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November 14, 2012
Selling Ourselves Short: Why Ad People Need to Charge What They're Worth
Disclaimer: Prostitution is not a joke. It is a scourge on society; it causes real pain and suffering the world over. It robs women and girls of their dignity and lives daily. I am not making light of it.
One day during high school, I was sitting at “our” table with my friends from the neighborhood when this young lady, who had been dating one of my friends who was sitting at the table, walked over.
“Joe Smith (not his real name), you aren’t nothing but a slut!” she screamed at him.
Of course, everything at our table froze, except him. He kept on eating his lunch.
“Did you hear what I said?” she demanded. “You aren’t nothing but a slut!”
Without looking up, he replied just as loud as her, “Yep, but I’m the best damn slut you ever had!” And went back to eating.
The cafeteria exploded in laughter and taunts. I was amazed; this friend never impressed me as being that quick with the comebacks, but that day he had elevated himself to legendary status.
As she stormed off, one of my group said, “Beau (we adopted that as a slang term for friendship), you do realize that you just admitted to everyone that you are a slut?”
Joe turned to me and said, “Derek’s dad taught me that. (My father was our Pop-Warner football coach for many years. Talk about therapy issues, but that is another blog.) Remember, your Pops told us, if you know who you are both good and bad, no one can hurt you by calling you that.”
Wow. My friend paid attention to what my Dad said more than me.
Years later, as I was sitting in a cigar bar with some coworkers (I don’t drink so I was designated driver), one of my more “happy” coworkers blurted out in frustration, “We aren’t anything but whores! We (advertising folks) prostitute ourselves to clients, compromising our beliefs and standards for a paycheck.”
Everyone started to agree, and my mind flashed back to that day in high school, and I realized what “Joe” meant that day.
“I’m no streetwalker, I’m a high-class escort. You’ve got to pay to get this,” I proclaimed. My coworkers busted out in laughter.
The next work day, we were in a briefing meeting, going over the brief and some unrealistic client demands, when my creative director (CD) said to the account executive (AE), “Tell the client we aren’t red-light district hookers, we’re high-class escorts — courtesans, if you will. They’re going to have to pay dearly if they want to screw us like that.”
Most of us were on the floor laughing. Our CD wasn’t at the cigar bar with us, but he had heard about our conversation. Apparently my coworkers weren’t as “happy” as I had thought — someone remembered what I had said.
Of course, the client never heard that. But our CD’s words communicated a message to all of us — we were not cheap. And since he was also a partner, his words drew a line in the sand. The AE and the CD came back from the client with more realistic expectations for the work.
I understand that advertising professionals have to sometimes compromise our beliefs and standards; it is the price of doing business. But there is a point when we can compromise and give in to too much. And the day you cross that line you go from the five-star suite to a street corner or a back alley somewhere.
We are worth more than that.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room — our rates and fees.
We (agencies and freelancers) are killing ourselves by continually accepting lower and lower compensation for our skills and abilities! The economy is no excuse to sell ourselves so cheaply; neither is crowdsourcing or anything else. That is the fear talking. It is whispering in your ear:
“If you don’t lower your rates, someone else will…”
“What if the client goes away…”
“Maybe the phone will never ring again…”
Do you really believe in your abilities? Are you really as good as you claim or tell yourself and others? If so, then behave like it. Stop lowering your rates.
This is not the clients’ fault; it is our fault.
Instead of being proud of what we do, we’ve taken an apologetic stance for being “creatives.” We have failed to explain to clients what we do and why we are worth our fees; we have become a commodity in the eyes of our clients.
We are more than a set of hands to execute other people’s ideas.
When done correctly, advertising provides solutions and insights. We use storytelling to solve problems in a way that makes our clients stand out. And that is more valuable than what many are charging.
You have to be providing the services to charge the rate. The advertising industry didn’t get here by accident. Some of us were content to let others on the client side provide the ideas and solutions, thinking that clients would not notice that they were not bringing anything new to the process. They became nothing more than a set of hands to be told what to do.
And we are paying for that mistake? Or rather, not getting paid due to that mistake?
Although I am a creative, I like to think that I am also a businessman (there are days I wonder about that). I understand that the economy is rough, and it feels like there are more agencies and creatives than there are assignments or jobs. However, we have to understand that by constantly lowering our rates or fees, we cheapen our brand in the eyes of our target.
Think I am wrong?
Look around. How many car companies are lowering their prices? The average price of cars has been steadily climbing. The same is true for the prices for many other products in different industries. Clients are charging more for their products and services, yet they want us to take less and less for our services.
Because we didn’t believe our services were worth what we had been charging — we doubted our value. We failed to recognize that the real product of advertising is the solutions that manifest themselves as creative executions. And the clients noticed that this was absent from the work we were providing.
Most of the injuries advertising is currently suffering are self-inflicted. We’ve done this to ourselves. We need to be clearer about what it is we provide, and how it can impact the success of our clients. And more importantly, we need to do a better job of communicating this to our clients, and then proving it through our work.
People will only treat you the way you decide to let them. Many of us are selling ourselves short, devaluing ourselves by offering our services for pennies on the dollar. We are worth more than that, and there is nothing wrong with being paid what you are worth. Just make sure you prove it with the work you produce.
It is time to get off the corner or in from the back alley. 

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Derek Walker is the janitor, secretary and mailroom person for his tiny agency, brown and browner advertising, out of the big city of Columbia, S.C. He is on Twitter as @dereklwalker
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