Bringing Balance to Your Design Business

Whether or not you have articulated it, your design business is mission driven. Furthermore, what looks “balanced” to you because it aligns with your own interests might appear imbalanced to someone else with different priorities. In the absence of a clear statement surfacing this focus, how would I discover the unique nature of your graphic or web design firm or the firm where you work?

Until you look for the right clues, answering that question is like scanning a crowd for the tall person when everyone is sitting down. But just like extraordinary height is apparent once you ask everyone to stand up, so too the subtle “drives” at any firm are apparent if you look in the right places. The intent of this is first to help you see where the imbalances are at your firm, and then to suggest where I would prefer that you change the focus.

Possible Distortions in Creative Service Firms

After analyzing hundreds of firms in depth and thousands of others in passing, I’ve found that there are predominantly six different drives that surface in our industry, listed in no particular order:

Each of the first five must be present to some degree in each firm, but in that mix, which one is predominant at yours? And how would a particular emphasis shape your environment? By the way, when money is the driving force, the original emphasis (one of the other five) has died and all that’s left is money, which eventually destroys the culture. (Please note that money is not the same as profit.)

Dive Deeper: Client Relationships & Resourcing

Mind Your Own Business ConferenceThe only two I want to talk about are Client Relationships and Resourcing (my word for quality, scheduling, pricing, project management, managing outside relationships, etc.). So if you are too focused on client relationships, something else is going to suffer (e.g., employees working too hard or insufficient boundaries around your personal life). Or if you are too focused on employee relationships, you may have trouble dealing with difficult employee situations and outsiders will wonder if you’re running an orphanage instead of a marketing firm.

Being Client-Driven Instead of Client Focused

Most firms by far are in this category. It’s motivated in part by the economy, but it’s present even in the best of times. Here are a list of the characteristics that might describe your firm if you fit in that category. Not all will apply, of course:

  • Friends with clients.
  • Client concentration issue (largest related source represents more than 25% of fee billings).
  • Weak resourcing.
  • May or may not have dedicated resourcers, though any they do typically answer to account-facing employees.
  • Principal deeply involved in client relationships, but other account managers more junior in experience who are under close watch of principal.
  • Over-servicing.
  • Underpricing.
  • Less effective work as clients dictate solutions.
  • After hours calls/pages with eroded personal boundaries.
  • Artificial “rush” jobs accepted and done at the expense of great work.
  • Client managers resourcing their own jobs.
  • Competing demands placed on those doing the work by account people who go straight to them, bypassing resourcing and even the creative director.
  • No separate strategy department because of power concerns.
  • No separate, dedicated new business efforts.

If an airport were run this way, every strong personality is given their own runway, without coordination, and the gates are first come, first served, with lots of little factions inside and preferential treatment given to the certain airlines.

This is the ideal scenario that I want instead, and it only happens if graphic or web design firms have a control tower (Resourcing) with power:

  • Time to put your feet up and think.
  • Significantly profitable operation.
  • Balanced capacity with few surprises.
  • Many more “no” conversations with clients.
  • Employees consulted before promises are made.
  • Emphasis on quality.
  • Appreciative vendors.

Is it time to rethink the structure of your design business?


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