Q&A with HOW Design Live’s Marketing Mentor Ilise Benun

Ilise Benun is the Marketing Mentor. For the last 30 years, Ilise has devoted her professional life to educating thousands of creative entrepreneurs. She empowers each of them to attract the clients they want with the budgets they need to operate a successful business. In the midst of this Renaissance woman’s busy schedule, you can find Ilise speaking at numerous industry events; and since 2008 she has assisted with planning HOW Design Live, the nation’s largest creative conference.

I met Ilise in late 2014 when we planned the conference together and became fast friends. I respect both Ilise’s clear advice and genuine generosity. Check out my interview with Ilise Benun and learn new insights about the inquisitive host of the HOW Design Live podcast and co-founder of the Creative Freelancers Conference as she chronicles her personal journey as a business owner and creative mentor.

Ilise Benun speaks at HOW Design Live 2016

Take special note as Ilise outlines some of the amazing new sessions she is planning for the 2017 HOW Design Live Conference in Chicago on May 2–5. This is one event you definitely don’t want to miss.

What were the motivating factors that compelled you to start a consultancy focused on educating creative entrepreneurs about the nuances of building, marketing and operating a successful business?

Anger was the essential motivator. I was fired from my second job out of college and I was so angry. I decided I would never work as an employee for anyone else again. It was not a conscious decision, even though I was raised in a family where everyone was self-employed. I can remember watching my father fill out forms and write “SELF” in all caps! That had a major impact on me.

In 1988, I looked around at all the people I knew in New York—painters, actors, musicians, singers and dancers—all creative people who were a little disorganized. I realized that I was a bit more organized than them. So I decided to become a “professional organizer” and help them with their piles of papers for $15 an hour.

It didn’t take long to get clients. As I worked with these creatives, I noticed they each had one thing in common: at the bottom of their piles of paper was something about self-promotion and marketing that they needed to do for their career or business and were not doing. I would say to them, “Let’s send some information to that casting director,” or “Let’s get you a booth at that tradeshow or art show where you could exhibit your work.”

I naturally started to evolve my services away from organizing and toward marketing and self-promotion because that was clearly the real need people had. That’s how I learned my first marketing lesson: to make a business successful, figure out what the market needs and give it to them. I couldn’t articulate it then, but that’s what I’ve done for myself and have since helped thousands of others do, too.

After almost 30 years of being in business, the latest iteration of my elevator pitch is this: my specialty is helping creative professionals get better clients with bigger budgets.

What are the key characteristics that separate a great HOW Design Live talk from all the rest?

Whether I’m an attendee or involved in programming an event, I look for quality in both content and delivery. It has to be a combination of substantial content and compelling presentation, which isn’t easy to find. Often a speaker knows the subject matter but doesn’t present it well, while others are entertaining but don’t have much value to share.

Who was the most memorable speaker you had the pleasure of hearing and how did their presentation impact you?

My current favorite speaker, who also happens to be a HOW Design Live speaker, is Terri Trespicio. Terri is a branding strategist and writer who helps visionaries, experts, entrepreneurs and businesses communicate their brands with power and precision across media platforms. That’s her elevator pitch, but she’s so much more than that, and she’s amazing on stage!

At the 2015 HOW Design Live Conference in Chicago, Terri was called in as a last minute replacement and she delivered the highest rated session of the whole conference—on networking of all things! I had to bring Terri back in 2016.

She killed it again this year in Atlanta with her session “How to Build Your Personal Brand on the Job” and as the moderator of “Ignite Your Passion Project,” a mini Shark Tank (without the teeth) where four designers pitched their passion projects. By the way, it was so successful we’ll offer that opportunity again in 2017.

Terri is a ball of fire and has that combination of quality content and delivery that I think is essential for a great speaker. She comes on strong, is super smart, and has an uncanny ability to give spot on feedback instantly. She jumps in, feet first, without hesitation and delivers. She’s a very funny and candid presenter who is also a stand up comic in her spare time. I’ve never known anyone who wrangles metaphors better than Terri! I also love her TEDx talk, “Stop Searching for Your Passion.”

Aren’t you glad you asked?

As for speakers outside of our industry, I’m partial to history professors. I currently love a free lecture series through Cooper Union’s Public Programs called “The Constitution Today” presented by Akhil Reed Amar, a Yale Law School professor and author. I love Amar’s lecture series because, like all good professors, he loves his material. I now can’t resist loving the constitution and the fascinating history behind it. So the impact of his teaching on me is that I want to learn more, which is so important.

What advice do you have for creative professionals who want to share their expertise by speaking at industry events?

Getting speaking gigs is just like getting clients. Most important is to know whom you want to reach. Once that is clear, find the events that bring those people together. Identify your targets, research their needs, and then approach them with persistence and patience because it doesn’t happen overnight. Finally, as with everything else, practice, practice, practice to perfect your craft.

You have programmed and hosted the Creative Business/Design Entrepreneur program for HOW Design Live for many years. How did this opportunity come your way and how has the program evolved over the years? What exciting new experiences should attendees look forward to in your planning of the 2017 sessions?

Timing played an important role in getting the first Creative Freelancer Conference off the ground in 2008 and it’s been evolving ever since.

It all started right before the economic downturn. I was attending one of the smaller HOW events, and on a lark, Peleg Top and I pitched the HOW team on the idea to create an event tailored to freelance designers. Turns out the HOW team had been thinking along similar lines. Six months later, we had our first Creative Freelancer Conference and it was a hit! It all happened very fast in large part because the timing was right.

As it evolved, CFC (as we had come to know it) went from being a stand-alone event, to one of several tracks that made up HOW Design Live. In fact, that’s what HOW Design Live was at that point, several stand-alone conferences rolled into one big event.

With each year, it has continued to evolve and change, as has the name, from Creative Freelancer, to Creative Business, to Creative Entrepreneur, each time with a slight adjustment to the program’s content, all in an effort to cater to the needs of attendees. See more details here.

For 2017, things are changing again, and a bit more dramatically. As HOW Design Live VP and Show Director Gary Lynch described in a recent blog post, we have essentially eliminated the tracks tailored to designers’ roles and replaced them with programs focused on different disciplines like marketing and design. I’ve also taken on more responsibility for programming new how-to breakout sessions. Here’s a sample of speakers we’ve secured and the topics they’ll present:

  • Ben Callahan on how to build a human-centered culture
  • Emily Sander on how to create effective creative briefs
  • Eleanor Handley on how to communicate your best ideas
  • Emily Lewis and Lea Alcantera of Bright Umbrella on how to choose the right CMS
  • Jean-Pierre Lacroix on how to get into shoppers’ heads with AR & VR

On day two, I’ve scheduled a session on how to do 21st century networking, so attendees will have a chance to implement and practice what they learn immediately at the conference! But the programming I’m most excited about for agency owners and independent creatives is a half-day intensive workshop called “The Get Better Clients Bootcamp” presented by Marketing Mentor. The entire bootcamp will focus on answering one essential question that keeps most creatives up at night, how do you get better clients?

Every speaker will have a different answer to that all-important question—whether a simple idea or practical tactic that can be implemented by creatives at all levels, from solopreneurs to agency owners. There will be as much networking time as we can squeeze in before, during and after. I can’t say more than that right now, but it’s going to be awesome and I can’t wait until all the details are finalized.