small business office

SME’s getting the best out of your creative suppliers to grow your business

The difference between one business making it and another not is often due to the creative work that shows the world who you are. You may be totally experienced and capable at what you do but if the creative work that you put out there is not representing you as you need to be, then the other guy up the road gets the work. Sadly, these days, the best people don’t always get the job! Having the right creative for your branding, the right positioning line, the right copy is the deal maker or breaker and how ready you are to brief them is one of the most important factors affecting results.

Having been a business coach over the last few years, added to my decades in advertising, I’ve come to realise that most of my clients and industry contacts’ success, or lack of success, most times come down to how they are presented on their website and creative communications.  The work needs to be showcasing who you are in just the right way.

The old sayings that ‘the work speaks for itself’ or ‘if you’re good enough people will find you’ is true in some respects, but if you are wanting to work at a higher level and move up the line to grow your business then this is the number one way to get there. If your results are not what you want them to be then this is the number one place to start, and for start-ups and SME’s this is likely a crucial factor for growth. Ridiculous as it may seem, even creative industry businesses can get this wrong!

Here are my tips for growing your business by getting your brief right before you begin thinking about the execution. My suggestion is that you simply start at the top of this list and follow through one by one until the end and you will have a sound brief ready to start getting your creative work produced. This is detailed and extensive as I aim to help as much as I can. You can do one step at a time if you feel it is a lot of information in one go.

Know What Your Customer Wants and Needs

Wants and needs are actually not the same thing. We often mistake what we want to do for what the market needs. We also can be passionate about working a particular way or solving a real problem that exists in the market but the truth is if you are pushing your own wagon here and your clients are not even aware that what they need is actually a problem for them. By packing up the solution to address their wants you can be very effective at serving them and over-delivering by solving their needs at the same time. The best ways to achieve this are through asking your clients, speaking to prospects who actually didn’t buy from you, get feedback from your industry associates. Asking questions like ‘what makes us a good solution over our competitors?’, or ‘what made you choose the competitor over our team?’ will head you in the right direction. For the big players in advertising and marketing they call this market research. For SME’s it is a simple exercise of getting feedback and being clear on what makes someone buy a product or service in your market and not what you think it should be.  If you are not comfortable about asking for this information ask or hire an independent person to do it for you.

Market research also shows you who your target market is, that’s identifying who is likely to buy from you. You can get a clear picture by reviewing your current database and seeing the patterns in their age, where they live – what the commonalities are between them. If you have a large database then a survey may be a good place to start. You can increase participation by offering a prize or a voucher for your services or product, or an affiliate product or service. Remember at this point you are not even thinking about what products or services your prospects need! You are simply figuring out what problems you can solve in their life and who you help.

EXERCISE: Write up a one pager that is explaining who your ideal typical customer is and all their wants and needs. Create a vision board that represents this consumer – tear out photographs from magazines, create a Pinterest board, or use stock images to create a visual profile of who they are. Use this as part of your brief to your own marketing team or your creative suppliers.

Determine who you need to be

This is about brand & positioning. The advertising industry have more complex processes to go through for a large customer base, and for a complex business structures. They undergo extensive research and strategy development to come to a successful position. For SME’s you can re-create this process in simple ways by doing a few exercises and asking yourself some basic questions. This should resonate with your ideal typical customer, so keep that in mind with everything you do.

  • What is unique about you? (In what you offer, who you help, how you work, where you sit in the market). If you don’t have a point of difference then you need to create one!
  • What does your brand stand for?
  • What personality is your brand?
  • What are the values that define your business?
  • What colours work with your strategic position and the psychology of your buyers?
  • If your business was a famous character who would it be?

EXERCISE 1: Explain what you do in approximately 7 words. In plain language it must explain what it is you do and be clear about who you help – ideally explaining what you do that is unique over your competitors. The true test is to read it back to yourself and ask if this could be any one of your competitors, and if so then you need to keep working on it.  For example mine is ‘Sourcing and managing the right creatives and suppliers’

EXERCISE 2: Add a sub-heading that further clarifies this positioning line expanding on who you serve and encapsulate your core values. Again, my example is ‘ICS is a best practice independent service to resource, negotiate and manage your creative projects for the marketing and advertising community.’

EXERCISE 3: Write a one pager on all your company values, what is your vision for the business, what is the ultimate mission you are on. Don’t get hung up on how to say these and what presentation format to use – just be clear on them on paper any way you can.

Visualise the Brand

Now you are ready to get into creating the branding work that visualises who your business is and helps define what your customers can expect from you. This is more than just a logo – it is about the whole experience your customers can expect from you. This experience does start with a visual representation with a logo design, choice of colours, overall look and feel of your creative communication materials, and tone of the copywriting.

