The Subtleties of Power

by seanlow on March 21, 2019

Many of my clients have been and will continue to be women, people of color and gay men.  Overarching all, including straight men (and women), is the stereotype of the flighty artist.  No matter the size and scale of any project, the prevailing bias is is that the creative business is not “serious” in the way it goes about doing what it does.  Were that I was out of touch and that this bias, in 2019, did not exist.  Sadly, oh so sadly, it does.  I experience it through my clients almost daily.

Not only is it not enough to act professionally, creative business owners have to move far past professional to even get credibility that is mostly assumed for other professions.  Would you ever talk to your doctor, lawyer, accountant the way some clients speak to you and your team?  Of course not.

There is noone to blame here and I am not really commenting on the behavior that is rampant in creative business, by clients, even employees and colleagues.  What I am advocating is to call it what it is when it happens — that subtle wrenching of power or effort to marginalize — and then do something about it.  Bring the bias to the light.  Examples abound, but I will point to three areas: money, design and “I made you, you owe me.”

Money.  If you are getting flustered when money conversations start happening, then know that most of the conversation is about power much more than money.  When I ask you how much, you have to tell me how much YOU are worth as much as the thing you will be producing.  Many times you get to relate your worth to the thing, but you still have to justify THAT value (why 15% and not 10%?).  Here is the point: you are NOT a) a jerk, b) non-responsive, c) stupid, d) not professional, or e) flighty by asserting your expertise.  If a client asks what you cost before you can establish that they are willing to pay for what “it” will cost, there is no point to answering the question.  By the way, it is never a question of afford, it is a question of willing.  Clients all have the wherewithal to engage you (and if they do not, why exactly are you talking?), it is whether they choose to spend it with you is the real question.  This is where power comes in.  If you answer the question of what you cost before establishing they are willing to pay for what “it” costs because one of the above reasons are running through your head, you have subtly, insidiously, yet demonstrably ceded your expertise to the client who is not, in fact, the expert.  Please stop doing that as it serves no-one, least of all your client.  Production budget first, the cost of your creative business second.

Next, design.  Ideas are ephemeral, options today bordering on limitless. If you believe in blue, there can be a wonderful argument to be made for red.  Who cares?  You believe in blue, have sold blue, value blue and are willing to stake your reputation on blue. It ends there — your clients, colleagues and employees alike get to believe in blue or they do not.  Again, here is where the power thing comes in.  “I will not pay for the blue couch, I want a red couch”. The idea is that the impact on your design of a change from blue to red is up to the client when it is not. You and only you get to decide the significance of the change and it is almost always irrational, meaning two designers might come to exactly the opposite conclusion — “Meh, the red couch, no big deal” vs. “OMG, the red couch kills everything.”  You can then see the slippery slope to design marginalization, if not oblivion.  See above about asserting your expertise.  Standing in the position of saying the red couch is thermonuclear (or not) to your design is EXACTLY what you get paid for.  If you give up the position, so too your intrinsic value.  Again, please stop doing that as it not only serves no-one, but undermines the fabric of the very industry you so dearly love.

Last, the “I made you” zombie.  Most creative businesses have had patrons, those that helped you get to where you wanted to go as an artist.  Sometimes these are amazing relationships where the purity of the work remains and you are fairly paid each time.  What I am talking about is where it slips into an expectation of “you owe me” because of the past.  Here is the point, if you sucked, there would never be a next time.  The reason there is a next time is because your work was brilliant for what the client needed.  End of story.  Will you be better the next time?  Sure — if you are not promising to improve on today tomorrow, you should quit.  A big break is valuable, but, once proven you belong on the stage, you need not keep paying for the break.  The proverbial genie is out of the bottle because you are that good.  See above statement about expertise (applies here more than anywhere else).  If someone has market power, they deserve to be paid for that power — i.e., an interior designer getting a trade discount from a production partner they buy a ton from, a wedding planner getting a discount on rentals she might purchase for many of her events.  Even for these players though, there has to be an explicit understanding that there will be a future purchase, else no discount/preferential treatment.  Still though, I see artists giving over their power to patrons who no longer are, compromising themselves and everyone around them daily.  Please stop.

For the most part, bias can be exposed if only artists can demonstrate how the bias jeopardizes the power of the art, the ability to say, “Here, I created this for you” and to say it purely, with integrity and not a shred of doubt that it yours and yours alone to say.  I have said it thousands of times — if your clients could see what you see, do what you do, they would.  They cannot so they choose to come to your world to receive its largess. No sense making your world look like theirs, especially today, when it never did and never will.

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Ghosting

by seanlow on March 14, 2019

Maybe it is a sign of the times.  We are all inundated with people who want to communicate with us. Email, text, private message, phone and, yes, even snail mail. Even as I write this post I am simultaneously texting and emailing.  With all of the bombardment, I suppose it is a natural outgrowth that when we do not wish to communicate anymore we just stop communicating.  Cold.  Kind of like using text speak and emojis instead of actually writing the words and using, um, grammar.

I am probably sounding like a crotchety grandpa when I say this, but ghosting sucks and yet is becoming more and more of an accepted practice by potential (and actual) clients, colleagues, and sometimes even employees.  My opinion but I think it is beyond rude, it is insulting to any sense of professionalism we all hope to embody.  Now, I am not talking about spam or even when you are being personally marketed to (i.e., where there is an expectation that you may not respond).  I am talking about one-on-one human conversation where someone took the time to talk to you (whether personally or professionally) and share their own feelings and intentions about a relationship with you.  You know, a real dialogue.  If you choose to not continue the dialogue, of course, that is entirely up to you.  However, and a huge however, have the common decency to communicate that you will, in fact, be ending the dialogue.

