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Many companies bypass agencies and
hire creative types directly. Should you?
Here are some tips and traps to consider.

Once upon a time companies hired advertising agencies to get creative advertising, artwork, video or photography. The agency had its own creative staff in-house or subcontracted the work, riding herd on a stable of footloose freelancers. These creatives were a kooky bunch who dreamed up all sorts of clever ways to snag new customers -- or didn't -- in which case, the client simply went shopping for a new agency. Half the dads in early TV, from Dick Van Dyke to Daryn in "Bewitched" belonged to this fraternity of creatives. Then came the computer and the mysterious curtain lifted. Today everyone knows about fonts and clip art, picas and pixels. High school kids are building web pages, morphing video, customizing digital pictures. Many companies have chosen to bypass agencies and go directly to the creative vendors. Others eschew artists for software and make their own brochures, web sites, videos and advertising. The results can save a company thousands of dollars in costly creativity. One talented person with the right software can do everything from project management and market analysis to TV and radio spots, artwork, signs, jingles, animation, logos and annual reports. One tasteless bozo with the same software can sink a corporate image into the muck just as quickly.

Though the computer has certainly turned the creative services industry inside out, an effective advertising and marketing campaign is still much more than tapping a few keys. Someone has to research the market place, conceptualize the campaign, visualize the tools that will sell your product or service. A strong effective corporate ID is more than the CEO typing his or her initials in a fancy font. It takes artistic talent. And beyond the creativity and planning, implementing a solid marketing campaign requires organization, administration, more research and lots of analysis. And yes, money too, sometimes lots of money.

Which is why many companies go directly to vendors today. With the right vendors -- you can save money, get a top notch campaign, and be more involved in the creative process. If you know how to find, select and communicate with creative vendors -- you can become your own advertising manager. If not, you've just bought yourself a ticket to chaos.

An agency is essential for any company or organization that is without marketing direction. The agency's first job is then to figure out what the client needs to accomplish in order to succeed. An agency, combining science, experience and intuition, designs a plan and keeps the client on track. At least, that's what a good agency does.

Think of an agency like your general practitioner. Just as a GP may also be a cardiologist, your ad agency may also specialize in, say, broadcast advertising or public relations. The problem with agencies, like doctors, is that they simply cannot keep up in every specialty area. The reverse problem is that, unwilling to pay an agency, some companies try to give too much power to a loose assemblage of creative "specialists," freelancers who may know a lot about their field, but little about marketing or advertising as a whole. You might allow a graphic designer, for example, to design an entire advertising campaign. That person may be skilled visually, but may not know about placing media, writing copy, studying demographics, determining market share or implementing a public relations campaign.

Bookkeepers, bankers, accountants and financial advisers all deal with money, but they perform distinctly different functions. Creative vendors sometimes offer overlapping services, based less on what they can do, than what they will do to make money. Unable to tell one from another, you, the customer, may be at the mercy of an unqualified vendor. Yet, here's where it gets tricky. Since what the creative vendor sells is creativity, sometimes you get your best work from the rebel, the iconoclast, the one who breaks rather than follows the rules. That makes selecting your creative team even more difficult.

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Videographers, designers, ad agents, illustrators, photographers, copywriters -- creative commercial vendors are perhaps the most diverse group of craftspeople you can hire. While some are trained graduates of degree programs, many are not, and a sheepskin is no guarantee of talent or professionalism. While many creative vendors belong to associations and clubs, the industry is, for the most part, unregulated and decentralized. Local video producers, for example, may attend professional conventions, but may never meet or speak with colleagues. Communication between creative types is often non-existant and many work and live in isolation from others in their trade. Some are pretty isolated from the world at large. Today that means you can pay one vendor big bucks for a service another vendor, with different skills or software, could supply for much less.

Other than word-of-mouth, customers may have no way to easily assess the merits of one vendor over another. Other than the Better Business Bureau, consumers may have little recourse when they get less than paid for. The level of professionalism varies widely. Some excellent creatives have terrible phone skills, cannot manage their time or money, may be too artistic for your needs. Since the final product is unique and artistic, getting an estimate that measures apples to apples is sometimes impossible.

