Ep 99: Selling Creative Services with Confidence, with Charlotte Ellis Maldari

Jun 16, 2021

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Selling Creative Services with Confidence, with Charlotte Ellis Maldari

On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Charlotte Ellis Maldari discuss how creative agencies can demonstrate to prospects that they are the best choice, as opposed to being held back by peer comparison.

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EP 99: Selling Creative Services with Confidence, with Charlotte Ellis Maldari

Duration: 22:14

Kelly: So welcome to Thrive your agency resource. Joining me today from London is the founder of Kaffeen Club, Charlotte Ellis Maldari. She specializes in revenue growth for design businesses, actually ambitious design businesses. We’ll be talking about selling creative services with confidence, which is where that ambition comes from. Charlotte, thank you so much for joining me on the show today.


Charlotte: Thank you very much for having me.


Kelly: So you work predominantly with creative leaders just like I do. And you have a whole understanding about the self-limiting beliefs that a lot of creative leaders have, because they are typically practitioners that come from larger agencies, and they’re now out on their own. What are some of the things that you’ve noticed in terms of where those fears come from, and what the self-limiting beliefs and fears are actually all about versus what they think they might be about?


Charlotte: So I work with founders, partners, and directors within design, predominantly design businesses and predominately between 2 and 10. There’s a number of clients who are a lot bigger than that. But that’s the typical kind of range. And generally, what happens is they’re founded by a creative who’s broken away from a bigger agency or a more established agency. They’ve been very used to being highly protected with inside a design environment, having very little client exposure sometimes, not even damage exposure to the account management team, as we call in the UK, in client services, and then they go off on their own, and they think they’re going to have more time to spend on design. And actually, they end up being the rainmaker, the HR person, the operations person. And sometimes that can lead to a lack of confidence about what the creative output of the studio is. The other common thing that I see a lot is particularly when an agency has emerged as a break away from another agency is this kind of sense of really caring about what their peers think when valuing that way more than they would care what their prospects think, which is when we get into danger territory. For me, because revenue growth does not come from pleasing your peers. It comes from demonstrating to your prospects that you can deliver a return on investment for them, and you’re the right support to be using that business.


Kelly: Yeah, and it is such a self-limiting belief, right? As soon as we start comparing ourselves to someone else in our industry, or outside of our industry, for that matter, it’s a slippery slope, right? Because you’re never actually going to feel “good enough”. And then that impacts your ability to develop new business. And I think a lot of people don’t actually make that connection. I mean, that my audience is used to me kind of creating that through line. But I think it’s one of those things that we just have to keep repeating over and over again because it’s so true and it’s so important. But for those people like along those lines, for those people who are running smaller design or creative or development agencies, who have this idea that they’re a failure unless they have a higher employee headcount, or a high annual revenue growth number, right? If they feel like that, what are some of the things that they may not be considering? That if they were running a larger agency, they may have to be dealing with?


Charlotte: Well, I think there’s so many silver linings in this area, and being part of a smaller agency, I say the number one, coming back to that mindset and that self-limiting belief about caring more about what your peers think than what your prospects think. I typically find when I work with clients who’ve started agencies more recently, say within the last 5 years, they can break those habits more easily, they can identify them and then start to break them down.

Kelly: A little bit more self-aware, maybe.


