Blair Enns | Business Development for Creative Professionals

Blair Enns 11:41

I, I wrote a few posts started sending them. And then at some point, email became a thing like early on in this tenure, and I started so but so I would follow up first, I was sending by fax. And then I would after they’d received a couple, I would start just calling everybody on my list, and then at some point, so this is probably around 1999, maybe 2000. Email is a thing and people in small numbers have started to use it for maybe it’s 2000. Yeah, somewhere around 3000. People are starting to use it for business. So I could. It was back in those days, it was really easy to guess what somebody’s email address might be if they had a website, they had a domain. And when I was selling to more tech savvy companies and more technology based businesses, it was more likely that they were going to have an email address. So when I started reaching out via email, my response rate was 77 0%, my response rate was 70%. So just think about that down. But um, no. 7% is something else like that. Well, it’s an open rate of 7% isn’t very good. But that it was, it was just a crazy, crazy time where there’s this new medium. And I was on it early. And at the time, when you got an email from somebody outside of your organization. It was an event, it was exciting. So most of my emails got responses, and I found myself in conversations pretty quickly.

John Corcoran 13:15

Yeah, which of course conversations one of the things that you’re a big fan of one of your principles in your book, the wind without pitching manifesto is that we should do you conversations instead of presentations. But before that, the first one that you list, you’re a big advocate of specialization. You at this time that you’re talking about in your career, you’re working for larger companies, McCann, Erickson, young Aruba cam. These are large companies that have a variety different services. Talk to me a little bit about how you kind of develop that idea of specialization, especially in the backdrop of working for a much larger organization, where I would think it would be hard for you to say hey, we’re gonna specialize because it’s a large organization and they want to provide a variety of different services.

Blair Enns 14:07

Yeah, the the, when I was working for y&r and and McCann, Erickson. I was working in account management and not in new business on those accounts. And it wasn’t until I moved on to a smaller firm that had it was an interesting firm, they were trying to pull off an interesting positioning and that they had they had different divisions. So they had these different practice areas and that rolled up to just kind of a bit of a mess. So there was no other than you could say integrated marketing communications, but even that wasn’t real, like there was an there was an advertising division. There was a design division. There was a real estate marketing division. There was an Asian language marketing division, so it was just like they didn’t they didn’t really fit together nicely. But you know, if you’re, if you’re pursuing a prospect, the prospect Would cleanly typically fall into one of those four categories. And the advertising and design would blend together. But I stayed away from real estate market that was marketing that was highly specialized. I didn’t know anything about Asian language. So it was advertising and design that was still fairly broad. And I found myself in situations where it’s like, you know, my initial outreach was, as it was in an earlier job where I worked for a small full service marketing communication agency, the outreaches, here’s a list of things that we could do for you. Do you have any need in any of these areas? Actually, the approach was, Hey, can I just come in and have a meeting with you? So I can talk you into hiring us for one of these many different things that we might do for you? Yeah. And I am not, you know, there’s a there’s a profile of salespeople and, and by that, I mean, people who do outbound lead generation who are very successful that is like smile and dial rejection proof, relentless, I am not that person. I think my motto is, there’s a better way to do this. And I will find it even if it takes me four times longer. So I initially thought, well, this is this is too hard. So when I started to lead with very specific value propositions, I started to get traction. So even though the firm wasn’t really all that well specialized, I would do outreach, and I would say, Hey, I’d start to use this approach, I’d say, Hey, I know you work with other agencies, and I’m sure they’re very good at what they do. But the reason I’m calling you is we have this one thing that we do better than pretty much anybody else, maybe have a need for it, maybe you don’t. And I would lead with that thing. And that thing would always be different, because the truth was, we were generalists, for the most part. So I, I would pick a specialism that I thought might be relevant to that person in that moment. And I would my introduction would basically be would basically be me saying we are specialists in this area. And what I found was, it’s like, you’re, you’re trying, I don’t know what the metaphor is trying to find a needle in a haystack or something, or you’re aiming for the target, but I would miss. And at but some people would say, No, we don’t have any need in that area recovered. But do you also do X? And that by leading with a narrow value proposition, gave me credibility, because the other conversations that these people were having with other firms like mine, was the old approach of, hey, I’ve got all these different things I could do for you. Can you just like, can you invite me into your office so I can talk you into hiring me? Right. So in that approach, the client is back on their heels. And with my more targeted approach, even when I missed with the targeting, it gave me credibility. It felt like, well, if there’s an fit here, from my point of views, as I think to the client, I felt like I was discerning, and I was looking to help with a very small set of specific problems. And if they didn’t have a need there, but they had a need in a related area, discipline or market, they might bring that up. And that was a more powerful approach. For me.

