Business Strategies For Agencies & Creatives With Emily Cohen

Emily Cohen is a creative consultant, coach, and author of the hugely popular book, Brutally Honest, No Bullshit Business Strategies To Evolve Your Creative Business. 

Emily has an absolute passion for speaking with creatives and strategies about evolving their businesses with easy-to-implement strategy. 

She shares her valuable wisdom on

How to demonstrate your value to clients
How to raise your rates in modern competitive markets and

An excellent strategy to get more business and revenue from existing clients

If you want to learn techniques that Emily shares with our coaching clients to get better clients for your business, charge more for your work, and evolve your branding business. 

Then don’t miss this article.

Business Strategies For Agencies And Creatives (with Emily Cohen)

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How To Manage Client Relationships

Stephen Houraghan

I want to jump into directly from your book. You mentioned within your book that clients are like children and I absolutely love that for many different reasons with my experiences. 

You do mention that they need rules in place. They need praise and encouragement and structure. 

What did these things look like in practice with your client on a day-to-day basis to really manage that relationship?

Emily Cohen

People behave better when they know what the rules are and what the boundaries are. 

With clients, you have to give them those boundaries and that structure, and that’s in different ways. 

I’m a big believer in onboarding documents to new clients, and onboarding documents to staff, hopefully, you should do the same with clients.

Here’s how we like to work. Here’s how we’d like to communicate or discuss those with the client? Like how do you like the communication? Cause it’s always about communication. 

That’s always the issue, do they slack you today, text you, do they email you, where does this information go?

So just having the rules of engagement, a lot of designers just kind of fly by the seat of their pants. 

But the other thing I think is not making sure that you have a clear scope of work and contractual documents. Right? 

So a lot of times I see these proposals and they’re beautifully designed and they have all these great case studies.

It’s all about the client, but it’s very little about what we’re going to provide the parameters of what we’re going to provide, and what’s included in the fee. 

I always find like designers trying to leave it open-ended and that’s not good. 

Clients need to know, okay, I get three concepts, I get two rounds of revisions and actually having contractual terms that are readable. Right? 

So that are in friendly terms that the client wants to read, that they don’t just sign and say, oh, I didn’t read that,I didn’t see that. 

So it said, they’d read it. You’ve explained it to them. You’ve reviewed it and there’s structures in place and they understood it originally. 

So it’s about listening to them. 

I have this expression I’m a real big believer in it, kind of it’s the answer to all my questions I’m asked, which is just “build the love”, right?

It’s like with kids, I would say this with kids, like, yeah, kids are never going to stop loving you unless you’re a terrible parent

If you’re a decent parent, you give them the rules, they’re not going to stop hating you. They might dislike you for a little bit, but they’re going to come back and love you.

If you build love with clients, they’ll forgive you if things happen.

I think spending more time building the love, and that doesn’t mean like being a pushover, right? 

It means just being that showing your value and making sure the client’s trust and value and love you. 

I would say that one thing in relationship building. Some people equate that to people-pleasing. 

Those are two different things.

Building love is very different than just people-pleasing. 

How To Build “The Love” With Your Clients

Stephen Houraghan

How would you, let’s say you wanted to build the love with a client and you want to really build up that relationship, but you get you starting to get a little bit of pushback. 

How do you find the balance there? 

Is it through the onboarding document and those original boundaries?

Emily Cohen

It’s actually before that and Yeah, it’s kind of before that it’s like, even before the proposal.

it’s really spending more time with it because what happens a lot of times as creatives, we’re just so excited that a client has called them. 

They have like an hour, like the client called me, this project is exciting or it’s a good big budget or something. 

Designers always fall in love with something and then what happens is they let them do like an hour kickoff call, maybe like a half-hour meeting but they don’t really spend time asking good questions and meeting them in person or as much as possible really spending time talking with people.

