Tales from the Intersection: How to Sell Creative Services to a Tech Company
I’m a former freelancer writer and agency copywriter. Now I’m marketing manager at a small tech firm and do freelance work on the side. The beauty of working in technology, science, and medicine is that by supplying your services to firms that need them, you have a hand in contributing to the advances made in these fields. Here are some tips for other marketers that come from my years working on the “client side” in this industry.
Tell me, in clear terms and on the home page of your website, what you do. It’s especially important in the tech and science world to be precise and clear, as these are core values in these industries. A few years ago, I was searching for a new agency partner, and my search turned up lots of websites with vague, abstract lingo, infographics about the ideation process, pictures of agency dogs…and only a few that clearly described the services provided. It seems like such a no-brainer, but due to the preponderance of websites that “create synergy,” please remember to say whether you provide full-service marketing, you only build websites, you only manage social media, you specialize in SEO services, etc. If you don’t, I can’t sell you internally, even if we have an existing business relationship.
Forgo the strategy workshops in favor of project definition documents. It’s a warning sign if somewhere on your menu of services is an entrée worth several thousand dollars that “gets the executives in a room” and elicits philosophical musing about our strategy. I have been a part of these exciting day-long events—they’re a ton of fun—while working on both sides of the agency model, and it wasn’t until I was a manager myself that I realized the major Achilles heel of these workshops: no wonder they’re fun; there is no way to tell if you’re wrong. At these workshops, I’ve watched a pharma team plan a luau theme at a conference using the rationale that “better health gives you more time for vacation,” and I’ve watched a medical device client noodle over a pirate-ship campaign, which, luckily, never saw the light of day. This type of workshop is often a waste of the client’s time and money. To keep my firm and our vendors on track, I’ve instituted a project definition document with a sine qua non. This means that we all have a clear goal in mind, and if we lose sight of what we’re doing, which is easy to do when we’re down in the weeds focusing on minutiae, we have an objective to re-orient us. Strategy should not be a marble tower that gets imagined in a closed room. If you can’t match it up to a pre-defined strategic goal, it doesn’t matter how magical a workshop is, the output is useless.
Speaking of strategy…change when the time is right. Back in my copywriting days, we had a biotech client with horrible strategy. One day, at the client’s office, the comps for the existing website went up on the projector, and I inwardly groaned at seeing clusters of circles in the brand colors of yellow, peach, and gray bubbles, each circle with a data point that seemed plucked from a stable of random facts, with no cohesive message binding it together. Everyone from my agency had the same reaction, because we’d been complaining about the strategy for weeks, and we all gave an inward fist-pump when our account director cleared her throat and suggested to the client that we might need to get back to basics and take a good, hard look at the strategy before going any further. But the client held up her hand: “No. The strategy is what it is. Every agency we bring in wants to redo the strategy. This is what we have for this year, and this is what we’re sticking with.” At the time, my reaction was, Ugh. Now we have to write horrible copy and design horrible websites, and this whole project is going to suck. But now I see that the client was right, for several reasons. First, it’s virtually impossible to inherit an account without it dragging along some existing work, strategy, or campaign that you don’t like. That’s part of the client services model, regardless of the business you’re in, and the challenge is to find a way to serve your client best when the legacy work isn’t stellar. Second, changing a strategy when lots of people are involved is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming, so barring a PR emergency or other 90-lb. monkey wrench, it really is best to leave it in place for the year and let it do the work it was intended to do. Finally, and this is related to the previous point, if what you’d like to do strategically is born of an abstract thought process you’ve engaged in without the client and it hasn’t been matched up with business objectives, well, of course it’s going to seem stronger to you than any existing strategy. Instead, work together with your client and play the long game, with the goal of building a strategy that better suits the business needs over time.
To create strong business relationships, remember that science and technology are creative professions. Two agencies have told me that they wanted to redesign our brand to “play up the human side,” and I was skeptical that they did not like or understand our business. It’s an insult, however unintentional, to say that the brand of a STEM firm “feels too mechanical,” “has no emotion,” or “doesn’t show the human element.” For the people who work in these fields, an appreciation for technical excellence is an appreciation of the human effort that goes into making important technological, scientific, or medical advances. There is just as much emotion in these fields as there is to be had in a career as a copywriter or graphic designer. Technology is exciting. Engineering and science have a significant impact on society, which instills passion in their professionals and in the general public. Electronics design is an intellectually challenging career. I prefer to work with artists and agencies who share this point of view and have an even stronger preference for those who specialize in technology or have the chops to pick up enough knowledge to do our subject matter justice. In addition, I’ve found that boring creative comes from writers and artists who feel ours is an inherently boring subject—they simply reflect back what they feel about the subject matter. Truly great STEM marketing comes from professionals who see the beauty in the STEM fields and frame it the right way for the right audience. Listen to your client, understand what’s exciting about their business to them and their clients, and sell that.
Learn from people who are different. This piece of advice is probably most useful to freelancers. Several times a year, I am asked if I know any other copywriters I can recommend for technical, scientific, medical, pharma, or engineering projects. There are only a select few people that I feel comfortable vouching for. The reason is that as a freelancer, I found I brought in more business for myself while trawling the world of science than while trawling the world of writers. I always wanted to go to a technical writer’s conference to meet people and find leads, and every year, I’d look them up, put the dates on my calendar, and think, Maybe this year. But then I’d have work to do, and a writer’s conference would float to the bottom of the priority pile yet again. Other than a single fiction workshop that a previous employer generously supported me for, I’ve never been to a writer’s conference because I’m too busy working. Now I’ve come to the realization that if I ever run out of work, the last place I will look for it is among other writers. While I miss the energy of a “creative” agency environment, I now place high value on working around people who think very differently from me. I learn something new every day, and in turn, STEM professionals lean on me for the same reason: I don’t think like they do. It’s a gratifying way to work, and there’s also less competition. So, if you are a freelancer with an interest in subject matter that’s a little off the beaten track, don’t be afraid to go to a conference for architects or software designers or biodiesel or some other field that might need your services, and learn from them while providing services they need.
Disclaimer: I’ve changed a couple of small details to protect identities. In addition, my opinions here are my own and not those of my firm.