Like athletes or actors, commercial creative vendors must win to survive. Their income is directly related to their talent, reputation and ability to produce original work on command. Finding the right creative vendors for your needs is a lot like assembling an athletic team or producing a film. But even with talented players, pennants and Oscars are not easy to come by.

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Most creative people work in drafts, in phases, in stages. Their work grows and evolves, often through collaboration, through a series of calculated steps. There may be a lightning moment of inspiration in which a fully-formed idea leaps into the vendor's head. But for the most part, commercial (as opposed to fine art) artists rely on a grab bag of familiar techniques and a lot of trial and error.

Unlike their fine art cousins (and many double as fine artists on the side), commercial artists have a clear mandate, and it does not come from within. The creative vendor is paid to achieve goals set by the client -- by you. Usually that means, the final product -- an ad, a brochure, video, jingle, CD-rom, photo -- is supposed to make money by selling a product or service. Or the client may want to teach, to communicate key information in order to train or influence a targeted audience. While the fine artist wants to create his or her own soulful masterpiece, the commercial artist never loses sight of your goals needs. A brilliantly artistic work may be an advertising dud if it does not tell the client's story or sell his widget.

The creative vendor lives from assignment to assignment. Unlike traditional jobs, each creative assignment may be wildly different from the last, perhaps requiring research, new equipment and materials, or untried procedures. A videographer may need a $50,000 camera, a printer may buy a $7,000,000 color press, while a writer could use a $2 pen. The final product may be unique or stamped from a cookie-cutter mold.

Some creative vendors work for an hourly or daily wage, while others estimate a cost per project or, in some cases, require a royalty based on the success of the project. Rates may vary enormously and quality is not necessarily tied to cost. A $40,000 video may look almost identical to a $10,000 production. A brilliant hungry artist may sell a drawing for a song, or a song for a pittance. The artist may work from home, an office or a studio. There is no dress code, no simple stereotype, no personality profile that covers this diverse population. A three-piece suit does not imply conventionality any more than a nose ring implies creativity.

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Tip List

(1) Don't Shoot from the Hip
Whether you use an agency, separate creative vendors or in-house creatives, there must be a map. Your marketing plan is like a navigational chart. It tells you where you are going and how much effort and money to expend in order to reach specific destinations. Marketing plans take in everything from PR to business cards and selecting the company's name. If you want to raise net income by 10%, make it a goal. Are you trying to publicize a new product, increase company visibility, attract new investors, move more product, change location, polish a tarnished image? All this belongs in your marketing plan. Without the map, any marketing effort is just a grope in the dark.

Tip List

(2) Sometimes You Have to Search
The best creative types are not always the most accessible. Some need space or solitude. Some are shy and insecure. Some cannot afford an office or business phone. The excellent vendors you've heard of most often may, because of their reputation, be the most busy and expensive. So plan some time to assemble your creative team.

Simply scanning the Yellow Pages will lead you to many photographers, but few illustrators, yet illustrators abound if you know where to look. While most video producers are "in the book," few audio techs or web designers currently are.

That's why alternate sources, like this web site, exist. Local publications often run annual listings and the Chamber of Commerce will know some, but not all, of these often elusive vendors. Mostly you will find them by asking your colleagues -- "Who do you use?" When you spot a logo, a TV commercial or print ad that you admire, call the company and ask who did the work. Agencies that subcontract their creative work may consider vendors' names to be a trade secret, but with a little detective work, you can find the people whose work appeals to you. But be careful. Creative work that attracts you, may not necessarily attract your customers.

Tip List

(3) Check Portfolios and References
When you find these vendors, the first thing you want to do -- before you form a relationship -- is check their past work. All worthy vendors have portfolios or samples of their work and references. Showing completed work is the number one way most vendors and agencies get new jobs. And don't just skim the material; scrutinize it. Don't be swayed by your personal biases. One local artist's portfolio was rejected recently by a business owner who didn't like the color blue! If you don't know how to judge a portfolio, trust someone who does. Remember that this function could be performed by an agency who preselects the creatives for you. If a vendor has no past work and no references, show that person the door.

