If your dream client list includes large corporations, you’ll need to learn the rules of working with the big boys. Here’s how to navigate procurement, politics and power plays.
by Yvonne Pesquera
You’re making a new-business pitch to a prospective client. You show some amazing creative work you’ve done for small, unknown companies, but your corporate prospect only seems interested in a two-color, No. 10-size trifold brochure you did for a Fortune 500 company. Why is that? It’s more than just the name recognition. Big names in your portfolio show your corporate prospects that you know how to manage the internal workings of large corporations. And that’s invaluable experience that not every designer has. Here are some facets of a corporate client relationship to keep in mind and solutions to common challenges.
THE SYSTEM DICTATES WHO GETS WORK
If you want to service large corporations, your goal is to become a “preferred vendor.” This expression doesn’t refer to your client’s preference to call on you vs. another agency. Rather, it’s a label that a company may assign to your agency indicating you’ve signed a confidentiality agreement, you attend their periodic training meetings and that your tax and banking information is in their accounts payable system.
Do these technicalities seem trivial to you? They’re not to a large corporation that deals with thousands of vendors and pays invoices totaling billions each year. To become a preferred vendor, you may need to apply through a company’s procurement department.
Procurement is generally flooded by solicitations from vendors; they may already have hundreds of international design agencies on their list and don’t need another. You’ll need strong marketing skills to position your specialties and value. Another approach to becoming a preferred vendor is having your client recommend your agency to the procurement department.
If you have a strong working relationship with her, you can ask for her assistance in satisfying the legal and financial requirements to gain vendor status for ongoing work. This is generally an easier approach, but the onus is on you to find a client within a large company who wants to give you work.
YOUR CLIENT IS NOT YOUR ONLY CLIENT
Let’s assume you’ve penetrated the procurement and marketing departments and you’ve been assigned a project. The first major difference to know about working with a corporate client is that no matter how authoritative your client may appear, she always has someone else to answer to. This could be her manager, a peer from another department, the compliance lawyer or the sales manager who will ultimately use the marketing materials she produces.
Even if your client never mentions them, it’s to your benefit to ask who the stakeholders are on your project. This is particularly important because design provokes emotional responses. You’ll want to learn up front if her stakeholders have any special preferences or past design experiences you should be aware of. Usually, when we make a presentation, we focus on appealing to the people sitting in front of us. But because of the “shadow” stakeholders in the background, you’ll need to broaden the reach of your presentations and communications. After all, your comp boards will continue to be evaluated, judged and discussed long after you’ve left the conference room.
If you know the expectations of these other key players, point out how your design addresses their preferences (e.g., the sales manager doesn’t want a “slick” brochure; you’re using a matte paper).
If you don’t know anything about your stakeholders, then reinforce that the design comps satisfy the key points in the creative brief your client provided. Assure her that you understand that some changes may be required as she gets feedback and that you’ll inform her promptly if any changes are beyond the initial project scope. Going through several changes on a creative concept is often the way large companies do business. By reinforcing that you’re accustomed to this process (and not complaining about all the changes), you’ll communicate your professionalism.
Looking to learn more about pitching to client? Check out HOW Design University’s course on Presenting Design Ideas & Concepts to Clients.
SILOS & OFFICE POLITICS ARE REAL
Companies grow large by breaking down into smaller business units. Generally, these are referred to as business “silos.” (They’re called this because, like grain silos, these are standalone structures.) Unfortunately, many business silos don’t communicate well with one another and they often compete for executive management attention and budget.
What does that mean for you, as the preferred vendor?
It means that politicking, power plays and “hallway chats” may very well occur during the course of your project. This may be especially true if your client does introduce you to the stakeholders on her project. Attending meetings with these other project owners is like a verdant meadow with hidden landmines. On the surface, these meetings are great networking opportunities. You can hand out business cards, present your agency as a strong partner and dig deep into their issues so you can deliver some fantastic design.