I know it’s really hard right now (COVID19) to build people and meet people in person, but as much as you can meet your clients in person, they’ll enjoy you more and asking personal questions about their lives. 

It’s not getting too deep, but making sure that they’ve had a good day, if they’re going to a trade show, asked how the trade show was.

So it’s like the new business process is making sure that they know you’re paying attention to their lives and their world.

Go-To-Principles To Demonstrate Values

Stephen Houraghan

We are in this place now a lot of people listening to this are in the transition from being just a kind of order taker, creative into more strategic services.

Even back when we specifically talk about execution services, there is a lack of understanding of the value of those design services. 

In this day and age, in the strategic side of things, there’s such an education gap, there’s such a misunderstanding there about what a brand is and the value of strategy.

What are your go-to principles to demonstrate the value in what we do as creative designers, strategists from that early discovery phase? 

Emily Cohen

Now I think I talk about that a lot in my book that a lot of firms,

Are you the executional or strategic?

But there’s somewhere in between and you have to kind of decide which one, because you can’t be both.

When I talk about being strategic, it means first having a team in place that no matter what they do, they’re advisory to clients. 

They’re not order-takers, they have power or are enabled to talk or be empowered to talk to clients and teach them and educate them. 

So part of it’s having the right staff, no matter what, they even like people right out of college, if they have expertise or they have a passion for something, they should be able to show.

But I think the best way to show value is two events. 

One, I think it’s an industry responsibility. I think all the associations for designers need to do a better job of demonstrating our value at a business level. 

Speaking at business goals making sure we have metrics of success for our industry overall, and then at an individual firm level it’s about really solid, successful.

Does it want me to put out testimonials like client testimonials? They were so much fun to work with, we adored them or they really solved our problems. 

No one cares about that stuff.

What they really care about is?

How did you move the needle? 

What percentage of increase of viewers did the site have?

Did it increase sales at the store? Did it increase self-shelf presence? 

So there’s a lot of metrics we can capture that we don’t. Yeah. And I think we as an industry need to do a much better job of at an individual level capturing.

It’s really about asking the client, how do you measure success?

So we understand that and then we can call them back and say, 

How did that work? 

How did you measure your success? 

Then we can be advisory and this goes back to strategic. If they say, we don’t know how to measure success, you can say, 

Well, we are an expert in your industry and here’s how our other clients have measured success.

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Impactful Questions To Ask From Discovery To Delivery

Stephen Houraghan

Now, you mentioned in your book as well that you, don’t like to make assumptions and I think assumptions can derail anybody, but instead, you prefer to ask a great question. 

So what are your favorite questions to ask from discovery all the way through to delivery that entire relationship? 

What are your favorite questions that you can have the most impact? 

Emily Cohen

There are so many. I think obviously the one I mentioned to be useful, at the very beginning of the relationship is 

What are your success metrics?

So how do you measure success? And then the big question is WHEN, and then putting it in your calendar. 

So I think a lot of times we ask only if they mentioned things, I actually like to ask it a friend. 

So that’s the thing and I also love to do pre-mortems, which is at the very start of a project asking them questions like.

What do you think could go wrong? 

What are your greatest concerns?

What are potential obstacles? 

What are your greatest fears? 

I think if we ask those questions, like not a post-mortem, but a pre-mortem. 

We could really respond to that and say, or be, or adjust our process, say, okay, 

if you greatest to fear is this like you have a lot of stakeholders and you’re worried about getting everybody’s buy-in, let’s build a process where we can build everybody’s buy-in what does that look like?

Let’s adjust our services and our scope of work to make sure that we have an all-hands-on-deck meeting so we can present to the board or whatever. 

So I think it’s around asking what their fears are, and I don’t think we do that enough because we’re afraid to hear those answers. Right. So I think those are really great questions.

And throughout the process, it’s really about listening to not just asking questions. 

I guess the one thing I would say that questions, although I have so many questions I would like to ask is.