Charlotte: Yeah, more self-aware and just less stubborn about it being something that they can come back, whereas the people who’ve been in business for a long time and have plateaued from a revenue perspective and don’t understand why because in their opinion, and actually in their prospect, in their client’s opinion, their output of their studio is amazing. And there is massive support for those brands that they’re working with. So they don’t understand why they can’t generate more and more new business and it tends to be because they’re limiting their outputs in terms of marketing a new business, because they’re scared about what their peers think. And they just can’t break that down. So I think coming back to that point, just being able to break out of that cycle, being aware of it and being able to break out of it sooner, that’s a hugely powerful thing about being a smaller agency. But equally, agility to serve many multiple different markets in a year. I mean, one of the things that I encourage my clients to do when they’re starting an outbound, new business campaign for the first time, is pick four industries that you’d like to work with,  and let’s target one each quarter for a year. And don’t try and do any more, but equally, don’t settle for less and don’t settle for less niche than choosing for specific industries per year. Because otherwise, you become a generalist, and you can’t AB test what’s working in terms of who you’re reaching out to. And I typically find that bigger agencies really struggle with that sense of, we can double down on a particular area, see whether it’s for us, they’re generally more again, need to find some synonyms for the word stubborn, but they might be ingrained in that sense of, no, we could do this for anybody. But the difficult thing is trying to be everything to everyone that you risk not meaning much to anyone. And yeah, that’s one of the challenges that I see with those bigger agencies too.


Kelly: Yeah, I would say positioning from that standpoint, positioning up to four verticals is probably like the absolute max.


Charlotte: Yeah. And just be really clear about that. That’s for companies who’ve not done anything before, they really don’t have any indication. So there might be a couple of years in business, they don’t have any indication about any clear data to back up, who might be the right audience for them at that point, and I’m really encouraging them to test the water rather than mean very little to anybody. I think it kind of stems from that in terms of positioning as well. What I find is when smaller agencies emerge, they tend to have positioning statements, like just the mission statement that sits above the fold on the homepage of the website. That’s quite how I say, maybe they are not completely articulate about what they stand for, and who they deliver that to. And actually, a nice way of doing it is what is the ambition of the client that they serve rather than what they do and for who, but smaller agencies, I find, it’s easier for them to to narrow that down, when they’re really pressed, they realize that what they’re saying is quite fluffy. And it’s challenging for the prospect to interpret that. That means they’re the right agency for them. Whereas bigger agencies are less willing to be challenged on that and actually risk driving prospects away because they don’t understand the right fit for them. I mean, it’s as simple as that. Say, for example, you’re a creative agency when actually you’re a brand design agency working in the FMCG space, like being really clear about that. So the prospect who may have never commissioned an agency before, so you got to understand, they might not be up on the terminology. It’s all very subjective and could be interpreted different ways, especially across different geographies. So I think that’s another big advantage that smaller agencies have.


Kelly: Yeah. And along those lines, talking about how that translates into new business, because it is like the number one thing of how new businesses developed. And it’s sort of a make or break in my mind for new business. I know new businesses are your forte, specifically around this idea of establishing really strong boundaries, especially from the point of a discovery call, for example. Can you talk a little bit about that?


Charlotte: Yes. So one of the challenges that I think smaller agencies have when compared to bigger agencies is confidence on initial calls with clients, because at that stage, a lot of people have a very bad pipeline in terms of new business. They can be quite afraid to turn away any prospective clients. They are at risk of trying to be everything to everyone, when somebody calls then it’s not typically what they would do that they try to shoehorn their process rather than actually be the right fit for them. So yeah, I think it’s so important to set those boundaries on those initial calls. I think one of the things that I see as being really useful is having some kind of backup script. Maybe not script is the right word, that backup prompts of things that you may not have covered on the call and making sure you encompass everything on that call because really, I aim for the initial discovery conversation to be around 30 minutes max. During that time, you need to be able to elicit the complete scope of the brief. And the commercial challenge that the client is facing, above all else, and also their budget, really, really pushing until we establish, even if it’s not a figure, but just a sign of comfort or discomfort with a particular number. So important, otherwise, any time is wasted after that point of pulling together a proposal. And, I’m sure the listeners can identify that putting together a proposal on a case-by-case basis is really difficult, particularly when we’re trying not to exchange our time for money directly. And we’re trying to price based on value rather than hours spent. And so, it’s so important to be really strong during that call, and also tell people that you’re not for them, that you offer them an alternative. Don’t be afraid to say I’m afraid that’s just not the way we were called. Or perhaps outline exactly how you work and say, does that tell them what you were expecting? Does that sound like what you want? Because we understand that it’s not for everybody. And especially with startups and scaleups, in particular, where they’re bootstrapping, and they’re super keen in terms of how they’re spending their money. That’s hugely important. And then I want to divert off into the subject of return on investment, improving effectiveness. But that’s an entirely different topic, also of great value during those calls in order to get the most out of those discovery calls.


