Computer ArtsFeature

Win the clients you want

You can’t build a successful design career without securing the commissions that raise your profile. Nick Spence finds out how to get the jobs you deserve

Any designer with a sense of a career path will have a vision for the future that takes them onwards and upwards thanks to hard work, good luck and creative growth. There's no substitute for experience and building a body of work over time, gaining valuable skills and contacts along the way. The more clients who commission you, the more selective your portfolio will become, and the more you'll impress new contacts. But unless you're content to keep working with the level of clients who first commissioned you, you need to think about attracting the briefs that offer more than financial rewards.

Working for household names, from high-street labels to exclusive designer brands, offers exposure that can significantly raise your profile, enhancing your chances of success. Cult and contemporary cutting-edge brands and well-respected and renowned clients also add credibility and value to your portfolio. "With some big clients and names, the budgets are very small but having them as a client can have as much value as a big cash reward," insists Ian Keltie, who along with creative partner Jason Cochrane runs the agency Keltie+Cochrane. From a base in Gateshead, the pair have attracted an international array of big brands. The exposure has helped create a critical buzz for the company and attracted the attention of new clients, as well as old ones. "We now find that our name carries with our work, and the cover we did for the Wall Street Journal, for example, has brought in lots of new business," adds Keltie.

"My ongoing collaboration with O2 and O2 Germany has brought me a lot of press and ad-agency interest, and since it began I've worked with Heineken, Sky Sports, Harrods, Xbox 360 and Southampton Solent University among others," says Radim Malinic, also known as Brand Nu. "The big companies will find you once you've ripened. You also need to be ready to deliver at the highest level - there's no room for amateurism."

Attracting new business and the clients you really want to establish your name and studio clearly requires hard work on your part. Self-promotion should be part of your overall business plan, but focused marketing will spread the word that you're out there. "Keep sending up-to-date promotional material to targeted clients, and send something more interesting than a postcard," suggests Brighton-based illustrator Nishant Choksi, whose recent work for Vodafone has appeared on billboards and points-of-sale across Europe. If you want to attract specific sectors such as record labels, you need to understand the industry - know their market, customers, competition and the way they advertise.

If you're lacking commissioned work that really catches the eye, create some of your own to stimulate interest. Self-initiated projects where you set the brief have few creative limits, and prove you're committed and passionate about your craft. "Good work gets you good jobs. Ensure you have a hot portfolio, and if you aren't getting good briefs to work with, create some personal work," says Rex Crowle, a freelance illustrator and animation director who as Rexbox numbers Disney, Sony, MTV and the BBC among his clients. "Once you've created it, make sure you promote it wherever you can. I ended up selling a TV series to Disney after they spotted a personal project of mine in Computer Arts."

Websites, blogs, designer portals and forums, magazines, competitions and generally getting involved will all promote your talents. Positive word-of-mouth and networking also influence who wins what, so stay in contact with past clients, business associates and friends - you never know where they'll end up working.

Getting involved can also mean collaboration. Virtual studios or creative collectives enable you to combine skills and ideas while spreading the load.

"We all wanted to do something different," explains Nicholas Hardy, director Rex Crowle of the collective Factory 311. "When we started we worked on our own internal collaborations, mixing different media. In the end this seemed to attract the higher players as it was new and different, and brought a new dimension to all our work." The core team of four is scattered across four countries. "As the new kids on the block, we work hard on presentations and do not follow the normal paths to win campaigns. We create them."

With growth can come growing pains, and big clients make big demands on your time and resources. Long hours and having to delegate important tasks can lead to unsatisfactory work and a lack of focus on the essential details of the brief, and you may even be forced to turn down attractive and lucrative commissions. It's vital not to undersell yourself - some big clients might offer little more than prestige, which while important won't pay the bills in a pinch.

"If the client is an organisation that everyone wants to work with then they know it," says Crowle. "So landing a deal with Hotsexycorporation PLC might not make you a millionaire, because they know there are plenty of other people who would sell their grandmother to pull off the same contract."

