Do you have vendors or partners?

By: Keisha Whaley, CEO

I have a pretty thick skin. Growing up in my body in a town like I did, you had to, and it’s come in handy professionally on many an occasion. Still, there’s one thing I can’t stand…

…being called a “vendor.”

I come from the branding, advertising, marketing world at large. If you’ve ever watched Mad Men (I actually haven’t because the pilot already felt like a day at work), you’ll get the feeling that we’re able to be risk taking pushers. That our clients have hired us with full confidence and enthusiasm and we can sell anything to anyone, starting with them.

Heh. I wish.

The truth is, creative work and those who do it, are viewed… well… strangely. There are so many assumptions about what we do, who does it well, and what a fair price really is, the mountain of opportunity is a treacherous climb. These assumptions create tense working relationships where it’s clear we’re not hired as trusted experts, just doers and order takers. Whether or not someone says the word “vendor,” there’s one question that’s sure to be asked by those who will treat you as one:

“Have you ever done work in my industry?”

I remember interviewing for a job with an agency specializing in restaurant brand design.

“All of your work is in healthcare and it’s all web.”

Pointing to the examples of retail and consumer goods branding, print, and event collateral, I said, “I have other industries, and yes, a lot of web, but I also have a pretty wide range of other stuff.”

“I need a print designer. You’re a web designer. We do restaurants, not healthcare. I don’t see how you’d be of any use to me.”

I didn’t like that.

Even just recently, I was told Brass Tacks would not be receiving referrals in a specific industry because we didn’t have much to show in that vertical. If we got more clients on our own though, they’d consider sending more my way.

I didn’t like that either.

Hath not a designer a good eye? Hath not a branding agency the chops to deliver a brand to anyone?

Really, what both communicated to me is that I or my agency would be a vendor. Product-specific; just make it and let’s get on with our lives.

I don’t blame people for this. We’re not taught how to properly evaluate professional services. For the intangible work we do (consulting, strategic planning, client management), people need a point of reference to determine what’s real, valuable, and applicable. Many need a very literal example in order to make their decision. We also teach people that specialists are great at one thing while generalists are great at nothing. If I had a nickel…

Here are the ways you’re hurting your business with these beliefs:

  1. By opting to work with those who are exclusive to your industry, your brand looks like every single one of your competitors. Ever wonder why so many political ads, real estate agents’ business cards, and dentists’ brochures look the same? There are agencies and individuals who specialize in a particular industry, but they end up templatizing the creative so it all becomes a wash in the end. Was your goal in launching your business to fade into the background? Probably not.
  2. When growth is part of your plan, the status quo is a lead weight. True growth comes from innovation, adaptation, and anticipation of needs. It’s hard to excel when your brand representation is locked in the past. If you’ve ever been part of a professional organization, you’ll know the best ideas were generated by those outside your industry who could offer a fresh perspective. When your agency lives and breathes your industry, that also means they’re just as close to it as you are. Rather than pushing past what’s been done to find what could be done, they’re left to rework previous solutions.
  3. If you’re not choosing creative partnerships strategically, you’re setting yourself up to fail. Many people want to simply hire a vendor. “I just need a ____” thinking leads to short-sighted decision-making. Then, there are also people who believe they need a specialist, but don’t fully understand what makes for a specialist or generalist in the creative space. Choosing a creative partner should be a careful consideration of team, values, and their communicated ability to adapt with the times. Treating your creative partner like a vendor is destructive. Discounting them because you yourself may not know if they’re a good fit can be just as problematic.

So, what is a creative partner? This is a person or an agency that doesn’t simply do what you tell them to do. They ask a ton of questions, do extensive research, and present back to you their rationale before putting pen to paper on execution. They anticipate your needs as they get to know your business and your audiences. To that point, they understand there’s no such thing as a target audience, but instead multiples are needed. They push for listening to adapt over simple testing of predetermined solutions. The list goes on, but these are the markers of the ones worth trusting. In contrast, someone who simply asks what you like and produces it, or who shows ideas without the strategic thinking behind each one, is a vendor.

Your brand is paramount to your success. Find the partner who understands and wants to help get you there.

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