I have to admit that I had massive amounts of fun over my decades of working at and leading creative agencies, and so did my comrades in creative arms. You wouldn’t have mistaken us for the serious business types. You might even have thought we lacked the essential talents business requires, like the hard-nosed, hard-driving skills necessary to nail down a contract, or be properly remunerated according to our abilities and experience. There certainly were times early on in my work life that I felt I was the wrong guy to be sitting at the negotiation table.
Many, if not most, creatives shy away from situations that, by their very nature, invite potential conflict and rejection:
- Asking for money;
- “Selling” yourself to get the job or gig;
- Promoting your ideas to your boss or peers;
- Presenting concepts or proposals to a client.
But over time I made some important discoveries about how my creative skills were in fact exactly what were called for in those tense business moments. I’ve since devoted my professional consulting practice to helping creatives learn how to get paid what they deserve, whether that means the right salary or fair and favorable contract terms.
What Are We After?
At some point, most business negotiations come down to money, and that’s one of the reasons creatives don’t focus on them. Carola Salvi, PhD, who advises me and who studies creativity at Northwestern University, has both conducted and analyzed research that indicates creatives are less motivated by money than other professionals. This really points to a central reason we avoid the discomfort of bargaining—money is not our top priority.
So what are we focused on? Dr. Salvi’s own studies and her analysis of others’ indicate that creatives are motivated by intellectual stimulation, and by leaders who provide a high level of recognition. Research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has shown that creatives are focused on what’s next, not past achievements.
What Are a Creative Professional’s Innate Skills?
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi has also studied how creatives are highly empathetic, more attuned to the pains and joys of others. That is supported by my personal experience and at least one other study.
That empathy is fruitful ground for creatives (or anyone who has this vital, bonding quality). It helps us produce great creative work, since we’re able to put ourselves in someone else’s experience and understand what moves them. The ability to feel as another feels can also make us respectful towards others.
Dr. Csikszentmihalyi is probably most well known for writing about “flow,” or the intense and ecstatic feeling we get when we’re deeply focused on producing creative work. Surrendering to that flow makes us attentive to details and intellectually curious. It also makes us love the work, both process and product. That love gives us the ability to inspire others when we talk about our work.
Using Your Innate Skills in Negotiation
If you’re a creative professional facing a business negotiation, consider how the skills that make you a good at the job you love can help you through the four common situations:
Asking for money
There is an infinite number of situations in which we all have to “ask” for money in business. Maybe you’ve finished discussing details and it’s time to tell your potential client how much the project will cost. Or maybe you’re ready to explain to your boss that you’re due a raise. When you’re entering this kind of situation, call upon your empathy to get a read for what the other person is experiencing. Is this the right time for you to ask? How might you phrase the ask to reflect your respect for your negotiation partner? Also, when asking for money, use your focus on the work you’ve yet to do and remind yourself how excited you are about the work that money will enable. Tell yourself it’s not so much about the money as it is the ability to continue to do what you love.
“Selling” yourself to get the job or gig
I’ve heard so many creatives say, “I’m not a salesperson—and I don’t want to be.” When you’re faced with the idea of “selling” yourself or your work, it helps to think about it differently. Your innate talents have made you create inspiring work; now it’s time to convey that inspiration to the folks who will fund it.
Promoting your ideas to your boss or peers
If you work midlevel in a design firm or creative department, you probably find yourself having to pitch new ideas to superiors, or get your colleagues on board for an important initiative. These can be tricky negotiations if you don’t have the institutional power to finalize decisions, and they can feel risky if you’ve had ideas shot down. Again, empathy is an important strength to call upon here. Use it to get a sense of the agendas of others and how your ideas might fit in. I also encourage you to balance those insights with your ability to focus. That can help you shut out office politics when they become overwhelming.
Presenting concepts or proposals to a client
When you’re running your own shop, the pressure to bring in new business, or keep clients engaged, is on. At times, it can feel like every negotiation is make-or-break. What’s a sensitive creative to do? First, resist the urge to dive head first, ostrich-style, into your work. Instead, attune to the client’s interests to get a finer sense of what they’re looking for, then turn your love of the work into inspiration for your client.
We creatives may never come to value financial reward more than intellectual stimulation, recognition, and the pleasures of the work itself. But money matters, and we can succeed in each of these four common business negotiations by using our natural empathy and passion for our work as effective tools.
Written by Ted Leonhardt
Ted Leonhardt helps creatives win negotiations.
He founded and built The Leonhardt Group, a Seattle brand design consultancy. After negotiating the sale of The Leonhardt Group to FITCH Worldwide, Ted became FITCH’s global creative director. He was responsible for the creative work of 500 employees in twenty-seven offices around he world. After FITCH, Ted consulted on the purchases of design offices US, UK and EU.
Ted became increasingly aware that creatives have a special difficulty asking for and getting their fair share. He made it his mission to understand why, and to help creatives realize their value in negotiations. His specialized approach to negotiation for creatives has been featured in Fast Company, Communication Arts, HOW Design, and is the subject of his book Nail It: Stories for Designers on Negotiating with Confidence.
Ted teaches negotiation at School of Visual Concepts, presents on negotiation for creatives across the country and is working on a second book. He created “Worth It,” a web-based training series designed designed to help creatives use their feelings, insights and intuitions to advantage at the bargaining table. He uses his own illustrations to dramatize complex bargaining concepts. He also consults with clients in the US and UK.
You can connect with him on Twitter @tedleonhardt.