John Corcoran 18:12

It’s amazing, this principle of specialization, how it seems like it’s a never ending problem. In so many different industries, I’m a recovering lawyer. Now, when I was practicing law lawyers had this problem, they try and take anything that came in the door, you know, that didn’t specialize. I found my practice there, once I specialized things really kind of took off at that point. You know, same thing with the work that we do now to highly specialized but but it’s such a challenge, like, do you think that this is a challenge that will ever go away? Will you know, or how do you even how to even approach it with people these days with with companies that you know, that raise the same objections over and over again, that you’ve been hearing for years and years?

Blair Enns 18:57

Objections around specializing? Yeah, yeah, yeah, I don’t hear them anymore. And it might be a selection bias, but it’s the market is absolutely changed. So if you think of the world that I serve, which is the world of creative agencies, when I launched when without pitching 20 years ago, there were basically ad agencies and design firms. And there were large ad agencies and design firms and small ad agencies and design firms with a large agencies had a way of doing things. And when it comes to sales, that meant pitching the ideas for free hoping to win the account and then make it up on earn the money on the media placement or other follow on services. And the small agencies took all of their cues from the large agencies they were the model for how to behave so everybody behaved the same way and I come along and David Baker comes along and Tim Williams comes along and other people and we come along and it’s we we state the obvious that no you you if you want to sales advantage. If you want to get better at selling what you do, you really need to specialize concentrate on solving a smaller number of problems. For a small number of people build the depth of expertise by going narrower. And then you can set yourself apart in a meaningfully differentiated way. So we were preaching the message of specialization 20 years ago and David Baker, I think it’s 28 years ago, and I forget how long Tim Williams has been doing this. And it’s not just the three of us. But I remember the three of us being out there early. And there was a lot of pushback at the time, I haven’t had pushback on it in a while. And now today, you have in the creative services firms market, you have a fully bifurcated market where on one side you have the large ad agencies, and nothing has really changed for them. But most of the market is now small. The smaller firms are not small generalist ad agencies trying to look big. There actually specialist marketing or communication or product development firms. That market is fragmented so much so you have so much specialism in that space, the idea that you wouldn’t specialize in that market, it’s just a conversation. That doesn’t happen anymore. I mean, it’s it happens, but it’s pretty rare that message has largely been received. And the principles have been applied. So and again, it could be a selection bias, because the people who come to us for training are probably bought in already, right? Probably. Yeah, they read the first proclamation of the wind without pitching 10 years ago, they’ve specialized but it’s not. I’m not claiming credit for it. I’m just saying it was an It was obvious. This was the way the market is going. Yeah. And it’s clearly gone that way.

John Corcoran 21:41

What about one of the other principles is to be selective a lot of times people are a lot of companies right now, at this moment in time. We’re recording this in November 1 2022. There’s questions about the economy, you know, business may be slowing down. I don’t know if that’s true or not. What do you say to clients who say to you, we can’t be selective now the economy, you know, XYZ blame whatever reason? What do you say to that?