I think that were so fearful of asking too many questions to me, there is no such thing as too many questions.

I think you could always hop on an email or hop on a call and just say, I had one more question, you know, just to get, they really do appreciate it and you’ll get signals of your estimate, any questions.

I think it’s obviously, to me a lot of it’s around stakeholders, like who’s involved in the project and what their role is and not just taking their word for it.

So for instance, you working for a nonprofit and they sa you’re just going to work with me and you should ask because for nonprofits have board of directors or board of advisory, I’m like, you should really ask if the board is involved, and say you’ve had these problems in the past.

Make sure you are clear to the point. 

Is this person involved as a CMO about like refer back to your own experience with other clients of those. It’s kind of use that information to ask smart questions. 

I think the other thing is around feedback is giving them guide rails for evaluation feedback. 

So my question is a lot of times when I’m giving initial concepts or another round of revisions is I give them a guide rail of like five questions that they should answer.

Like, did this solve your problem is the type of graphic hierarchy, correct. 

So I think it’s not just giving them presentations and saying, is this approved, but telling them, this is what you’re supposed to approve and this is what you’re asked to oppose to approve. 

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Executional To Strategic

Stephen Houraghan

Now I mentioned to you before Emily, that we’ve gotten a lot of listeners who are moving from the area that we both love, which is the creative design space to more strategic side of things.

And even in your book, you’re not just all about the creative. You do also talk about strategy. 

What’s the most effective way for designers to move away from that executional, kind of order take a kind of work to strategic work where they’re steering the ship and they’re pushing the project?

Emily Cohen

I think that you have to ensure your team is not that they’re all advisory and they’re not reactionary.

I think it’s really about stop executing what the client wants and just ask for and really be more advisory and telling them what you think they need. 

I think a lot of times we just do what the client says, I need this and you don’t think they need that or so.

I think to me it’s around really having great conversations and being much more consultative and advisory and less responsive reactionary and less like, yes, yes Ma’am, yes Sir. 

You know, like really listening to what they need and saying here’s other ways of solving this problem. 

So I think that is definitely one that I really helpful. 

The other thing is a lot of times the kind of clients we’re working through working with have come through the word of mouth network, like you through all our efforts.

So it’s all around these people calling you and then you responding. To me, it’s for you to go after and get those better clients. Right? 

Cause it’s really hard to change existing relationships or existing patterns of behavior. If you’re known for being a service-oriented firm. 

Then you’re going to keep that reputation unless you start seeking other people, other clients out and building a new reputation.

So to me, it’s around new business also is. Deciding where you stand, who you are, what you value, what your specialization positioning is, and then going after those clients. 

And when I say go after, I don’t mean sales, I mean, it’s like relationship building. 

Yeah. So just meeting and communicating with people that you want to work for that do value and do value your mind and your strategy and not just doing what they ask you to do. 

So I think it’s a round, all of that stuff and learning to say no more. I don’t think we say no enough. 

Deciding Factors For Specialization

Stephen Houraghan

You talk there about specialization like most people within the space. 

I mean it’s no secret. We’re, we’re all talking about it. 

Specialization is absolutely key and, and, you know to be a Jack of all trades, it’s, it’s the best way to kind of blend in. 

What are your go-to factors when you go to think, or you advise somebody, you advise a creative on ongoing, choose your specialization.

What are your go-to factors in deciding where that area of specialization should be?

Emily Cohen

Well, first of all, just embrace that specialization is the answer to any of your problems. 

I think a lot of times we want to like you just said, we’d want to be all things to all people, and also creatives are curious.

So going back to that word, curious, they feel like and legitimately so that they can design anything. 

But clients don’t understand that so they need to know you specialize, they need to know you understand their industry and there are a lot of benefits for that, which I don’t need to go into, but one of them is money, right?

The more you make more money if you specialize and it’s also really hard to stand out in a very saturated market and the only way to do that is if you specialized. 

