What creative agencies can learn from the creator economy
Six ways to stand out with potential customers: Plan Your Next #114
👋 Good morning from Los Angeles! I'm Nate Kadlac, and this is #114 of Plan Your Next. A Sunday newsletter that connects design, creativity, and how you prepare for your next thing.
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What creative agencies can learn from the creator economy
Early in my career, I left my full-time design at an agency to pursue my own path.
I felt I had two options: Become a freelancer or start an agency.
I ended up choosing the freelancing route, based on my desire for autonomy and freedom. Right or wrong, I didn’t see how running a creative studio was going to be that much fun. It looked like a hell of a lot of work, and to be honest, I don’t think I was cut out for it.
That decision was crucial for me, because it introduced me to a bunch of entrepreneurs, allowing me to learn and work on a number of interesting startups.
But I often think about that decision and what it would look like today. If I had to start a creative agency, how would I do things differently?
To start, I look at the world much differently since leaving my last role about a year ago. The creator economy has overhauled the landscape. Over 50 million people consider themselves creators, despite this new economy being just a decade old.
To make a meaningful income, it’s easier than ever to take on larger projects through collaboration with other creators, without much overhead.
This is important because the best talent does not just live inside beautifully designed offices anymore. You can cobble together A+ talent to build software, produce short films, design websites, and raise funds while doing it all remotely.
As Packy McCormick wrote last year, Liquid Super Teams allow for the bundling and unbundling of talent, at the atomic level.
At the same time, I believe there’s a place for the traditional creative agency. Trusted brands need a reliable group to care for them, and it’s difficult to rely on Liquid Super Teams in the same way. It’s the same reason why real estate agents are not going away anytime soon, even if the most goofy-ass agents are trying to trademark the goofiest poses.
Stop trying to fit in
I spent the last few weeks researching the websites and content of creative agencies, and it didn’t take long for everything to blur together.
Just as it’s difficult for an individual to position themselves and make a strong claim to who they want to help, agencies struggle with this even more. There’s also more money, employees, and overhead on the line, so it’s understandable to not want to exclude any potential customers.
Early in my freelancing career, my goal was to build a portfolio so good the work stood on its own, but packaged very safely.
I was self-taught, so in the back of my mind, I was always trying to prove to myself that I fit in. That I was good enough. I would design my portfolio and write copy for myself, saying things like, “Nate is a multi-disciplinary designer,” which is just a line to sneak in a five-syllable word to indicate I know what I’m talking about.
I tried to fit in more than I wanted to stand out. But not standing for something means falling for anything.
And most agency websites—at surface level—don’t stand for much.
So what would I do differently?
Here are six things I would do if I were starting an agency today
🦸♀️ Make it personal: Pick a specific industry
This is a tough one, but it’s crucial in how I would market myself.
Knowing my customer gives me the ability to speak directly to them, and not to everyone. This affects everything from the landing page copy, the emails you write, and the videos you make. It opens the door for storytelling and being personal.
What are their customer problems? What are the conversations they’re having that we can help with? How is my story connected to their customers?
Knowing your industry deeply gives you the ability to take a stand.
💌 Build trust and learn to tell stories: A bi-monthly newsletter
Most digital agencies don’t have a newsletter. Even if they do, it’s usually a marketing email advertising their own work, providing no real value to their customers. There’s nothing of substance.
The worst kind of email is the one filled with an unrelatable case study and a CTA at the end saying, “Call us to see how we can help you!”
In a bear market where clients are white-knuckling their cash reserves, I would make sure I’m showing up for them in scalable ways that help them outside of the services they can hire me for. And I would invest in that immediately.
Potential clients are leaning on our expertise to treat their cash as an investment, not an expense. A monthly newsletter from me—the founder—with insights into their industry is what I would want. Not a right hook on my services. But instead, what might be useful during a bear market like this, and how to help their cash go further.
