Highlights from “The Business of In-House Design” with Jeni Herberger
It’s time to take charge and develop an action plan to “command respect” by “acting like a business worthy of respect,” according to Jeni Herberger, who is the head of Design Matters, a business consulting firm based in Kirkland, Washington, and the founder of Big Fish, a West Coast multi-million dollar staffing firm specializing in creative and marketing industries.
Jeni Herberger was the featured speaker for a half-day InSource event held on Thursday, November 16, 2006, at Wyeth headquarters in Madison, New Jersey. Her lively presentation offered practical advice on a wide range of business strategies for in-house creative professionals, including how to build an effective structure for success as a creative team, tactics for becoming a profit center and the logistics of developing useful tools such as profit-loss statements and efficiency measures to increase the perceived value of in-house design services in the corporate environment.
A good place to begin is to jot down “three things that you just can’t stand” about your work and “three things that you love” about your work. After listing these items, write the word “Liabilities” at the top of the first list and write the word “Assets” at the top of the second list. For managers of creative services, this simple exercise can start the process of “doing business better.”
“As creatives, we should be better at business because we are taught to solve problems,” said Jeni, who reminds creative professionals that they have the capacity to be fabulous at thinking about the business side of design. “We live and breathe the words of Aristole: ?The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.’ ”
Communicating this “inward significance” and the value of in-house design requires adopting a certain vocabulary that resonates with others in the corporate environment. Such words as change (meaning “to alter”), growth (meaning “a gradual increase in strength”) and profit (meaning “to gain advantage; to make improvement”) are key terms for doing business better.
“Change leads to growth, and growth leads to profit,” explained Jeni.
Doing business better also requires a clear understanding of the basic building blocks of an effective design department. Visualizing these components as a pyramid, the foundation is based on a clearly articulated purpose (including a mission statement that describes what you do for your company and a strategic statement that describes how you use design to achieve your company’s business goals). Other components include taking inventory of specific capacities, establishing an organization where roles are clearly defined, specifying a process for workflow (including the development of advertised methods of working with the in-house design team) and developing a client list (to enable proactive, rather than reactionary, approaches). The top of the pyramid is determining goals of growth. “All of these building blocks must be in place before you set a goal,” declared Jeni. “Change is what actually needs to be altered, and growth is where you want to take each of these components. Determine what growth means to your department. Growth may be defined in terms of addressing staffing needs, managing projects, efficiency (eg, less employees doing more), expanded responsibilities, changing external perceptions of your team or developing a more creative environment. Select 1 goal at a time, not more than 1, and stay focused.”
The following suggestions were made to help in-house creative professionals achieve their goals.
Take an inward look at how your creative team is structured. Ask yourself if you have someone serving the role as creative director (leading, concepting), production manager (handling accounting, administration, and various “firewall/bulldog” functions), writer (creating content), artist (designing, producing) and technician (handling production details). Lack of a writer and a production technician are often signs of an in-house creative team that is not well-run.
Take specific actions that enable your creative team to act more like a business. Examples include setting up a business space that demands respect, developing a financial plan, managing a self-defined business process for the work of your creative team and developing a business marketing plan for your design department.
“Your design department needs to be a great place for clients as well as your creative team,” said Jeni. “Re-do your space” in such a way that it instantly commands respect, inspires creativity, and exudes confidence.
One approach is to list your objectives for your business space, state a philosophy, get everyone involved, use colors that compliment the company’s brand and develop an action plan to make this happen.
Developing a financial plan that includes a profit-loss statement and making a few simple calculations to determine specific efficiency measures for the in-house design function can help a creative team strive for profitability. This work involves assigning an hourly rate for billable hours; tracking billable hours to each project; recording and reporting earnings and costs; and working under a budget. [One tip: “Strive for 70% efficiency as a baseline for your calculations.”]
Managing the business process includes internal documents for job requests (specifying the scope of the project, timeline, and the need to make change orders) and service policies (outlining methods of working). This information should be readily accessible to everyone in the company; posting it on an internal website is a good idea. “It’s about setting expectations, not education,” said Jeni.
A marketing plan for in-house design can help creative teams “get the projects they want within the timeline they require.” Salesmanship and client relations are critical components. “Present your team as EXPERTS on the company, the products/services, the audience and the competitors,” Jeni advised.
One approach is to adopt the following 8-step plan for achieving buy-in for growth as in-house creative teams:
#1 Analyze your department.
#2 Identify the key issues.
#3 Categorize issues in terms of what needs to be changed and where the team can grow.
#4 Determine 3 things you want to change.
#5 Create a compelling case for change.
#6 Offer a solution.
#7 Determine 3 things you want to grow.
#8 Create a plan for growth that includes measures and rewards.
Remember these words of wisdom from Jeni Herberger:
- Respect is gained by doing, not by telling.
- Quit thinking they owe you work. Earn the work.
- Quit thinking they know what you can do. Show them.
- Quit thinking they know what you want to do. Spell it out for them.
This presentation by Jeni Herberger stimulated candid discussions among creative professionals attending this event. People expressed their concerns about balancing workload and staffing needs (“it’s the age-old problem of knowing that cutbacks can result in losing good people” and “trying to understand efficiency will enable predictability”), how to convert from a budget system to a chargeback system (“simply start a separate internal system by asking your staff to record their work hours as billable, not billable or not in the workplace”) and the need for establishing promotional paths for in-house staff (“we as managers must mentor individuals to grow”). Group consensus was reached that honest assessments of the skills and growth potential of employees can save heartache and lead to realistic expectations (“we need to create an environment to thrive, not breed complacency”). More attention needs to be focused on changing perceptions about the value of in-house creative teams versus external agencies.
The bottom line: Companies with fabulous brands are desirable environments for talented creative professionals. “When we stop being apologetic about in-house design and market our strengths (not our limitations), we will exude confidence and command respect.”