So I would say my process for helping my clients and I’m doing this a lot right now. 

Actually, I have like 700. where I’m helping them just focus on their specialization and we are going step-by-step we literally first get curious.

I mean, it’s kind of an obvious step, but no one does this which

The first step is to look at all the work you’ve done for the last three years and see what are the commonalities? 

What are the common themes and areas of what I first look at is the vertical industry as is the vertical markets. Right. 

What industries have you done work in and doing a pros and cons list?

Like what’s great about those industries and what’s not and when I say pros and cons, I’m like looking deeply. 

So not just saying restaurants, but maybe upscale risk, luxury restaurants versus. You know, I don’t know, fast food or fast-casual, like what kinds of places do you work with?

And so first is it’s an evaluation of your current state. Yeah. Who do you work for now? And what do you love about it? What are the potential pods then? It’s kind of dream big, right? 

So the next step to me is like, who do you want to work for? What kinds of industries do you love? Do you know a lot about it.

I actually also asked my clients what’s going on personally, because we have these in our personal lives we have communities that we don’t leverage enough. 

So I have this story where I had a client who was on the side. He was a tattoo artist and one other thing, I can’t remember what it was because back then it was. 

But what we realized is that what he could specialize is in subculture because he his whole, all his friends, all his people were in the subculture.

So why not specialize in subculture? I had another client that was a big hiker-biker and knew a lot about like all of that. So why not go after the outdoor. 

So part of it’s leveraging the community we already have and seeing if there’s something there because I think we, travel in circles and those people can be leveraged in ways, in an authentic way.

So first it’s looking at the current state, then it’s looking at the dream state and then kind of looking at a competitive on it. 

Who else is in these spaces? 

What are the common themes? 

And then I also look at services. 

So I do the same thing? 

What are the current services? 

Where do we want to go in the future?

And then I also look at, so there’s the vertical then there’s the vertical, which is industry horizontal, which is services. And then I also look at 

What your differentiators are

What makes you really unique? 

And I try to find like two or three things that add that little flavor that differentiator, and it might be culture.

It might be past leadership experience. It might be a sentence of a tone of voice or one of my clients is kind of this very sarcastic kind of irreverent kind of person and the fall from is like that drives them. 

So why not call themselves reverent because that’s what they are.

I think it’s owning who we are and thinking like deeply about what makes us different, but designers have a tendency to specialize in creating memorable experiences and what you really need to do is focus less on those things.

I’m more on for these people and really just answering that we do this for these people and maybe then, and here’s what makes us different or how this is how we do it. 

That’s kind of my process, It’s a very step-by-step step it’s week by week, we do it small increments. So they can really think about it in between each kind of consultant session.

So I really make them because I don’t want them to make quick decisions. 

A lot of my clients made quick decisions about who they were and they didn’t do enough research. They didn’t do enough thinking. And so I ended up having them land to places they didn’t want to land on. 

So now I’m realizing it’s a much slower process, so they can really think deeply about is this the right fit for me and a lot of times it’s stuff you knew all along, but you just never said.

How To Raise Your Rates

Stephen Houraghan

if you were competing in the design market, now that’s very commoditized.

How would you go about raising your rates

Emily Cohen

First of all, I think it’s confidence. 

I think we all kind of always question ourselves, particularly women. I think we need to get over that a little bit. 

So it’s a shift in mindset and just building more confidence in ourselves an dbeing comfortable asking for higher prices.

I have this talk that I give at conferences it’s called it’s your fault and I think the reason and cause I blame the industry for a lot of our problems and I think we are accepting, especially during COVID. 

We accepted reduced budgets and now those budgets are never going to go up. Just like after nine 11 budgets went down and they never went back up. 

So first of all, it’s making sure that you stand your ground and be confident and ask for the numbers that you deserve and through your success metrics, you can prove.