Traditionally, a large company might ask a number of vendors or agencies to present fresh new ideas, then select the vendor that offered the best. This is an ideal scenario, but applies only to companies willing to pay the price for high end creativity. It is not legitimate for a small company to make many vendors jump through hoops for a tiny job, and true professionals will politely decline or charge a small fee to make such a presentatioin. It is also not legitimate for a consumer to "borrow" a clever idea from one vendor and ask another to produce it, unless both vendors are compensated.

Tip List

(4) Value the Work
If you are one of those people who think all advertising is a waste of money -- then don't advertise. Don't bother producing a marketing plan unless you plan to implement it. Some companies do fine without a formal campaign because they have a good product and a solid customer base. If you fall into this category, do not require a line-up of creatives and agencies to present their portflios.

Similarly, if you think advertising or training are "necessary evils," you may do best to do the work yourself. One corporation owner told a series of vendors that he "hated creative types." They are all "one step below dentists, tax collectors and lawyers," he announced at each interview. Then he asked to see their portfolios.

A clever name, an appealing logo, brilliant marketing or package design can turn a sleeping product or service into a winner. Most creatives spend their lives imitating original ideas that worked for earlier companies. But the most valuable bit of creative work is the one that runs ahead of the others. That idea must, at first glance, appear the most risky since no one else is doing anything similar. The local cartoonist who invented Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a true creative and, appropriately, earned millions. But it took an equally clever marketing person to make the idea fly.

Would you offer a creative vendor half of your newfound gain if that person could double your profit? Think about it.

Tip List

(5) Don't Expect Miracles
Next to the nihilist and the micro-manager, the worst client for creative services is the one with his head in the clouds. This guy believes that the marketer is going to solve ALL his problems, save his life and pull him from the brink of financial disaster. Forget about management. Forget about quality control. The "creative people" will handle everything. Dream on. This does not mean creatives cannot perform miracles. Many products, from movies to mouth wash, have returned from the dead with clever marketing. Locally, we have seen a single colorful "sell sheet" lead to a cover of Fortune magazine and a single, small video lead to millions in sales. But bad creative direction has probably been the death of just as many great products.

The bottom line is that the employer needs to work in partnership with the creatives. Depending too much on their talents can be as dangerous as not valuing the work.

Tip List

(6) Understand What You Are Buying
This is a difficult one. A simple TV commercial, for example, can be very complex. There may be storyboards, camera operators, actors, voice-over talent, script drafts, sound effects, music, special effects, sets, and more. You are not expected to know all the nuances. In fact, for the vendors, it is better that you don't.

It is the vendor's job to tell you what you need to know, to make you just knowledgeable enough to be helpful, but not knowlegdeable enough to be intrusive. Unless you prefer to operate on blind faith, you need creatives who can communicate well enough to guide you through the creative process. Not all can, and this is one argument for using an agency, especially when your marketing needs require a dozen separate independent creatives, each with their own opinions, tastes and values. Unfortunately, not all agencies know how to communicate either. Some are too pompous, some are too quiet, some are as confused as you.

One approach is to study up. You can get the same instructional tapes, books, videos and CD-roms that your creative vendors use. You can take a seminar or evening course. You can call around and talk to professionals in each field. Is this the equivalent of learning accounting before hiring an accountant? Yes. It's cheaper, but a lot of work, to do it yourself.

Tip List

(7) Avoid Low Bid Thinking
Now think of your marketing as a building. If you want a tool shed image, most anyone can build it. Small plumbing companies don't need to attract customers world wide. A CPA or lawyer might need a modest house, something respectable but not too fancy. Any of a number of contractors can construct that building, though it is trickier.

Unfortunately, most buyers want a marketing palace. Nothing less than the Taj Mahal will for them. They see a TV commercial and would "something like it, but not expensive." They see the logo for a Fortune 500 firm and what something "cheap, but just like it." Instead of telling them the truth, creative vendors may attempt to build the Taj Mahal with cardboard budgets. The result is often a disaster for both parties.