Setting realistic limits on what you can say 'Yes' to as well as having helping hands in reserve should prepare you for any challenges that might arise once you're working on bigger projects. "So far we have never had a situation where we couldn't handle what was asked of us," adds Keltie. "But we have a pool of talented freelancers - web developers, Flash experts, illustrators and designers - that we can call on to help if needed."

Big clients often come with big decision-makers to justify large-scale campaigns and vast budgets. While you, as the creative cog at the centre of the campaign, might shape the visible output, there's no guarantee you will have a fair share of the rewards or decision-making. Indeed, you may find yourself barely dealing with the client directly as more people get involved and want to justify their input.

"We tend to get approached by third parties such as advertising agencies, and we work with a few in the States on projects," explains Keltie. "At times so many people get involved, and all of them with their own opinions, that the initial idea gets a little lost and becomes less creative." You may have to bite your tongue when compromise hinders your vision, but try to explain calmly to anyone who will listen why your ideas are best for the client. "Decisions are made by more people, which means you have more people to please. You often get less creative control than with smaller jobs," adds Choksi. "Often ideas are already worked out before you even begin. But if you think you have a better solution, it's worth presenting it to the client."

A big campaign for a big client won't be as rewarding if the results don't reflect what you do best, and your distinctive style is compromised to please everyone. It's important your work reflects why you won the pitch in the first place. Great client relationships will make those in charge more responsive.

"There can be just as much creative freedom to be had with big clients, but communication is key," suggests Crowle. "If you're dealing with a large organisation everyone wants to feel comfortable that the work is going well, so they can report that to the next tier of management. So keep everyone in the loop."

This view is echoed by Chrissie Macdonald, the figurehead of design collective Peepshow. "I've been working with Orange through Fallon on the new I Am campaign, both of whom have been incredibly communicative throughout the project, and so we've got on really well," she says. "It made the job really enjoyable."

It's also vital that everyone has the same understanding of the brief. You may need to show work in progress, because the investment in money and time could be substantial. A job well done can mean repeat business, with the potential to negotiate a better fee. If success breeds more success you could find yourself making difficult but rewarding career decisions in the future.

"Sometimes all the great jobs come at once and you have to decide which ones are better for you and your career at that point," adds Choksi. "I've had to turn down some great jobs because I couldn't do both well, but the budget will normally decide which you choose. Ultimately, the chance to work on a big campaign is always a thrill. The sheer size and scope can be intimidating but should never put you off."

The dos and don'ts of pitching to big clients

Do promote yourself
Clients, large and small, need to know about you and your work. Emphasise your skills as a busy, professional designer in a pitching situation, and keep your website regularly updated as proof.

Do your homework
Know and understand your potential client's market, customers and competitors, and make it clear to them exactly how you can help achieve their needs. Be obvious - a subtle pitch is a wasted pitch.

Do focus on what you do best
Play to your strengths and market your talents accordingly. If you're asked to showcase your work, do so in a way that offers a clear and focused vision to clients.

Do agree and stick to a budget
Pitching is about getting the best work for the best value. Don't agree to a budget you know is insufficient - cost the job reasonably but never devalue your work.

Do be friendly and professional
Personal recommendations go a long way when deciding who wins a pitch, so it pays to maintain good relationships even if you don't win the job.

Don't compromise your vision
The bigger the job, the more people you'll need to impress with your pitch. Try to negotiate changes and suggestions in your pitch that will keep everyone creatively happy - from accountants to creative directors.

Don't over-pitch
Analyse the brief. Highlight the key requirements and stick to them - if it asks for a simple, clean look, provide just that. Experiment in other areas, and give as many options and examples as possible.

Don't be over-ambitious
Don't promise the world if you can't deliver, so be honest about your ability to hit a specified deadline. A reputation for lateness is a hard thing to shake off.

Don't get sidetracked by politics
Working on a large pitch can mean many more heads wanting their say. Their eventual input may be negligible, so focus on your positives and what you can offer, not their weaknesses.

Don't neglect smaller clients
Show your best work in a pitch, regardless of who it was for. Take the opportunity to show what you're capable of on a smaller budget or for a niche client.

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