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How the Hell do You Price Creativity?

Trevor Hubbard is the founder and executive creative director of the fastest growing San Francisco creative agency, Butchershop™. A multidisciplinary designer, he has led hundreds of award-winning brand transformations, product launches, and marketing strategies. His work has shaped the trajectories of startups and  global brands alike, including The San Francisco Giants, C3 Energy, Google, Microsoft, Lennar, Okta, Vodafone, and Zuora. Hubbard holds degrees in film studies and multidisciplinary design. He lives in Mill Valley, California with his girlfriend and their son, Cash. They love to ski and travel.


For Love of Money

There comes at least one awkward moment in every creative person’s life when they’re asked to put a price on their work, or the time it took/takes to create it. And then there’s a lot of hemming and hawing and maybe even some indignation, because money undermines artistry, right? It’s taboo to talk about money, anyway. It’s gauche. It’s stressful. It’s awkward.

But why?

I love money. I love to talk about money. I don’t think creativity and finance are mutually exclusive – in fact, I wish art schools taught “The Art of Loving Money 101.” After all, creative people don’t work for free, or for high fives, or —my favorite — for the “opportunity” to add to our portfolios. No thanks. We work for money. And our work creates value for our clients.

Whoever you are, dear reader, be it an agency, a studio, a freelancer, or a scared-shitless student, here’s all you need to know: You can’t create value without first building trust. This idea is at the core of Butchershop’s mission, and it’s the reason why I take all of our new business inquiry calls. Putting the creative director on the front lines of new business can immediately show a potential client that we’re seriously committed to getting things right, that we can deliver, that we’re honest. We have huge scoping and discovery sessions with clients, we build detailed status update decks so that everyone can stay on track and in the know.

And, yes, we talk about money. Right up front. No bullshit. Sure, these conversations evolve as the scope of work does, but it’s so important to align a client’s goals and expectations with their budget, and to understand what they think they’re paying for is actually what they are getting.  For example, and this happens a lot, people will reach out and ask us to design them a website, but then immediately start talking about working on their brand story, value proposition, values, product offering, new look and feel, sales strategy, etc, all in the context of a new “website.” That’s not “designing a website.” But if we deliver, and subsequently charge for, something different than that person’s vision or understanding, that can be perceived as a bait and switch, which is a huge violation of…wait for it…trust.

Ok. So how do we do this? There’s a tricky art to pricing your creativity. Should you set an hourly rate? Too high and you could lose the project. Too low and you could end up exhausting yourself and feeling exploited. A fixed bid? That can dangerous because you end up beholden to all sorts of “scope creep,” requests, ambiguous feedback, surprise stakeholders, and other issues that arise that clients tend to jam into fixed bid projects.

Some of my core rules for all of this:

1) Talk about money. First email. It’s ok.

Remember that you are selling your services, education, knowledge and experience. I am not saying meet every new conversation with a “Hello. What’s your budget?” but you need to bring it up ASAP. If a client is clueless about their needs or budget it’s okay to offer a price range or show them an example of a project and talk about how much time something takes. They want great work and most of the time they want it “yesterday”, and cheap. Nope. If a client wants good work, fast, they should be able to pay for your time. If not…bye! But seriously,  if you work at Butchershop, I do my best to offer them a suggested alternative or keep an open door for the future because you never know. The worse thing you can do is gloat at being “an agency” when someone is mis-informed about agency pricing.


2) Size, space, search.

Sometimes it pays to creep. I like to know who I am talking to for a new project. A simple Google search can tell you a lot about your potential clients. You can find out the size of the company and market they are in and, therefore, what their budget could look like. What vertical are they in?  Where is their money coming from? Are they an enterprise? A startup? (What is a startup, anyway?)

A lot of times we see growing companies try to use agencies to fill the gap of hiring creative people. This can be dangerous. Some of the best projects we’ve been able to work on are the ones where the company has a creative team in place. It helps. The other thing to be careful of when speaking with a client is diagnosing whether they know exactly what they want and you are just executing or they are looking for your thinking. This usually is the point of clarification that you can trace back the success and failure of any project.