Blair Enns 22:08

There are always people who point to external reasons, external conditions for reasons why they can’t do what they should do, like logical business practices. And it’s never the external condition, it’s either you have this within you to make the brave, to make that difficult business decision of specializing, or to show up and be professional and selective, or you don’t have it with you, within you. And if you don’t have it within you, it’s a skill that you want to develop. And it’s such a cop out to look at the market and say, Oh, this has changed or this opportunities big. So therefore, it’s, it’s permission to, to behave differently, et cetera. And I sometimes feel like I’m, yeah, I’m not the I’m not the cop here, like, it’s your business. Dear listener, you are free to do with it, whatever you want. But in my role as an advisor to agencies, I sometimes hear the excuse of well, it’s the it’s almost never the economy. Like I’m not saying the economy does not put pressure on the fundamentals of the business, it’s just not a reason to behave differently. So because the economy is difficult, instead of showing up like a selective discerning expert, you’re going to show up like a needy vendor. That doesn’t make sense. There’s no rational basis for that. What it is it’s basically defaulting to a more kind of primary rim like primitive amygdala driven response fight or flight driven response. That’s, that’s what it is. There’s no logical basis for it.

John Corcoran 23:40

Yeah. We were talking earlier about when you were doing content marketing via fax, there wasn’t a lot of competition. So a lot of people weren’t, you know, it was it’s kind of a different ballgame. Now, of course, I think people understand you need to create content in one of your principles is we will build expertise rapidly. And I imagine a piece of that is also communicating it through blog posts, podcasts, things like that. What are some of the ways in which you see really savvy firms building their expertise quickly

Blair Enns 24:15

today? First of all that principle or proclamation in the book is really a derivative of narrowing your focus and specializing the first proclamation where it’s because you when you narrow your focus, you deepen the set of problems. So you just so a great metaphor for this is you imagine the some capabilities of your firm as contained in a bottle of beer so you take a bottle of beer and the contents represent your some capabilities, all your expertise, etc. And your positioning or what we call in broader business, like your fundamental business strategy is the vessel into which you choose to pour the contents of that bottle so you could choose to pour it into To the contents into a casserole dish, and then you look at the physical representation of your expertise, it is broad and shallow. Or you could pour it into a pilsner glass and you look at the shape that you get there, it’s narrow and deep. And you look at the difference in depth between one firm and another. That is, that is delineated by the shape of the container. And that pilsner glass, you look at that firm, the depth of expertise that that firm has is, is it’s multiples of the more generalist firm, but the area to which it’s relevant, it’s not as broadly relevant, right. So that’s what we’re trying to do in that, that call to people to try to build expertise rapidly. A lot of generalist firms, especially in the marketing, communication space, field, they don’t even know what expertise is. And again, this, this isn’t a real, it’s not a very common condition these days where you get these generalists, but back in my day, you get this generalist ad agency. People in advertising have are very creative and have a lot of confidence. And they tend to not know how much they don’t know. And that really good at bluffing their way commanding a room and bluffing their way through scenarios. And early in my career, when I would convince some of these owners of specialist firms to or of generalist firms to specialize the transformation in their own sense of their expertise and the decks, depth of their expertise was profound. So you don’t like narrowing your focus isn’t enough. Right? Narrow the narrowing your focus causes you to quit looking all over the place focus on a specific set of problems. And then that allows you to go deep, and so that like calling to people to build expertise rapidly, when you’re a generalist, you don’t even know what that means. You don’t even appreciate the depth of expertise that is possible when you narrow the set of problems that you solve and or the types of organizations are individuals that you for whom you help solve. Yeah,

John Corcoran 27:10

yeah. So that’s, again, because this reminds me again, of when I was practicing law, and I worked for firms that did divorces, and they did litigation and non litigation and they did bankruptcies, and it was there’s no way you can have any kind of expertise. When you have to have knowledge in all these different areas. It was just absolutely impossible. Yeah,

Blair Enns 27:30

that’s exactly right. Now, in a large firm, you can pull that off by having dedicated practice areas, right. So more hands more bodies. Yeah, yeah, that’s possible. But when you’re starting out, the woman who cuts my hair across the street from my office here, she went years ago, when I met her and I told her about my business, we started talking about specialization. She said, You know, when I launched my hair cutting practice, she has very curly hair, and my wife has very curly hair, or my wife has curly hair. And she said, I ran an ad that had specialized specializing in curly hair. And she said, I was sold out almost immediately. I was because in that field, nobody ever thought it made sense to specialize. I cut hair. You have hair, I cut it. Yeah. And that’s in that agency world. We do ads, you need ads, we’ve got ads. Yeah, right, right.