Remember, you are not hiring someone to sell you a book, but to WRITE one. The more creative and comprehensive the project, the more it will cost. It is that simple. No one expects to pay for a Geo Metro and drive away with a Cadillac, but reasonable intelligent people do expect to get a $5,000+ logo for $150. Why is that? Probably because we are all used to seeing very expensive advertising free on television and in magazines, on billboards and in newspapers. Big companies spend millions of dollars to attract our attention using very high quality work. Because this costly, sometimes very artistic work is all around us, we often forget that the people who produced it spent a lot of money.

The problem with the creative services industry is that there are a lot of wannabe vendors, people so inexperienced or so untalented that they too are fooled into thinking they can provide high value work for rock bottom prices. But an artist selling $150 logos eventually disappoints the customer or dies trying.

There are plenty of options for the low bid thinker. He or she can buy stock photos or illustrations off the internet, or get a piece of software that will outline a marketing plan, or buy a pre-packaged radio ad with a "donut hole" space to insert his name and phone number. Much of this is very good stuff and highly affordable. That's because it is being sold and sold and sold again by the owners. It is not original.

Some people have no trouble spending $1.99 for a fast food burger at lunch and $24.99 for a rare bit of prime rib at dinner. Others are burger people all the way. If you are one of those, please, stick to clip art.

Tip List

(8) Understand Your Bill
Nothing creates friction between vendors and buyers more than money. Buying creative work is not like buying groceries. The final product does not exist when the deal is struck. It is as if you are commissioning a symphony.

As the product evolves and becomes clearer, the buyer's opinion of it evolves as well. Because the work is so subjective, it is especially important for you and your vendor, to have the financial details clearly spelled out in advance.

Some buyers want to pay "on approval." If they like it, they buy it. This seems reasonable to the buyer, but can be a heart attack in the making for the vendor who invests dozen, perhaps hundreds of hours in the creation of the work. And, to be blunt, whether the vendor likes the work may have no effect on whether it is an artistic or economic success. In the long run, the value of the creative product is determined by how well it sells or teaches. For that reason, creatives may require a deposit, usually half the estimated total, and the balance due on acceptance and delivery. There may be a contract. If you don't like the final work, you may still have to pay for it.

You should understand what you are buying, but not to excess. Don't require a creative vendor to justify every nut and bolt used in the creative process. Expect that an agency will "mark up" a subcontracted service such as photography or printing. This is normal. You may ask how much it has been marked up, but do this at the outset of the project, not at the end.

It is legitimate to ask how much services cost per hour or per day, but it is not fair to haggle over how much time the vendor worked. Most creatives work many hours over what they charge. If you distrust the vendor or don't like the rates, don't hire that person again. But do not destroy the critical relationship by talking about money at inappropriate times. An original creative work is NOT simply the sum of its parts. If it were, you could get one at K-Mart.

Tip List

(9) Frame Each New Project
If your marketing plan is the master map, each creative project requires a separate street map, a detailed summary of where you will travel on a project-by-project basis. You should have one for your video, your logo, your brochure and so on. All the separate little maps should fit uniformly into the master plan.

Creatives are problem solvers and the good ones work like Houdini. Your job is to frame the "box" from which they must escape. You provide the goals. They provide the results. The vendors uses all the tricks and skills and tools available to achieve the results you have ordained.

Creative vendors need boxes from which to escape. The financial, material and time constraints of the project are part of the box or frame you create. When that is done, stand back and enjoy the process. If the escape artist never emerges, either the box is too small or you hired the wrong guy.

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(10) Get It in Writing
To make sure that both parties know what the creative vendor is supposed to accomplish, you need to memorialize the deal in writing. This could be an elaborate contract or a one-paragraph summary of the product or service.

Some creatives, because they too are unsure of the outcome, resist written summaries. Some clients, because they do not want their overweaning expectations dashed, do the same. But a professional agreement between a creative vendor and a client ALWAYS includes some form of written agreement.