Curate articles they should read, stories that can inspire, and make them relatable at a personal level. After all, we’re just people doing business with other people.
Then, send this twice a month and be a steward for their success.
🤝 Collaborate with individual creators
Because the creator economy is growing at a rapid pace, there are a ridiculous number of opportunities to participate. Where are your customers hanging out? What podcasts do they listen to? What sites are they visiting? Figure this out, and spend time there.
Start to seek out these channels and reach out to the creators who are already here. Reach out to podcasts, co-write articles, host events, and interview customers for your newsletter.
Specifically, go to where your customers are and find ways to connect more deeply with them where they’re hanging out.
Don’t ask them to, “Call us to see how we can work together!”
📣 Share your process using text and video
I would most likely start a YouTube channel, but I don’t think it needs to be specific to any one platform. You could easily turn these into long-form blog posts as well.
Your future customers want to know what it’s like working with you. These are the soft skills not typically shown in case studies, but rather your personality and whether they can connect with you.
We’re all just people wanting to work with other people we enjoy, so it’s important to share that side of us.
Display the behind-the-scenes of your office, or share the process of a brand project and how it came to life. Show the struggles more than the highlights. You’re dealing with smart people who know that everything won’t go according to plan, so showing the messy middle can build trust ahead of time.
✍️ Write, write, and write some more.
SEO is competitive for the major keywords like “Web design agency” or “Design Agency.” But these aren’t exactly the keywords you need to be optimizing for anyways.
Writing content about the problems customers have are much more likely to be searched, and I would want to get more top-of-funnel to build out the flywheel effect.
Start by writing 2-3 articles on your own site every month, then chop them up for social media, newsletters, and videos. One piece of content can go a long way, but it all starts with thought-provoking pieces addressing real problems.
Most agencies won’t want to do this work themselves, so allocate a budget to hire ghostwriters or freelancers to do this work for you.
It takes 6-18 months for organic SEO to become a viable strategy, so start on day one.
👩🏫 Teach what you know
One of the biggest misses I see with most agencies is the lack of workshops, async courses, and digital products. We don’t need more of your branded merch.
But we do want to unlock the knowledge that your agency has. Companies like Curious Lion Learning work with organizations to uncover obvious knowledge silos and then build curricula around that.
Think of these digital products as lightweight and affordable ways to get potential customers into your network. Even if you’re aiming for six-figure projects, building out $250-$10,000 products to serve your customer is just as important to build the flywheel.
I love what the design agency Superfriendly is doing here with design systems. They have an affordably priced ebook that helps early-stage customers and positions themselves as an authority to design systems, especially if you don’t have $250k to fork over for their services.
Serve your customers at many price points, because today’s marketing intern is tomorrow’s Director of Marketing, and these relationships need to be built today.
The underlying strategy for my hypothetical creative agency would be to talk less about what my own capabilities are, and more about how we’re able to solve your specific problems. And then do that using as many focused channels as possible.
That’s easier said than done, because who doesn’t love listing off all the things us talented folk can do?
Well, our potential customers sure as hell don’t.
⚡️ Two creative hits for you to check out next
👨💻 Building a $1 million/year vacation rental property
I’ve been deeply intrigued by the thought of having a small slew of rental properties at some point. Isaac’s thread on building Live Oak Lake is really intriguing, especially because of the brand he’s building around it.
👨💻 The Eames Institute of Infinite Curiosity
The brand identity manual for the Eames Institue. It’s absolutely stunning.
👋 See you next Sunday
As always, my calendar is open to chat about your next adventure, crazy idea, or if you’re feeling creatively stuck.
My goal is to level up the visual vocabulary in the world through my writing, teaching, and design. If you want to support my journey, the best ways are to:
Sign up for the 80/20 design challenge
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Discover your own unique style by joining my live workshop
Have a great week,
p.s. Words are just words, but if these words made you feel something, would you let me know by tapping on the heart below?