I am sure those that might be reading this who have ghosted me might be pissed off that I am writing this and am just not with the times.  To which, I will ask who exactly you are angry at?  Me, the person who took the time to talk to you and respond thoughtfully and as completely as I can, or you who thought it beneath you to respond that I was not your cup of tea?  Now let me be very very clear.  If you write me back and say no, not now or check in in a few months and we only communicate now and again, if ever, that is entirely different. Sporadic communication is still, ahem, communication and I am good with that.  I am talking about crickets on the other end with no response.  

Ghosting is bad business, bad juju and an air of superiority you are not ever entitled to.  Not a single person is too busy to send a thirty second response, you just think you do not have to.  You are wrong.  Seth Godin has one of the biggest blogs on the planet, a podcast, tons of books, several learning experiences happening simultaneously and is an incredibly sought after speaker.  He’s a really, really busy guy.  Write him a personal email reflective of your work and his and he will write you back, usually within two hours, time difference and sleeping hours excepted.  And if Seth can do that, what exactly would be your excuse?

Ok. Rant over.  The bigger point is what happens when you are getting ghosted and/or awaiting a response?  In a business context, what goes through your mind? Do you craft a narrative as to the negative, positive or do you stay neutral?  

For most of us, we spin out and go to the negative.  The client does not like us, want to hire us, believe we are any good, etc.  In the negative, you look to your flaws as evidence of failure to justify the supposed rejection.  The thing is though, you have not been rejected.  The reality is that there is no information and you truly do not know.  And, like it or not, the client has a voice and owns the timetable of her response (even the choice to ghost).

So if you cannot hold the tension of no communication, why not take the opportunity to see the positive, define who you, your art and your creative business are for your potential client and why you believe you are the best fit?  Of course, you can just let it be or be innocuous in your follow up, no harm there other than being eminently forgettable.  However, if you really believe in the future of the relationship, the best thing you can do is to state it as plainly as you can.  “You want a Southern Beach House and my world is centered around doing just that” as opposed to “It was wonderful to talk to you last week, I do hope we will be able to work together.  Let me know if you have any questions that I can answer for you.” Your choice.

And then let it go.  If you have put yourself out there several times — when you first spoke and then with a follow up (or two) — then let it go and ask yourself whether you would even consider working with this client (or production partner) if they ever decided to reached back out to you.  At a certain point, the power of silence shifts to you and it becomes your choice, not theirs, as to whether you move ahead.  FYI, unless there is a crazy good reason for the ghosting, reconnection is almost never a positive for you, your art or your creative business as you are likely the fallback.  Nobody wins if you are the fall back choice.  Just saying.

I firmly believe there is intrinsic value in your art and it should be wholly unacceptable for anyone to dismiss that value summarily.  Those who choose to do the hard work of owning who and what they stand for can stand out in a community of pretenders.  To do so however, these artists (hopefully, you) will have to run away from the herd and know, really know, that your perspective, experience, wisdom and integrity will overcome those who go about thinking ghosting is an acceptable practice.  Ever.

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It Is Hard Because It Matters

March 8, 2019

We all want to take short cuts.  Sometimes those shortcuts are actually really helpful and make our lives better.  Most often though, shortcuts excuse the hard work and let us be the “regular kind” as Seth Godin is fond of talking about.  Except. If you are truly in the business of being creative, by definition, […]

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Hubris

March 1, 2019

You have been in business for forever or you adhere to the teachings of those in your industry who have.  You have worked on many many great projects over the years. Lately though, well pretty much for the last five years, life has become increasingly more difficult. It used to be that clients gave you […]

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A Duck Is A Duck No Matter What You Call It

February 21, 2019

For so many creative businesses, there is a grand debate about how to charge— a flat fee, commissions (known by the client), retail mark-ups, even kickbacks (i.e., commissions NOT known by the client); maybe even some combination of all three.  Truly, who cares? If you have no idea what the basis and import of what […]

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An Apple Tree Updated

February 14, 2019

I wrote this post six years ago this week comparing the arc of a creative business to the growth of an apple tree. The analogy is as good today as it was then.  That is why I have copied the whole post here. A few thoughts that have come since then: If you do not […]

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The Fyre Festival

February 8, 2019

Snake Oil Salesman, Charles Ponzi, Bernie Madoff, The 2008 Financial Crisis(just go watch The Big Short) and now Billy McFarland. The story of a grifter, con man/woman able to convince those of the glory around the corner if only they pay up now is old and, although evergreen, not all that interesting. Billy McFarland used […]

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What To Do When You Are Wrong

January 31, 2019

A good friend of mine is one of the founders of WageStream– a new service that lets employees in the UK (who get paid monthly) “borrow” against their future paycheck for little more than an ATM fee. As opposed to payday lenders who create such havoc in peoples’ lives because of how they work and […]

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People Like Us Do Things Like This

January 24, 2019

People like us do things like thisis one of Seth Godin’s mantras. But what happens when the people you seek to serve live lives that you cannot begin to comprehend? How then are you to relate your art, your vision to what they seek?  How can it be possible for you to meet them at […]

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The Red Pill Or The Blue Pill?

January 17, 2019

20 years and still one of my favorite movies. The Matrix has a scenewhere the hero must choose between seeing the truth of the world he truly inhabits or continue the facade constructed by the matrix. Red pill truth, blue pill matrix. Take the red pill and no turning back, blue pill and you live […]

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