our Minimum Level
of Engagement helps in this regard: thrifty clients are repelled
and quality clients are attracted.
In boldly charging more than our
competitors, we advertise to our prospective clients that we have
confidence in our ability to deliver high quality outcomes.
As we get better we will charge even
more, until we find that equilibrium that captures the appropriate
remuneration for the value of our services. Our premium pricing
will cost us clients from time to time; but if we are not losing
business on price occasionally, then we are not charging enough.
Conversely, if we need to win on price, we are not setting
ourselves apart as experts.
Like our competitors, we too will use
pricing as a positioning tool; but unlike them, we will strive to
demonstrate higher pricing and thus benefit from all its
positioning implications. Where others talk of their
"competitiveness" on this front we will march headlong into the
subject, following the ninth proclamation (We will address issues
of money early), and boldly explain that we are likely to be more
expensive than other options under consideration.
We will invite the client to tell us
that he would prefer to work with a more affordable firm. We will
not apologize for charging more; it is fair compensation for the
increased value we deliver as experts. It lets us improve our
offering by giving us the means to reinvest in ourselves and, most
important of all, it almost certainly improves the outcome and the
experience for the client.
PROFIT IMPROVES SERVICE
When we take on an engagement with thin
margins and then we encounter a problem with the engagement - from
our doing or not-we are left with little ability to fix the
problem. Healthy margins give us the wherewithal to fix mistakes,
earn trust and build loyalty with our clients. In this way, our
most profitable clients get our best service. It does not happen
the other way around. Superior service does not improve
profit; profit improves service.
The test for this is the ringing phone.
When we look down and see the profitable client's name, we are
happy to pick up. When the unprofitable client calls, we cringe.
Our clients know whether they are getting the best from us, but
they rarely know why. Failing to charge enough leaves us little
room to move and creates discordant dynamics with our clients. All
of this affects the quality of our work and our reputations as
Every client on our roster deserves our
fullest attention, our best service and our commitment to fixing
mistakes. For us to deliver this to them they need to deliver to us
the profit margin that will allow it. We need to accept nothing
less. Healthy profit margin is vital, for sometimes the right thing
to do is to give some of it back in order to correct a bad
situation. The implied understanding is: we will be paid well and
in exchange we will take care of the client. We will make all the
little problems go away.
How many client relationship problems
could have been avoided or fixed if we had charged properly? How
many of our clients could we have done better for simply by
commanding a little bit more money?
THE DEATH OF THE CHANGE ORDER
The change order represents most of
what is wrong with our business model and our client relationships.
Firms like ours are not fired over the large invoices for strategic
work; they are fired over the small invoices for tactical work. It
is the change order that creates the resentment that builds until
the relationship snaps.
Would we eliminate the change order and
the client resentment that comes with it if we had it in our power
to do so? Such an achievement is possible. When the client allows
the expert firm to take control of the engagement and charge more,
he does away with the injustice of a new invoice every time a small
tactical change is requested. Is this not a tradeoff that quality
professionals and better clients would make?
TIME OR THINKING: WHAT ARE WE
We sell our thinking but we do
ourselves a gross disservice in selling it by the hour. The surest
way to commoditize our own thinking is to sell it in units of
doing: time. Later in the engagement, when the strategy work has
been done and we are deep into implementation work, the client buys
our time. It is our thinking, however, that separates us from our
competition and forms the basis of our ability to premium price.
When we charge for this thinking by the hour we undo much of the
work of the previous proclamations. "How much an hour?" we
hear the client think. "How many hours?" When we employ
commodity pricing we invite commodity comparisons, regardless of
the value we deliver. The defining characteristic of a commodity is
an inability to support any price premium. If we cannot win while
charging more, then we must face the reality that we are selling a
STRATEGY IS NOT WHAT BUT HOW
While our engagements follow the four
phases of diagnose, prescribe, apply and reapply, it is the
outcomes of the third and fourth phases that are the deliverables
the client seeks. Our strategy-diagnoses and prescription-is how we
do what we do. The strength of our strategic processes, rooted in
our deep experience and systematic thinking, is what ensures our
high likelihood of a high-quality outcome. This is the basis of the
premium we command, therefore we should not be charging
for it in units of time.
We must price our upfront work, right
up to the first creative deliverable, in big round numbers that end
in zeros, and thus clearly imply that our pricing for these
services has little to do with the hours it takes to deliver
For the reapplication work that
follows, we are free to charge by the hour. When our clients buy
our thinking, however, they need to understand they are not buying
it in units of time. It is not until we cease to sell these
strategic services by the hour that we can truly charge more.
PREMIUM PRICING IMPROVES COMMITMENT
We never want our clients to be in
situations where it is easy for them to decide to not take our
advice. Any time someone hires an outside expert, the ultimate
outcome he seeks is to move forward with confidence. What is the
value of good advice not acted upon? Yes, it is our job to tell him
what to do, but that is often the easy part. We are equally obliged
to give him the strength to do it.
We are not meeting our full obligations
to our clients when we make recommendations that they find easy to
ignore. The price we charge for such guidance should be enough that
our clients feel compelled to act, lest they experience a profound
sense of wasted resources. There must be the appropriate amount of
pain associated with our pricing. This implies the need for our
pricing to change as the size of the client changes. Larger
organizations need to pay more to ensure their
LARGER CLIENTS GET GREATER VALUE
Another reason larger clients must pay
more is they derive greater financial value from similar work we
would do for smaller organizations. To charge John Doe Chevrolet
what we would charge General Motors for the same work would be
irresponsible of us. The larger client pays more to ensure his
commitment to solving his problem and to ensure his commitment to
working with us-and he pays more because we are delivering a
service that has a greater dollar value to him.