It’s so important to do your research to make sure you’re about to sign on with a client who regards you as a creative partner, not just a robot who’ll churn out a work. Or, worse, a client that’s been burned by an agency before will put all of that nastiness on you. Mutual engagement is the only way to remain solid in a business full of subjectivity, personalities, and opinions. Our goal is to serve facts.

3) Specificity, transparency, honesty.

At Butchershop we have a motto on the wall: “Move The Project Forward.” The only way this can happen is if goals and expectations are clearly spelled out from the beginning. Define what you are going to do and what you are not going to do. Map out your time and feedback. Define how many rounds of revisions a client may have. Talk about stakeholder presentations and learn upfront if you will have to consider some customizations to the project flow in order to get results from their company personnel arrangements Really nerd out on the details, guys. Because the road to client trust is paved with honesty and transparency. Always show real costs, always back up your quotes and scopes with facts. If it doesn’t get you the job, hey, at least you were honest, and that goes a long way. Trust me.

Throughout my career there have been opportunities that didn’t work out at first, but because I was honest and realistic and helpful to find a potential client alternative solutions, they have come back on another project when we were aligned. A simple website has turned into a seven figure global rebrand. A startup came back when they were ready to IPO. A CMO with slim budgets became a CEO a few years later and hired us. Your mom was right. Honesty is…well, you know.

4) Your process is your product.

It’s easy to quantify idea execution and deliverables. But what about ideation and planning? It’s hard to make a case for why “thinking” should cost money. One way is to clearly express your philosophy and approach. Call it something. At Butchershop we have what we call Discovery Sessions, and they save you more heartache than you can imagine. These sessions are collective brainstorms that coax information out of clients, helping to answer significant questions about their business. These sessions are so valuable, they’re invaluable. They’re not just “thinking” – they’re the crux of our creative process. We spell out exactly what we are going to do. We set goals and success criteria. Everyone is on the same page and we can move.

5) 47 years in five seconds.

There’s this parable that’s ubiquitous in the design world – maybe you know it, maybe you don’t. Let’s pretend you don’t.

An artist stood in front of an audience and painted an image with a single brush stroke; the female form. It was amazing. Effortless. And the artist priced it at $100k.

Bids flew from the impressed audience: $150k, $200k.  But one man was skeptical. “Stop!” he shouted. “How can you possibly pay that much for this painting? It took him all but five seconds to create!” And someone in the audience stood up and shouted back at the naysayer: “Yes…but it took him 47 years to be able to do it.”

The moral here? It may seem simple to execute an idea, but that’s deceptive. Simplicity in execution is a product of years and years of building expertise, and experimenting, and failing, and improving, and perfecting. Butchershop’s core mantra really boils this all down: “Simple is hard.” We have it up on the wall. It drives everything we think about and execute. Our ideas might appear to fly in off-the-cuff but really, we’ve been tailoring that cuff for a long time. (Well, not really really. Nobody here can sew. We have other talents.)

Thoughts are cheap. Coming up with ideas is easy. Executing ideas can be expensive. It’s our job as creative service providers (sounds kinda corporate) to make thoughts become things. Things become experiences. Experiences should delight and get people to move. Come up with incredible ideas and be confident in them, confident in charging for good thinking and execution. It’s not awkward, it’s business. But, like I said from the beginning – you have to build trust by showing value and worth. And at the end of your project, send a thank you card and thoughtful gift.


Design Week With Butchershop

Butchershop™ is a creative agency devoted to brand, content, and code that builds differentiated experiences. We partner with emerging companies and global brands alike, but our approach is always the same – to uncover where a brand is and move it where it needs to go. We believe every detail is an opportunity to delight. Our work is marked by a joyful obsession with people, how things work, and how they can be better. Established in 2009, Butchershop was founded on a single mantra: Simple is hard. Do not go to our website

Design Week is happy to include Butchershop as one of our 2016 partners. For a full list of their programming, click here.



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