Kelly: Right. Well, we will talk about that in a second. Because I think that’s important too, especially because we’re talking about creative services. And it could be a part of a difficult conversation, right? [Commercial] But I just wanted to put a pin in something that you said, when we’re talking about boundaries, right? This is just I don’t know why I feel like it’s really, really important. When we’re talking about confidence, right? Like selling your creative services with confidence, boundaries are one of the ways that it comes across that you are confident as the leader or rainmaker of your organization, right? Because the more that you say, no, we can’t do this little interim project, this BandAid thing, and kind of leapfrog our process or deliver something in three weeks when it typically takes us three months. Having those boundaries is really important, because what it conveys is that you don’t need the work. Right? That you are not desperate. There’s no sort of what I might call an anxious attachment style around business development. It means that you’re not going to acquiesce to all of their sort of unfounded questions or requirements. So once you establish that you are the one leading the process, you are the one with the expertise in guiding that client. I don’t want to use the word power dynamic, but there is a power dynamic a little bit when it comes to client and agency relations. So obviously, I was just going to say the more that you get into the relationship, it becomes more collaborative. But from the onset, you do not want to be in a situation where they’re demanding your process or changing and modifying your process and you’re just essentially acquiescing to every single demand, I want it for cheaper, I want it faster. At that point, you don’t have a sustainable business.


Charlotte: Completely agree. Or an enjoyable business.


Kelly: Right.


Charlotte: Because you’re absolutely right, you’re setting the framework from what they can expect throughout working together. And, nobody actually wants to work with a pushover like, the reality is like, even if they do from the outset, when they want a cheaper price, the best clients will want to be challenged creatively, because they know that being challenged will take them further in their journey. And you’re always going to come across people who would prefer to bully or to lead and feel like they’re the creative director. They acknowledge they need to employ when to actually get the work done. And I think that, not highlighting that literally, but alluding to that in that discovery call in a very polite way. And a knowledge in how you do and don’t work absolutely sets the framework from what you can expect from the rest of the project. And then, it’s not just about profitability, which is obviously a huge thing in this area. It’s about how much you enjoy it. And ultimately, what is that relationship with the client when you finish that initial project, because we all know that organic new business is so much cheaper to develop than called new business. And so, you really want to be going into every project hoping that you can be working with that client on a long-term basis. And, at the very least being able to get a nice testimonial out of them. And some results further down the line, maintaining the relationship to the point where you feel like, yeah, they’re confident and comfortable giving you that because they’re proud of what you did for them. So I think it’s hugely important.


Kelly: Yeah, that’s great. And I love this sort of mantra that you have that like the client engagement doesn’t end when you send the final artwork.


Charlotte: Yeah.


Kelly: It’s great because it’s true, even if it’s just project based. And if you’re not on retainer with them, following up making sure that they have everything that they need, if they’re finding new applications that have arisen that they need additional work for, or getting that testimonial, whatever the case may be that kind of like land and expand. Obviously, it is the lowest cost per acquisition for new business. But let’s dive back into that ROI conversation for a second as we wrap up, because I think that is a potentially difficult conversation for a lot of folks who are trying to develop new business. And on the other end, if the client is asking, let’s say, specifically for creative services that don’t necessarily tie to a specific attribution campaign, like a brand identity or something along those lines, where there isn’t necessarily a “return on investment” that can be measured easily. How do you approach conversations like that?