John Corcoran 28:23

A bunch of the principles in your book relate to getting paid. So we will not solve problems before we are paid. That’s a big one, because people can get drawn into that trap of going to work in private practice as a lawyer.

Blair Enns 28:37

I did. Yeah. You bet. So I mean, lawyers are good at some aspects of selling and portraits, other aspects of them for sure. It’s probably not very often the you started working on an engagement before you received at least a deposit. Is that correct?

John Corcoran 28:53

Well, that’s what’s funny about it is because it’s very easy to get into problem solving. Yeah, I remember specifically a firm I work for where we ended up meeting with a potential client for like, an hour and a half. And it was clear, like 20 minutes into this, that this person was just fishing for advice and trying to get answers, and then they were gonna go around and shop around and stuff like that. And, you know, eventually, I figured out that you got to cut these things off, you got to tell them, like, I’d love to help you with this, this is I can help solve your problem. But you can’t just go and just sit there and be a fountain of knowledge and let them pick and choose and then go off on their own.

Blair Enns 29:30

That’s one of the challenges with selling expertise, like professional service, like legal is your lawyer, you’re trained in lawyering, you’re trained to solve the client’s problem. So and this happens in the agency world too. So in a sale, you put subject matter experts in front of a client, what did they do they start solving their problem. So we need to actually withhold in the sale, our expertise, and we need to have frameworks that we that help us navigate the sale. And I think there’s something about the Word sale sales selling, that most of us as professionals, we look down our nose that and so we don’t think we need sales training even in the agency world that I serve, we don’t call it sales, we call it new business development, because S is a dirty word. If I send an email to my list of 30,000 people, that has the S word in the subject line, the open rate plummets, so we use the S word sales word all the time. But I don’t use it in the subject line of an email.

John Corcoran 30:34

Right, right, because people know they need it, but they don’t they also have this kind of like, you know, distaste for towards that idea?

Blair Enns 30:43

Yeah. And if you’re like, if you’re a professional, there is some obligation for you to sell what it is that you do. You need a framework for being able to do that. And if you don’t have a framework, and if you haven’t had, you know, if you don’t know how to if you don’t have a framework or know how to use it, what are you going to do in a sale, you’re going to start solving the problem as proof of your ability to solve the problem. And in the creative world, that is a really big expensive problem. It’s called free pitching. And that’s why my business is called win without pitching. We deprogram creative firms of this need to give their thinking away for free to, to begin to solve the problem as proof of their ability to solve the problem.

John Corcoran 31:27

Yeah, is a lot of that founded in a base kind of insecurity that the prospect may judge them to be not up to the, to the task or, or don’t trust that they’re willing that they’re able to do it,

