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Author Archive

Finding your Anti-Self: Why finding the “wrong” business partner is the right formula for success.

Friday, September 17th, 2010

By Charlie Van Vechten

Do you remember the TV show “The Odd Couple”? Well, in a nutshell, that is me and my business partner. In a lot of ways, we are polar opposites. He says I’m anal and meticulous, I say he’s messy and impulsive. But you know what… It works. It’s just the sort of madness that has made our company surprisingly successful… even in this tough economy.

You see, we are each other’s “anti-selves.” Although we both envisioned starting a client-centered design firm that produces great results, that’s where most of our similarities end. We don’t walk, talk, or approach our business the same way; to look at us, you’d think we wouldn’t even be able to agree on what to have for lunch. Knowing how oil and water mix, it would be easy to think Jacob Tyler Creative Group should be a disaster. But ours runs like a well-oiled machine.

charlie and les - anti partners
To see why, you just have to understand that we don’t work well despite our differences but because of them. It might be a stretch to say we complete each other… but we sure do complement our respective talents. Les likes to meet with prospective clients and draw in new business, all at a thousand miles a minute; I tend to be reserved and collected, and work like a dog to keep the agency running smoothly and make sure everyone is happy along the way. Spreadsheets and numbers speak to me, where as Les loves the thrill of the chase. One of us works calmly, weighs decisions, and is patient, the other gets wildly excited, goes with his gut, and wants it “now”.

Somewhere in that mixture, we’re doing better work than ever. Separately, we ran businesses that were doing alright. Together, our creativity and client list are going through the roof. Plus, both of us are completely reinvigorated… It’s like we are constantly challenging each other and in the end… We win, and so do our clients. Just when they think we’re ready to fight like cats and dogs, we do – but in a creative, constructive way. By motivating, challenging, and occasionally, even encouraging one another, we become far more valuable to our clients and employees than we ever were on our own.

Surprisingly, we end up agreeing on almost everything.

Is it possible your company would be better run as a partnership, and with someone who sees the world a bit differently than you do? We would like to offer a handful of tips for finding the anti-self partner that takes your business to the next level:

Find your anti-self. This is the simplest step, and yet it’s the hardest. That’s because we tend to surround ourselves with men and women who look, think, and act like us most of the time – from our friends to our employees. Think outside the box a bit, though, and you might remember a friendly face from an association conference… or even a competitor who does great work.

Think peanut butter and chocolate, not lemon juice and ice cream. Of course, you can take the whole idea of contrasting personalities too far. It doesn’t make sense to join forces with someone you don’t respect, or even outright resent. One of the interesting things about our partnership is that we almost always reach the same decision – even if we have to take drastically different paths to get to that point. What we have learned to take from that is that, deep down, both of us value and respect the same things and especially each other.

Divide and conquer… It’s funny how many creative shops we see that are run by two print designers, or a pair of internet marketing types. It’s probably that way in most businesses and most industries; it only makes sense that a pair of similar professionals will “naturally” come together … but this is one natural tendency you’ll want to avoid. That’s because another word to describe the situation would be redundant. Two or more people with the same skills and the same methodology will end up duplicating work, or worse, stepping on each other’s toes.

By choosing to partner with someone who brought a different skill set to the table – Les had a strong background in web work, while most of my business had been built on print design – each of us gained something. That leads to better work and a broader perspective, but it also helps smooth out differences in opinion. Since one of us is an authority in a different area, we’re forced to rely on each other’s best judgments when making tough calls.

Some sharing is good. Jacob Tyler is a partnership in every sense of the word. While we do divide up specific tasks, the overall strategic vision is formed together, as are questions revolving around employment, major investments, changes in client relationships, and so on.

Going into business with your anti-partner might seem like a crazy thing to do; it certainly did to us – right up until we found out how well it worked. If you think your company could use another perspective, why not brainstorm and try to find another personality who could be the best partner you never knew you were looking for?

Does Your Creative Agency Care Enough About You?