Tip List

(11) Learn to Lose Control
A creative project requires that different people be "in control" at different times. This can be a difficult task since some business owners are ultra-controlling. That is not always a bad thing. A certain amount of control is required to build and run a company or organization.

But at some point, to be creative, the vendor must also take control in order to cause change. Creatives deal often in human emotion. Their goal is to make people do something, learn something, buy something new. To do that, they often must be dramatic and direct, they must draw attention and make an impact.

Many companies run from an opposing mindset. They focus on sameness, on quality control, on tight tolerances of time and material, on mass production. Therefore, in a small company especially, it may be hard for the leader to allow a creative vendor to "break all the rules" when the leader's job is to enforce them. Creatives cause leaders to see things in new ways and, simply to show their own authority, a leader may reject the change out of hand. This is a frequent trouble spot when controlling independent clients meet creative independent vendors. Sparks may fly and they can be, depending on personalities -- colorful or destructive.

If the buyer is not able to give up power to a creative, no change can occur. So it is the vendor's job, this time, to frame the experience. The creative must be able to ease the buyer in and out of control in a way that is not threatening. The creative must reign in his or her ego at certain points and let it fly at others.

Tip List

(12) Who Owns What?
This is a big issue growing bigger now that digital technology allows an endless number of identical duplicates to be created at very little cost. In essence, an independent creative owns all but single rights use of anything that you buy. The vendor sells off ownership in layers. What you do not purchase in writing, you do not own, no matter what you pay.

So it is up to the vendor and the buyer to write down what is actually being sold. Are you buying an illustration or just the right to use it under special circumstances? Starving artists tend not to bring up this issue, often because they do not understand copyright law, and often because they do not want to lose a job by haggling over rights. A photographer, for example, usually "sells" a photo, but retains ownership of the negatives. A videographer may edit images into a tape that the buyer "owns", but retain the right to make all duplicates, to own all raw footage, or to make all edits in the future.

The copyright issue is based on the notion that a creative person makes a living by being creative, not just by cranking out work. If a work of art increases in value or generates income, it makes sense that the creator should benefit. But it is a complex field and creatives may not even know they have had an original idea. And what is an original idea when nearly everything original is recycled?

From the buyer's view, it is important to get things in writing, ask for as many rights as possible, and respect the fact that the artist deserves a fair payment for the work supplied. The creative vendor should, likewise, be up front and honest about what rights are being sold, should know if the work is original, and should know what compensation makes it all worthwhile.

Tip List

(13) Learn to Praise
Creative people, even commercial artists, are after more than money. Many feel practically compelled to express themselves artistically. When it comes right down to it, a few words of thanks and praise go a long way with them. Most clients disappear when the bill is paid. But for the creative vendor, the work has become very personal. Even a technical manual can get under the writer's skin. Does it work? Did I do a good job? How is it being used? Did it generate income? How did people react?

Once you have a creative team, remember to contact them after the fact. It can't hurt when the next job comes around.

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(14) Please Follow Up
Built into every creative project should be a means to assess the success or failure of that work. Most small companies never know whether the creative work they purchased really succeeded at all. The ad goes into the newspaper or on TV, the sale is held, and the next advertising project begins. The result is a circle where marketing is accomplished for the sake of marketing. Change is impossible because there is no way to assess value.

Or worse, clients may produce creative tools because "we needed it," and then never fully use them. Hundreds of brochures lie in the basement. Closets are full of unseen videos. Marketing plans and reports lie smoldering in filing cabinets. Web sites hang in cyberspace without promotion, without updates.

"We tried marketing," a small business owner said. "It was a pain, so we stopped doing it." What this business owner does not realize is that, conscious or not, she is marketing every day. But as the philosopher says, "If you don't know where you're going, any road will do."

© 1997 J. Dennis Robinson

Mr. Robinson is owner of Ideaworks, a creative services agency in Portsmouth, NH. With Tim Dubuque he is also owner and creator of the regional web site

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