Blair Enns 31:42

there’s a few things. So on the, on the selling side, on the agency side, creativity is the ability to see, it’s the ability, it’s not the ability to write or draw, it’s the ability to bring a novel perspective to a problem. So if you’re a creative person, you are fascinated by the problem that you have not previously solved. So every new opportunity that comes through is like, fascinating. So you kind of lose your shit and start behaving like a child a little bit as you’re, you’re so open, emotionally over invested. So there’s that. But on the buying side, the client side, buying creativity is a little bit like a drug deal. Where the value proposition of a generalist creative firm is, we’re going to, I’m going to sell you some crazy shit. That’s going to be crazy. You’re not going to believe how crazy this is. And the client responds with Okay, well, I’m, I’m looking for some crazy stuff, but like, not too crazy. So you’re kind of scaring me a little bit. And I don’t like what is crazy mean? So can I connect, try some of this stuff before I buy it. So it’s a logical, there’s this fear and uncertainty there, that’s tied to this two basic value proposition of just work creative, what we’re going to sell you is going to be really different and zany, etcetera. So, and there are other issues, too, but so on the buying side, it’s they’re just looking for some certainty, they’re looking for some sort of assurance that everything’s going to be okay. And on the selling side, a, it’s highly ingrained. But be there’s something in the nature of what it means to be creative. That makes this professional selling where you’re just learning a little bit difficult, difficult, because you’re so emotionally invested in solving the problem. You get creative people just get really excited. And I don’t I don’t when I say creative people, there are lots of creative people out there, there are creative lawyers there. If you’re an entrepreneur, you’re probably a creative person to some extent. So you get excited about the possibility. And if you want to get better at selling three words, no sunk costs, do not over invest in the sale that starts with that starts with emotions don’t don’t get super excited, or attached to anything early in the sale.

John Corcoran 34:03

Yeah. One of the other principles that I love is we will address issues of money early. And, you know, getting back again to when I was practicing law, I was the challenge that I had to work on. As as, as I went to work for myself, was being willing to say to the client, stop everything, we need to have a conversation about money. And I imagined that as a challenge with many of the clients that you work with. This is stopping and saying we need to talk about money.

Blair Enns 34:34

Yeah. The wind without pitching rule of money. I talk about it in the book, The manifesto. Is this. Those who don’t talk about it, don’t make it. So I just have to say that a couple of times to people and they realize okay, yeah, this is hard. Money. Conversations are stressful because stress is caused by the things you don’t do. The things that you are ignoring, putting off so if you want to learn to get comfortable with money conversation, missions. Teach Yourself just early on, it’s it’s not particularly easy, but it gets easier quickly, just go to the money issue quickly. Don’t Don’t wait to the end. And as soon as there’s a red flag that you know, the client might not be able to afford, you just say, Hey, before we get too far, I’m getting a sense that affordability might be an issue here. We typically work with larger organizations. I’m, I don’t know how else to say this. But I’m getting sense that you seem to be a bit price sensitive, then stop and say nothing. You’ll get all kinds of valuable information in the silence. That’s a great statement to say it that way. Let them

John Corcoran 35:43

let the silence just kind of over overrun a little bit. Well, I want to ask you, we’re running a little bit short on time here. But I want to first ask about your podcast, because I’m a longtime podcaster, 12 years now, big fan of it. You have an unusual format, with your podcast that you’ve done for a number of years, with David C. Baker, and that it’s the two of you chatting, which I mean, to be honest, I don’t see many podcasts that go for a long period of time where it’s two people talking. So what do you think is the secret behind that? Why do you think you’ve been able to sustain it, especially where you have two people that are not in business together?