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

by Charlie Van Vechten

What do you really want from a creative agency?
The truthful answer to that question has a lot to do with the future effectiveness of your marketing materials.

Let me explain. It has been my experience over the past 20 years, that when many clients first engage with us, they are focused primarily on getting a single job done: be it a website, brochure, or other brand awareness project. Often an external deadline is fast approaching (in the form of a trade show, a product launch, or a new corporate initiative), and there are certain marketing elements that need to be created, updated, or revised.

Clients have a timeline to meet, and while they certainly say they want the best, the emphasis is on meeting the deadline and sticking to some existing idea about how it should look or feel, not on taking full advantage of all the design firm has to offer. They miss tapping into the insight and expertise that is available – which might have taken the project, and their brand, to a different level – and instead end up with a result that simply meets their initial objectives: to be delivered on time with the original concept intact. There are no game-changing points of view, no earth-shaking concepts, not even a jump-off-the-page layout… just clean, conventional design, delivered in a flash. In general, there is nothing wrong with that, but as professional designers, we know that truly effective design requires much more effort.

So, how do you, the client, go from getting only what you asked for to getting what you truly deserve? A good first step is to bring the designer to the table much earlier in the process. Oftentimes, clients come to us when many strategic and creative decisions have already been determined. I challenge clients to bring us into the mix much earlier – preferably as soon as an idea has been sparked. That way, we can use our training in strategy and analysis to better craft your goals and supply plans to best meet your objectives.

Bringing on the designer late in the process means that important decisions have already happened. The client feels ownership and may push back when the designer questions those ideas – and then the most common reaction is to acquiesce to the client in order to not ruffle any feathers. Too many creative companies are afraid to tell you what they really think. Instead, they are content to listen to your comments and give you exactly what you are asking for, rather than what you actually need.

Why? Because caring isn’t always easy. If you aren’t willing to see things in the same light as your client – or at least go along for the ride – there’s a good chance you’ll watch that account walk out the door. Caring about a client’s success sometimes means being brave enough to tell them what they need, and not just giving them what they want. Eventually this honesty leads to trust, and ultimately… Results.

Caring can also be an expensive habit. It is also much easier and profitable to just give clients what they are asking for. Most creative firms are paid by the project, with a certain number of edits and revisions included in the bid. Removing the research or discovery process from the equation greatly cuts the amount of creative time a firm needs to spend on a project. But really, that goes against everything a professional designer and brand strategist stands for. It is our duty as designers to question everything in order to bring about the most successful solutions – and often that means helping our clients to see something in a different way.

Does that mean there isn’t any way to get great work quickly?

There is, of course, but it means choosing the right partner. As an owner and creative director, I consider speaking my mind to be part of the job description. Going along with anything and everything to collect a fee is easy; the tougher road is to have long, frank discussions about what you are trying to accomplish in the real world and the best way to meet those goals.

In my agency, this means following a strict creative process that guides us through research, analysis, data, and then, and only then, leads to concepts and executions. It is the responsibility of a creative team to fully understand our clients and their clients. Rather than cashing your check and just agreeing with whatever you put forward, having the strength and conviction to point out weaknesses and new possibilities often leads to the best solutions.

Why bring any of this up? Because the marketplace is flooded with badly-conceived designs and marketing agendas. At a time when so many businesses are struggling, there’s no more room for creative partners who work like “yes men” (and women) with Photoshop skills. Clients need to start expecting results – and expecting their design teams to stand up for their own experience and be willing to give honest input.

Marketing, in all its forms, is too important to be rushed through. As much as it might hurt to ask a client to stop in order to go back to the drawing board, it’s something a design company absolutely should do if they care about your profitability, not to mention the future of the relationship.

If you really want your marketing materials to sing – if you’re looking for the kind of creative team that moves people and sales figures – then find a creative partner who’s willing to see beyond your initial deadline and creative ideas. It’s never easy to have your ideas challenged, but it is a whole lot more profitable.