REINVESTING IN OURSELVES
Of all the investment opportunities we
will face in our lives, few will yield returns greater than those
opportunities to invest in ourselves. Price premiums give us the
profit to reinvest in our people, our enterprise and ourselves. The
corporations that we most admire are the ones that invest in
research and development. We must follow their path. While others
get by on slim margins, winning on price, we will use some of our
greater profit margins to better ourselves and put greater distance
between our competition and us.
BETTER MARGINS EQUAL BETTER FIRMS AND
On these many levels, charging more
improves our ability to help our clients and increases the
likelihood that we will deliver high-quality outcomes. It allows us
to select the best clients-those that we are most able to help.
Like leaning into the discomfort of money conversations, charging
more might not come naturally or seem easy, but it is better for
everyone, including the client, and so this too we shall learn to
do with confidence.
We Will Hold Our Heads High
We will see ourselves as professional
practitioners who bring real solutions to our clients' business
problems. We will seek respect above money, for only when we are
respected as experts will we be paid the money we seek. This money
will allow us to reinvest in ourselves, become even better at what
we do and deliver to our families and ourselves the abundance we
Today, we in the creative professions
find ourselves standing at a crossroads. On the one side, the
process of design is finally being seen as the last great
differentiator of businesses and economies; while on the other, the
outputs are increasingly seen as commodities.
Technology and oversupply are combining
to rapidly widen the gulf between the commoditized tacticians who
now bid their services against each other online, and the expert
practitioners who command significant fees for leading their
clients to novel solutions to meaningful business challenges. The
middle is disappearing. The need to choose a path is being forced
upon us. If we continue to choose not to choose, the decision will
be made for us, and we will be pushed down the commodity road where
we will reside with thousands of other order-taker suppliers who
will never be free of the pitch.
This is not a bad time to be forced
into decision. The world is waking up to the idea that the
challenges of both businesses and societies are challenges of
design, creativity and innovation. The opportunity for us to have a
meaningful impact on the world has rarely been larger.
Sustaining the Dream
From the very beginning, we were driven
by some bold ideas. We were taught in school that the artist's
place in the world was special. We were encouraged by our teachers
and fellow students to live the dream, to surrender to our passion
and revel in the nobility of our craft. Absent among these early
encouragements, however, was any discussion of money or basic
business practices. We were never taught to address the very issue
of sustainability: how to ensure our practice thrives so that we
may keep doing what we love for as long as it moves us.
There is nobility in our
craft. There is a special place for those with our skills of seeing
and creating. When we commit to building an enterprise around these
skills, however, we must also commit to acquiring another set of
skills that will allow our enterprise to thrive. Let us dream the
dream but also be practical enough to make The Difficult Business
Decision, and let us make a habit of barging headlong into the
sometimes-undesirable tasks that must be done if our enterprise is
to thrive. Dreams alone are not enough.
When we express our resentment for the
client who does not value us, we are really expressing our
self-loathing for not being able to walk away from him. We must
accept that the bad clients and the ridiculous selection processes
are not going away. Those that expect us to work for free as a
means of proving our worth are not suddenly going to disappear. It
is, after all, the client's money. He can employ any means he likes
to select someone to help him, no matter how absurd or insulting.
We can only control how we respond. The power we wield is the power
to walk away.
There is always another, better
opportunity behind the one facing us. If we cannot see it, we must
at least believe it. In following the twelve proclamations we will
leave the poor clients to our competitors, and in this way
acknowledge that the free-pitching problem is never going away-it
is only going away from us.
Among the Professions, But Apart
While we strive for the respect that is
easily assigned to the other professions, we must acknowledge that
we are different. We aim to bring to our enterprise the business
savvy that they bring to theirs, but we know we can never be them.
We didn't choose our craft; it chose us. And we were never in this
for the money. Even though we can no longer deny the importance of
it, it is still not money that drives us. Profit is the proof of
the worth of our enterprise. It validates our gifts and gives us
the strength to make our mark on the world, and that
is all we have ever wanted. Like all creative people, we only seek
to create, and in doing so, somehow change the world.
We aimed this high in the early days of
our practice, but then got buried in the minutiae of running a
business. Perhaps we started to believe the lie that to get new
clients we had to sacrifice a little bit of self-respect. We
occasionally found ourselves groveling. Too often, we did adequate
work for poor money for people who didn't value us. The acts of
creating and problem solving bring us fulfillment, but the
struggles of running a creative business often push us further from
our lofty goal. How can we harness our gifts to change the world if
they are so common or undervalued that they must be given away for
The Return of
What we once saw as a battle with our
clients we now see as a journey of personal transformation. One
proclamation at a time, the fog lifts, the path becomes clearer and
soon success appears possible, then inevitable.
The Gift We Might Give
We possess something that most others
do not. We see what others cannot. We can conceive what does not
yet exist. At our very best, we have it within us to lay out the
future and lead people to it. When we imagine ourselves at our
best, we can see again the change we might bring to the world. We
can see the power we have to move people and organizations. At our
best, what problem can we not solve? In banding together with
others like us, what change can we not bring about?
We are the people who see. The cause of
our revolution is not to rid the world of free pitching; it is to
build a business that allows us to rise to the highest heights
possible and make an impact on the world that is larger than
We will master the twelve proclamations
so that our enterprise may sustain us and nourish our creativity.
We will do great work for those who respect us and pay us our
worth. From our rewards we will use our gifts to lift our families,
inspire our communities and influence all of humankind. Focus,
selectivity, respectful selling, continuous learning and conquering
money-these are but steps on our path.
~ The End ~