You cannot successfully brief a creative to produce a logo for you without the first strategic steps above, so if you haven’t got that ready to present to someone else then stop right here and go back. Once you complete all these steps you will then be ready to brief a logo designer and/or a web developer.  There are many designers, many web developers and other creative service providers that promise to do good work for you but the key issue here is in choosing ones that are proven to get results. Your brief is the first major step at ensuring the right work is produced to the right standard, and secondly your choice of suppliers is critical.

EXERCISE: Draw a simple diagram using basic shapes like circles, squares, triangles, lines, or even create a mind map of your core services and solutions. This clearly explains your unique position in the market in a visual way. This doesn’t necessarily mean your logo will look like this at all, but the thinking behind it will inspire the right logo design and creative visualisation of your brand.

One Brand Voice

Now you have the basic understanding of your brand you need to start thinking about how it will be used across every single place your customers are likely to bump into you – in physical reality – eg. stationery, packaging, your stores or offices, business cards etc.; and in cyberspace – websites, social media – yours and others you visit. From here you will be ready to budget and implement your branding across all touch-points.  Choosing the right suppliers here and ensuring they have the right brief from you will be crucial at maintaining a consistent brand message and the right brand message.  It doesn’t always cost more to be good!

EXERCISE: Create a mind map of all the places you expect your brand to be seen by the outside world. Remember to include a branch that covers internal communication as well.

Define Your Process

From my experience customers want to understand how you or your products work, and what is your guiding philosophy in business. This not only establishes some boundaries that help you get the best out of the experience from your perspective but it helps manage expectations for your prospects. They understand exactly what they’re getting when they work with you.

EXERCISE: Draw a flow chart that explains a step by step process to demonstrate to clients how you work. The key here is in capturing your unique positioning at the same time. You need to be able to visualise how you deliver the unique offering you have. This flow chart is not your internal process chart with every single step broken out, but it is a high level explanation for your clients and customers. For services it will show the contact points and major steps that create the end result, and for a product it will show the actions and processes that creates the benefits your customers will enjoy from using your product.

Define Your Product

Your ‘product’ is both the physical product you produce or the collection of services you offer. Here is where you establish the entry point that your prospects can get a taste of working with you, moving up the line to determine your cheaper to more exclusive products. There should be an ascending ladder of products from free, to cheapest to the most expensive.  There can be products for sale as offshoots of the main product ladder also. Put them in order and consider naming to ensure the price point is appropriate for each level. Some service businesses don’t easily translate into a product names, however terms that explain what you do will suffice (for example: Consulting 1:1, initial design, revisions, adaptations, maintenance, first call-out and so on).

Once you have completed this step you are ready to begin thinking about packing designs, presentation documents, pitch material, showreels, and any other marketing communication you need. It is an important step to be sure the total brand is considered when each product is represented in the market. You wont want your premium product looking cheaper than your bottom level products.

EXERCISE: Draw an upside down triangle with rows drawn across it, each about 1cm apart. You will see that a ladder of sorts has been created with a small triangle at the bottom point. Write in the bottom triangle what your prospects get from you that is free – it could be a newsletter (of value please), some tips, a blog, a trial product, a chat. In each ascending space write the products you offer from cheapest to most expensive with the most expensive at the top. If there are products that are extensions of the main product or service then create a parallel triangle coming off the main triangle.

Educate and Involve

In the greater marketing industry there are a number of philosophy’s and ways of working. Relationship Marketing is a term that describes communication that involves a customer and prospect with your business in order to keep them connected to you for a time in the future that they may either buy from you, buy again from you or refer someone else to you. This is a proven method of improving sales and also enhancing the customer experience with you. This is as important as any marketing plan about where you will be putting your message out there, or what tools and media you will use.  What this is about is considering what ideas and what type of content can you deliver to your target market that will be of value to them that is directly relevant to your core business offering. For example, a plumber could be capable of sharing tips on saving water in the home, how to keep the drains clear, how to protect the ocean from harmful chemical use in the home, how to care and maintain your pipes and so on. This is not about how your product works, or an opportunity for direct sales – this is about adding value to your clients in a meaningful way.

Once you determine the quality content you could be sharing you can then consider how you will create the work and who you need to be able to deliver it to you, on brand. My suggestion is that when you share this information it can be overwhelming so simply explain WHAT needs to be done, more so than every detail about HOW. In a way, talking about what needs to be done creates the need with your customers and then they can come to you for the detail on how to get it implemented.