Blair Enns 36:23

Yeah, so we run different businesses that serve the same markets. We’ve been friends for over 15 years. And we started this podcast as a way to just like to stay in touch more regularly. So what’s the secret? I think, really the secret. We’ve been doing this over six, maybe seven years now. And we do an episode every two weeks. I think the secret is that we would have run out of things to talk about a long time ago had we both not been avid content creators, David publishes every week. And I publish my goal right now is every two weeks. And because we do a podcast every two weeks, we basically alternate, David will write. And he and I both have hundreds of things that we’ve written over the years. So if I don’t have anything fresh, I’ll just go back and find an article I wrote years ago. And I’ll send it to Dave, and I’ll say, Okay, this week, it’s, it’s my turn to be kind of the interview II, I’d like you to interview me on this blog post. But we’re both creating content at a fast enough pace that it basically goes like this. And I won’t, David follows roughly the same pattern. But the some of the details are slightly different. I create a blog post that goes to my team, it gets sent to as an email, it’s posted on the website, it’s sent as an email. I write a different version of that, post it to LinkedIn, I write a different version of that, that turned it into a Twitter thread I posted on Twitter, I shoot a 62nd video, it gets posted to different platforms. And one in two of those posts. Will I will nominate to David and say, Hey, why don’t you interview me on this post. So every second post on average, it gets turned into a podcast where it’s just a deeper conversation on that subject. So David will read the article. And then we just have a conversation about it. And sometimes the the podcast episode is the impetus for the blog posts and everything else where I there’s nothing in the canon work that I’ve done that we haven’t talked about already that we’re that I want to talk about. So you know, there’s, if you create a lot, you always have some million unfinished ideas in your head or noted, David writes all his down, he’s got hundreds of them. I tend to carry most of them in my head and maybe about a dozen in Evernote. So pick a topic. And I’ll quickly send him an outline, I’ll say, here’s what I want to talk about. I’ll do the outline. And when I’m done the outline later that day, or maybe immediately afterward, the next day, I will turn it into a blog post. So it’s a way of taking a singular piece of content and going in multiple different directions. So both David and I see ourselves as a writer’s first. And the podcast is a logical extension of the writing that we do and had we’d not written so much each of us over the last 20 years, it would be really hard to pull this podcast off because it would just be two idiots having a conversation.

John Corcoran 39:47

But there’s plenty of those types of podcasts out there. Unfortunately, you’re not another one of them. And then you started another one. So 20% The Marketing Procurement Podcast, talk about the impetus behind that one.

Blair Enns 39:58

Yeah, this is such a niche podcasts. It’s almost like a hobby of mine. There’s a problem in the world that I serve. I call it the marketing procurement problem. The problem is that the people who are the professional buyers, in my clients, clients, businesses, the big companies in the world who buy marketing services and creativity in particular, I’ll just make a general overstatement be a little hard on them. They don’t know what they’re doing. The truth is, when it comes to buying marketing services, they’re very good at it. And they’re very good at finding efficiencies, and doing their job. But when it comes to buying creativity, you cannot buy, you can’t, you can’t force efficiencies into the procurement of creativity or innovation without diminishing that which you are buying. And this is a poorly understood principle. I recently wrote a 3300 word blog post on it called the inefficiency problem I’ve invented the word efficiency is the word innovation and efficiency. So inefficiency, and the idea that innovation and efficiency are mutually opposable check objectives, you cannot increase one without decreasing the other. So that’s a fundamental problem in business that very few people understand. And where it’s made manifest most clearly, to me is in the procurement of marketing services, where these people are trying to more efficiently procure creativity and innovation. So they’re driving the cost down, down, down, they’re beating up the agency, and they don’t understand that when you drive efficiencies into something like that, you kill the ability to innovate, to iterate, etc. It’s it’s a whole rabbit hole. I don’t want to go down but the mark 20% The Marketing Procurement Podcast, is a podcast I’m doing with somebody else Lea power, we’re trying to solve this marketing procurement problem. We’re trying to get the people who buy who procure marketing services to appreciate that, man, if you squeeze all of the waste out of your agency, you’re also squeezing the creativity out of them.

John Corcoran 41:59

That’s great. Well certainly tell everyone to check that out. We’ll put a link in the blog post

Blair Enns 42:04

you say it’s great but it’s like I saw your eyes glazing over its eyes glaze over topic for curing creativity. So the total addressable market for this podcast is really small.

John Corcoran 42:17

But super specialized right? Yeah. There’s a great where can people go to find out about all these different your books, your podcasts and everything else?

Blair Enns 42:30

The best places and I’m Blair Enns on most social media platforms,

John Corcoran 42:35

and you’re fairly prolific on LinkedIn as well. So I’d point people to go check that out as well.

Blair Enns 42:41

Didn’t miss I am today. Five hours ago you are so alright Blair, thanks so much. Thanks, John.

Outro 42:49

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