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WARNING to Creative Professionals Part I: Your Careers Are Under Attack

WARNING to Creative Professionals Part I: Your Careers Are Under Attack

This article originally appeared in John Forde’s excellent email newsletter The Copywriter’s Roundtable (some call him Jack Forde). The newsletter offers priceless insights for all kinds of professional creatives, including the folks mentioned in the article below. I highly encourage you to sign up and enjoy the weekly value feast that is uniquely Forde.


If you’re a creative professional, you may have noticed a bothersome trend. In an effort to reduce expenses, clients are getting creative with the ways they deconstruct projects, bid them out and re-assemble the final product. (This applies to lots of different creatives including, freelance copywriters, strategy folks, designers, social media marketers, SEO specialists, content developers and Web developers).  

As a result, some of your work is becoming commoditized, broken into pieces and performed by someone other than you. There are lower-cost, dubious-value options out there waiting in the wings to snap up pieces of projects.

I’m not arguing that this is a particularly intelligent, productive or encouraging trend. I’m just saying that it’s happening in a number of settings, and, in many cases, you’re complicit. Yes you.

Let me discuss a few examples to illustrate my point.

Deconstruction and the Road to Mediocrity

Software developers used to scope, design and test a piece code from start to finish. That’s not always the case nowadays. Outsourced, off-shore software testing is becoming more and more common. Specialized shops that test applications and the platforms they run on (like testing a new Web app on every conceivable phone, OS and browser combination) eliminate this task from a typical coder’s project. There’s a company in Austin, Texas that’s doing this with great success. Everything’s managed stateside, but the grunt work is done cheaply elsewhere. Think of it as global specialization – where the “assembly line” is decoupled, sent to multiple specialists, then reassembled before launch.

You may have noticed the SEO copywriting trend, as well. For better or worse, companies are farming out articles to writing sweat shops and instructing them to assemble articles that are optimized for specific keywords (including headline and subhead instructions for keyword repetition). Then they send the completed article to a professional writer for editing, fact checking and re-writing.

As a professional writer, I find the practice ludicrous. It’s a process that’s flawed, spammy and basically ass-backwards. But I can’t deny it’s happening. Shameful admission: one of my clients in Eastern Europe pays me to write headlines and subheads for articles they’ve developed (they identify the keywords they need highlighted, and I try to make it work). Some of the articles are professionally written and some are atrocious. I flag the bad ones and have them re-written (via myself or another editor they use).

The trend is similar to the software development one. Publishers are attempting to decouple production and then reassemble the pieces. OnDemand Media’s Pluck is one example of this kind of low-cost, assembly line publishing.

With these types of approaches, some value is lost (maybe not so much with the software development example). You may have seen similar trends with your projects. Does the following sound familiar? A client asks you to produce a site, some graphic art or some copy that’s just like “competitor X’s site.”

The marketing director identifies someone else’s work that they like, and they encourage you to paraphrase, emulate or copy it. “Just make it like theirs, ‘borrow’ from it and you [as the creative] won’t have to do so much work,” they say. The result is unoriginal copy or design. [BTW - my advice is strap on your Pumas and run away from these clients as fast as you can.]

The point is, you can see, taste and smell the loss of value in these types of projects. Think about all those India-looking templated sites out there. They’re sterile. You know them when you see them. The treatments are flat, the colors predictable, and the layouts pure boilerplate. Some are worse than others, of course. There are, however, some nice WordPress templates that are produced by very talented designers and coders (and SquareSpace ones and Tumblr.. many others, I’m sure – this is a trend I’m watching closely).

Similar problems occur when people take short cuts with photography. How about those bland “business people at work photos?” Earnest looking professionals glare into the lens. They wear JCrew blue and khaki, and they always seem to be in these scrubbed, gleaming Formica white rooms. There are dozens of them on iStockPhoto, and they pop up all over the Web.  Anyone can get that stuff. Anyone can produce it. It’s a commodity.

Your Talent and Real-Time Creativity is Your Trump Card

The deconstruct and “farm out the pieces” train is gathering steam. Seth Godin talks about this in his book Linchpin. In a previous era, the strategy was applied to automobile manufacturing. Henry Ford developed detailed assembly processes that could be carried out by very specialized, low-skilled laborers along the line.

These days creative work can be made into an assembly line without borders… without a building.

Where does that leave you? In some sense your career is under attack. If important disciplines comes under assault as satellite teams are assembled and everyone meets up in places like BaseCamp and Google Docs, then there’s real value erosion from the client’s perspective. You may (like me) even have a hand in it. Heck, you may even use this approach to assemble teams of creatives. So, who knows where this is headed.

There are some easy answers, however. First – you must scamper back to value. Focus on originality and core competency. Your creative work, your artistry is what wins. You can beat a monkey on a typewriter. Your brilliance in the here and now beats any templated mash-up that a sweat shop can produce. That’s what brings the real dough. That’s what wins today’s contracts.

Think of it as a way to improve your gross margins. “How can you be remarkable?” as Godin might put it.

The companies and clients that don’t want the type of talent you offer are probably settling for mediocrity. They will be lost in the sea of noise. Their ads will not stand out, their white papers will not be downloaded, and people will land on their sites and get that ‘oh this was designed by low-level goons in Eastern Europe’ feeling.

So, if you’re a designer you need to be the one who pays attention to typography, usability, color choice and very specific business requirements. You have to listen. And, you have to find the clients who communicate their uniqueness, their goals and their fears directly to you.

Incorporate that into your designs, then collaborate with the Web development team, the writer, the photographer. Don’t be afraid to work with difficult people. Don’t be afraid to challenge your client. Argue with them (not argumentatively but in a Socratic way) with the fears, benefits, goals and aspirations of the company in mind.

If you’re a blogger or a ghost writer for blogs, stop regurgitating the messages of others. Stop chasing the link deals and trying to spam your way into Digg mentions, StumbleUpons, etc.

Promote your best, most unique ideas – even if it means taking a day or week off. Yes, you need to produce content consistently. . but you’ve got to rise above the noise and say something useful and unique each time you publish. Or else.. your days are numbered.

Bring ***thoughtfulness*** to your projects – as Tom Peters might say. (BTW his new book “The Little Big Things” is great.)

It’s important to understand some of these trends. The playing field is getting fluid with globalism, Web 2.0 trends, and unique developments at play. You need to pay attention.

Keep your eyes peeled for Part II of this article. There’s an interesting new technology wrinkle at play (it’s actually much more than a wrinkle – you’ve seen hints of it in Facebook’s recent announcements, and two of my uber-deep technology clients are raking in tons of cash by farming Web data – that’s all I’ll say). The point is, it directly affects you as a marketing and Web development creative. Stay tuned.

Please comment below and keep the conversation going. I’d love to hear your feedback and insights.