I think it’s about specializing. I think the more we specialize the higher we can show. It’s avoiding any discussion of hourly rates. We’re not a pair of hands. We don’t charge hourly. 

So many of us still charge hourly that’s kind of crazy to me, it shouldn’t be about that. 

I think also what I love about this moment of time, I absolutely love this is this there’s so much transparency in our industry now.

All these so many slack channels of principles of design firms and so many meetups of people just talking and sharing their numbers. 

To me, it’s really about sharing your numbers with your peers, not hiding them and really level-setting our prices as an industry overall. 

To me, this whole idea of pricing is an industry problem and an individual problem.

I think it’s around specializing. It’s better for qualifying clients. It’s asking for the numbers and not being afraid to know that you are going to not always win these things. 

You might have to say no to somethings and I think designers have they’re so fearful losing projects or saying no that they lead lower their prices just to win projects.

And that you have to know that sometimes you’re going to. You’re going to lose some projects and that’s okay. 

How To Upsell Services

Stephen Houraghan

Now, one of the things that I absolutely love and I’m fascinated about are marketing mechanics and the mechanics of funnels.

Although you don’t talk about funnels, you do promote the idea of upselling your clients to other services, which as part of the value ladder and know lifetime value of a client.

What are your favorite techniques to upsell to your clients to bigger and better services or just more of what you’ve done?

Emily Cohen

I think the first thing is just, I like to say, just be advisory to hear clients. 

I kind of changed the wording a little bit is to accept that the fact is your job is to be consultative and advisory and ask those small questions and give them advice and recommend solutions that you think they haven’t thought of.

But not in a way that’s just selling them services that they don’t need really honestly, selling them services they do need and sometimes it means that

You have to demonstrate that value, demonstrate that need by developing, bring some concepts on your own. 

Now I’m not saying to do spec work on the client’s request, but sometimes you need to say, I have this idea and I’m going to show it to you, but you don’t own the rights for it, but if you love it, then we could really develop it and do something with this and then you can have the rights to it if you pay me. 

So a lot of times, sometimes we have to actually saying for you once in a while, if it’s a client that you think is not getting what you need to. 

When you are recommending, you might develop some concepts to show them, this is what the package might look like. If we did it different looks and feels for each of the skews or something like that.

So I think sometimes we have to demonstrate what we’re trying to sell them on and also the other thing is making sure that you’re upselling the right star services, not just like site names. 

To me, that brings you back to being an execution farm. Right? 

So like for branding, it’s very much less about like developing the little stuff, like an email blast here and there and giving them, selling them brand guidelines.

A lot of brands don’t ask for branding guidelines and so part of it is saying why we need brand guidelines and how the value, what that value is and upselling brand guidelines. 

Biggest Mistake In Building Branding Business

Stephen Houraghan

What is the biggest mistake that creatives, strategists, and agency owners make when they’re trying to build a branding business?

And instead of that mistake, what should they do instead?

Emily Cohen

I think the biggest mistake that they make is they usually launch their own firm for the wrong reasons. 

So they want creative control. They want to not work with crazy people. They want all these things, but they don’t have business skills.

I hear this all the time. Well, I don’t have business skills. So the first thing they do is hire either there’s two things that they do. 

This is a staffing thing and these are the biggest mistakes is hiring somebody that doesn’t do business. 

To me, that is a biggest no-no and it’s in my 30 years of doing this, I will say very rarely, like 1% chance works that person will bring in enough income to warrant their salary.

Nobody wants to be sold to, they want relationship building, which is the owners, the principles or the partner’s responsibility. 

So the first thing I think the biggest mistake is hiring either a salesperson or the other thing they often do is hire a project manager. 

So they hire people to do the stuff they don’t want to do when really that’s the step they should be doing and they should be letting go of creative.

And I know that’s really hard for me to say to my clients who are all fantastic designers, but they should be creative directors. 

That is such a waste of your time and that is not what an owner of a firm does. If you want to design for a living go get a job. 

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