EXERCISE 1: Write a list of all ideas you have that you can share for your market. Look for patterns across the entire list and highlight all those that work together the best.  Being too broad can sometimes make it confusing as to what you actually do. Stick to your core skills. For example, if you are a plumber there’s no point sharing tips on gardening because it is not related enough to what you actually do. Do not worry if this is some of your best material – just trust that sharing pays off.

EXERCISE 2: Create a mind map of all the avenues that you can deliver this content to share it freely. You will include media like emails, newsletters, videos to share through YouTube or Vimeo, articles, blogs, social media pages and so on.

EXERCISE 3: Create an action plan or list of things to do to get going! Set goals that are achievable and make sure you make this a priority in your day. Consider sharing this content as a crucial part of your marketing plans.

Attract Your Customers

This may be obvious in some ways, but I do find that the biggest problem here is in creating a plan in advance for how you intend to be seen out there and deciding who is going to do it for you. You need to be figuring out how you can most effectively spend your marketing money through the year to reach more of your target market and how you are best going to have that exposure turn into an actual sale.  You need to set up the systems to allow you to do that and to have the right service providers there for you to maximise the communications.

Like all good plans they also need to be reviewed constantly! Test and measure everything you do and get as much detailed information as possible to help you discern what is working and what is not working. So, whilst I’m encouraging you to create a plan for the year I certainly don’t expect you to stick to it if it isn’t working. What this also does is allows you to be more focused in your activity as well. Remember to include your educational content as an important part of this plan as well as the more traditional advertising work such as flyers, brochures, radio commercials, posters, point of sale, online content and TV commercials. Be wary of gadgets and flashy tools and techniques here in favour of having some decent strategic thinking.

I’ve seen many SME’s impressed by digital companies with videos that have a jazzy pop up tool that loads a video to supposedly increase traffic to your website, but that same supplier’s website is faulty or doesn’t work on hand held devices – that’s a ‘no no’ for me.  Stick to simple communication and techniques first and work out what works and what doesn’t before getting into tricks and techniques.

EXERCISE 1: We love mind maps! Draw up a mind map or even a table of all possible marketing touch-points that you could get your work out. We have a list of over 100 different outlets so if you don’t get all of the possibilities captured in one sitting keep your eyes open as you travel around and add to the list over time. Do not make decisions if they are good or bad at this point – they are purely captured as potentials.

EXERCISE 2: Using a table, add ballpark (rough costs) to produce the work and deliver in each media across the year ahead. Remember to allow money for any copyright fees like talent, music, photography, and stock images. You may need to work with your creative suppliers to prepare this document. You will see the scope of work needed to produce the results you want and from here you can add a column to your table selecting out the activities that you believe are a ‘must do’. You now have a rough budget for the year for all the activities you’d like to do.  This means you are now ready to get accurate budgets for work you can afford and know you are going to produce.


Funny enough one of the biggest mistakes I see and I’ve also been known to do poorly when I first started out was actually make an invitation for someone to buy from you. If you don’t have something tangible that allows people to buy at any point then you are really just talking about an idea. Create an order form, a product order page on a website, and find a way to get started at the very least. Larger marketing professionals call this a ‘call to action’.

Create an offer and have a way for people to get started. Once you’ve done this you can brief your creative providers and execute the work.

EXERCISE 1: Create an offer that resonates with your target market. Make the offer a ‘no brainer’ – something of value to them. Make the offer a way to get started that is non-threatening and risk free. It could be a trial, a presentation that explains how you would handle their project if you won the account, a meeting to share your key insights, a way to calculate the price, a free sample and so on.

EXERCISE 2: List all possible avenues that this offer can be put out there. This may be an extension of your above plan to attract customers but is an extension of that because it is about just this one communication. You wont be making a direct offer in all communication and it should be balanced with your non-sales communication (a ratio of 1 in every 4 connections with a customer is a good example).

EXERCISE 3: Draft up an outline of the key messages you want to portray in the work including the specifics of the offer. List the key benefits your customer gets from using your product or service. Establish any deadlines or quantities that need to be considered. What are the details of delivery or any exclusions that apply. Are there any legal issues to be aware of?

Implement With The Right Suppliers

By now you should have a clear direction for your business on what needs to be done, strategically, and with enough of the right ammunition to brief any creative suppliers. A good creative supplier that is positioned at the appropriate level for your business and understands the complexity of your market is an important factor here as well. They are not all the same and many can only do parts of the total marketing plan you have in place. It can be a mine-field out there choosing the right supplier and if this is overwhelming for you or you want to be sure you’re getting the best results by involving experts then please call us at ICS. Regardless, these tips should help you get better results with any supplier you choose.