This is a Story about Failure and What it Taught Me
Five years ago, my worst fears began to materialize. The industry I loved and the career I thought I would sail off into the sunset with, was in decline. It didn’t look too bad in 2011, but the warning signs were there.
Ad agencies had become more cavalier about inviting motion graphic studios like ours to pitch work on concepts they hadn’t sold yet. Hell, they hadn’t even presented the concepts to their clients. The widely-held practice of pitching had sunk to an all-time low, and our studio was experiencing it first-hand. Some agencies even had us working for free as part of their own internal concept development. Why employ people and deal with overhead and management when you can get half a dozen leading motion design firms to do it for you … for free?
Then, while on a flight back from my annual trek to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) show, I was serendipitously seated next to the head of production at a prominent LA-based agency. When I asked him what he was doing at NAB, he told me, “We’re building a post-production facility in our agency. We need a lot of equipment.” (To basically do what you do.) I smiled sheepishly. He was being candid. He was telling me what I already suspected — mid-sized motion graphic studios like ours were about to get hammered.
I took the issue to the studio. We weighed it, discussed it, brainstormed and strategized about it. What were we going to do about it? I didn’t know what to do, but I knew we couldn’t keep doing the same thing.
Our first solution — create a sister brand to do industrial videos, direct to client. This would leverage our expertise and staff to serve a different, albeit lower budget, market. We would market downstream. Everyone would keep their job. Brilliant! Except it wasn’t.
After months of work cultivating leads, presentations and proposals, we barely made a dent in our client roster. What was the problem? No one wanted a video service from a motion graphics studio. When we presented our reel, it was un-relatable to the client. They didn’t need fancy commercials with dazzling effects, graphics and animations. They definitely didn’t want to pay for them. That was our first failure in repositioning ourselves.
We shifted again. Explainer videos were hot. Let’s do that. Not! Strike two. Time was ticking, and we were no closer to saving ourselves. We dabbled in live event graphics and 3D stereoscopic video. The result? You guessed it — failure again. We were burning through people and cash — fast. Some of my staff started to lose hope. Others questioned the strategy to begin with. They assured me, commercials weren’t going away and that we should stay the course. Their doubt ate away at me and made me question myself. Maybe they were right. After all, 20 years was a good run.
Looking back, the problem, or solution, was obvious. We weren’t moving far enough out of our comfort zone. Each attempt at reinvention was merely a change of set dressing. At the heart of it, we were still selling design and animation. The only people we were fooling were ourselves.
We needed more substantial change, and to make big moves. That meant learning different skills, developing new clients and leaving behind the world we felt so comfortable in. And so the real journey began.
If brands hired ad agencies, but the agencies weren’t hiring us, what could we do? We wondered: are there brands that don’t want a big agency, but also don’t want to manage several vendors to do what a big agency does? There was only one way to find out. We had to try. This meant that we had to market ourselves upstream — not downstream. We had to sell the work we used to do for more money not less. What?! That’s insane right? What kind of bizarro logic is that?
Let me explain. Agencies provide clients with marketing, strategy, social engagement, concepting and messaging, media buying, etc. None of this was in our wheel house. Now, before my mograph friends start posting angry comments, let me clarify. Yes, as a motion graphics studio, we do generate concepts, and the work we create does drive social engagement. However, we were merely driving the car. Someone else told us where to go, and sometimes, how to get there. They did the planning, research and managed the client.
New skills had to be learned. So we committed ourselves to becoming a brand strategy agency. We saw the gap, and set out to bridge it. We read books, watched countless videos, attended lectures and workshops. We brought in new people to teach and challenge us. And they brought in skills and expertise from digital, social and branding. Slowly, it started to transform us.
We Stayed Strong
Change is difficult. It’s unsettling and uncomfortable. You’re filled with doubt, especially with a few failures under your belt. You question: will this work? Are we going in the right direction? Are we even qualified to do this? And we lost people along the way. Some quit. Some had to be let go. That was the most painful part, living with the guilt that I had let my staff down.
But you quiet the voices (both internal and external). You believe. You trust. You stay positive. You stay willing. Suddenly, we started speaking differently. We used terms like “alignment, goals, objections, agile, scrum, brand positioning, user personas, surfacing, user experience and design thinking”. We on-boarded one client, then two. The jobs weren’t big compared to the budgets we were accustomed to in the commercial space, but they were rewarding. Clients wanted us to help with their entire branding and customer experience. We designed and built websites, signage, storefronts and showrooms, crafted identity systems, wrote copy and yes, produced videos. The small jobs got bigger. Our relationships with our clients deepened.
And Finally Success
Guess what? No more pitching. We went from working on jobs to building campaigns. We went from being replaceable vendors to trusted partners. We weren’t just executing ideas, we were writing the strategic briefs. After being in the creative industry for over two decades, I’ve never been more excited about the work we’re doing and more optimistic. I know that there are many challenges still ahead, but for the first time in a long time, I feel like we are writing our own future. Soon, I hope to share news that we are agency-of-record for one of our clients. Just a few short years ago, I could not have even imagined that as a possibility.
How did we get here? Well it wasn’t easy or fast. No overnight success story here. It was a lot of hard work, determination and it was painful. But as someone once said, “If you want what you don’t have, you’re going to have to do something you haven’t done.”
Each time we failed, we learned something new. With each failure, we got a little closer to success. Fail. Fail again. Fail better.
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About the Author
Chris Do is the founder and CEO of Blind and the founder of The Futur. He is an Emmy winning director, respected lecturer on the business of creativity, and host of over 100 episodes on YouTube called The Process.
Special thanks to my friend Colleen L.B. Mathis for editing this post.