Charlotte: On Mondays are the ones that I absolutely relish, I love finding. And it’s been my blessing in business. But yeah, I love it. Because it’s a bit like a treasure hunt, trying to find evidence, because the reality is, and actually, this doesn’t scare me at all, because when you’re talking about results, the majority of my clients work in brand design across packaging, in particular for consumer products. So, it’s not the internet. It’s not easy to measure. Generally, they’re not trying to drive down advertising prices on Facebook, or whatever. So there’s no instant gratification. And then furthermore, a lot of their clients aren’t even in the consumer product sector. So there might be something even more tangible, driving the commercial objective behind the brief. So it might be around internal stakeholder engagement. I mean, there’s no money, dollar signs, pound signs, whatever around that. So yeah, a real challenge. But what I always encourage people to do is look at the original objectives, the brief and generally, the client brief is at a design agency. Normally, it’s interpreted into our lingo, but the client brief will have some real commercial objectives around it whether they’re easy to quantify or not. So I really encourage people at the end of a project to look back at what those original objectives are, and just see whether any have been achieved literally by that project. So I had one circumstance where a client had been approached to do a project for one of their prospects, that wasn’t the sexiest bit of design in the world, but allowed this brand to move from independent retail into major multiples, so into a big supermarket nationally, and it was huge for that brand. By virtue of them actually doing the design and sending it to print, that brand had been listed in that particular national supermarket. And so, the agency is like we don’t have any results. Firstly, we don’t want to talk about this project, not the kind of project we want to win. It’s like, okay, but why did you win the project? Why did you work on the project? Because this was the window, this is the door of opportunity into a much bigger relationship with this client so we wanted to explore it. So I was like, okay, do you not think that situation that they came to you is the situation that multiple clients will come to you, prospective clients will come to you in that situation? They said, yes, it has happened several times. And I was like, okay, well, you really need to explain that. That is one of the ways you work and also acknowledge that that’s a huge result. You’ve got them into a national chain. And so even before any sales have been measured, they had a result they could put on the website. And I would say in a lot of situations, if you look at the code, there’s commercial objectives you’ll find you’ve achieved, at least one of them at the time it goes to print, or it hits live or whatever it might be.


Kelly: Right. And that’s actually probably a great talking point when you go to follow up with them. Just as a segue to after the project has been completed, if it is project based, looking back at those objectives from the original brief, that’s a great point to be able to start that conversation to say, okay, now we’ve done this. And obviously, you were happy with it, those things have been reached. Now what else can we potentially do together?


Charlotte: And I really encourage clients to completely agree. There’s so many things, an evergreen list of things that you can do post-project with a client to enable that relationship to move forward. But one of the biggest things is, I always encouraged people to position things through the client’s lens, and in a generous style. So one of the things you can do is book in quarterly brand planning sessions with that client, where you allow them to vent what projects they aren’t allowed to do internally, what they want to get into their brand planning next in the forthcoming year and are struggling to do that. Allow them a safe space where they can talk through it, and maybe you can help them to understand how things are more feasible and more realistic financially or, in terms of mechanics of getting something done. Plus, you’ve got a heads up on what projects might be on the horizon in the next quarter or half year. And actually, I tend to find that the client side, the brand side client really enjoys it, because actually they’ve got an external ear to kind of chat through stuff. Sometimes it’s a good bit about how things are internally, or sometimes they just need to say things out loud that are in their head. I remember sometimes there’s generally marketing director, marketing manager is the role that we’re dealing with as prospects of my clients. And, it can be quite a lonely job. It can be quite a small firm, and a lot of KPIs around how they’re performing. So it’s helpful to have your brand guardian, to be supported there.


Kelly: Absolutely. And I actually love the idea of calling them or branding them as vent sessions or like safe options, something like that. Whoever’s listening, go ahead, you can brand it. Well, Charlotte, thank you so much for being on the show today. It was a great conversation. I know everyone’s going to get a ton out of it. So thanks again for joining me.


Charlotte: Thank you so much for having me, Kelly.

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