But be forewarned: No matter how many niceties you exchange with the stakeholders, your client is still your primary client and you must only do what she directs you to do. If she senses you’re eager to build alliances with these other players (especially on her dime), it may be your last project. You may think you’d never get involved in the office politics that occur between business silos, but it often happens in innocuous ways. For example, it’s not unusual for someone other than your client to call you “just to talk” about the project. Be polite and listen to what they have to say. But if they make any requests, tell them you’d be happy to run it by your client on their behalf. This makes it clear that nothing happens on the project without your client’s directive.
Even if this other stakeholder doesn’t request anything of you, you should still send an e-mail to your client (c.c. the person you talked to) and summarize the conversation. This small act speaks loudly of trust, accountability and integrity.
So how do you broaden connections within a company?
When the project is completed, ask your client for referrals or ask if she’d feel comfortable if you called her colleague to seek additional work. But don’t be surprised if your client doesn’t want to share you; vendor-hogging is common between competing silos.
YOUR WORK MAY GO TO WASTE
Many people outside of Corporate America would be horrified to learn that big companies routinely waste money. In fact, the chances are low that you’ll work on a project that will come in within the original budget. Scope expansion is often the result of having multiple stakeholders on a single project.
Your client will spend a good deal of time trying to get consensus on a single design. She may not succeed. In fact, your final product may be an amalgamation of all the stakeholders’ varying preferences. And you may not be too proud of the final piece that has images of boats (the sales manager’s preference) and puppies (as per the marketing director in Tokyo).
Another reality is that you may be hired to do work for work’s sake, particularly when a manager has to use her budget or she’ll lose it for the following year. But doing work that won’t get produced is not the end of the world; you should just be aware that this sometimes happens so you won’t take it personally.
Obviously, you have no control over what gets produced, but there are a couple of ways in which you can protect your interests in these situations:
On the front end, you should have a tight contract that specifies payment at milestones. Your client agrees to pay you for each deliverable (initial concepts, round one, round two, etc.) That way, if the piece is never finalized, you still get paid for the work you’ve done.
You can also use the experience as groundwork for future work. You don’t want to regurgitate ideas that were never finalized (the client may misperceive this as laziness), but you can ask if there were any ideas she thought had potential and could be explored further.
Down the road, your client may surprise you and say, “Just pick up the photos you used for those comps last year.” Sometimes work doesn’t get wasted after all.
IT’S THEIR WORLD; YOU JUST LIVE IN IT
Once you’ve landed a corporate client, you do everything right to manage the account. You learn the company’s product acronyms, you know that your client’s son plays soccer on Thursdays and you know that the compliance lawyer hates red so you don’t even think about using it.
When it comes to working with corporate clients, they truly do want the expertise and value you bring. Design is just a part of the client’s experience. They want design and behavior from you that’s going to bring them personal success within their organization. And you can be that preferred vendor––even if you’ve never worked for a large company. Just remember that when you go to work for a corporate client, you go to work for the whole machine.
GETTING WORK FROM CORPORATE CLIENTS
Here are a few tactics to help get your foot in the door:
Pick an industry and specialize. Marketers don’t have the patience for explaining industry nuances to vendors who aren’t in the know, however, so pick an area and get in the know.
Scour industry directories. If you have a strong cold-calling/direct-mail campaign, trade directories can help generate leads.
Purchase an exhibit booth at their trade shows. Don’t expect an immediate return on investment, though; plan on being a consistent presence at their industry functions for a few years.
Reach out to the procurement/sourcing department. Many companies have one department that’s responsible for hiring all types of vendors. And sometimes, clients can only hire agencies that are on the preferred vendor list. To achieve this status, you may need to jump through some hoops. Call and ask to speak with this department to get more information.
Yvonne Pesquera has years of marketing communications experience––on both the corporate client and agency sides.
Following the success of Building Design Strategy, DMI’s Corporate Creativity is the ultimate guide for executives and managers looking to increase creativity and innovation in their companies. This anthology of provocative essays, drawn from the pages of Design Management Review and Design Management Journal, explores personal, team, and organizational creativity.