Blair Enns, CEO of Win Without Pitching (Kaslo, British Columbia) and author of The Win Without Pitching Manifesto and Pricing Creativity: A Guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour
Blair Enns is Founder and CEO of Win Without Pitching, a company that trains creative agencies on how to win business without giving away their most valuable product—their intellectual property—in getting that business. Blair authored two business books that have proven to be transformational for many creative firms: The Win Without Pitching Manifesto and Pricing Creativity: A Guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour. Key to the power of these books is Blair’s recognition that Creative people have an inherent difficulty with “sales.”
Blair defines creativity as “the ability to see, the ability to bring a novel perspective to a problem you haven’t previously solved.” Creative people tend to build businesses that allow them to solve problems they haven’t previously solved. However, their personal desire for variety does not work from a business standpoint—to build a strong, financially solid firm, they need to differentiate, to focus on doing a specific thing for a specific market.
In this interview, Blair emphasizes the importance of client selection . . . of building your business with clients who are interested in value and a return on investment . . . rather than chasing budget-driven clients who are focused solely on price—those who see marketing as a commodity with charges based on billable hours and the cost of materials. The foundation of a strong business is value-driven clients who recognize that creativity is unique in its ability to produce bottom-line results and worth the investment. Although a creative agency might sell excess capacity to price-buyers, it is critical that the agency “strip out the extras” for the reduced-price client, instead of trying to “fly everyone first class.”
Blair is very clear that a price-focused buyer is unlikely to become a value-focused buyer. The creative’s job is to discern a buyer’s-type and manage that buyer appropriately.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Blair Enns, CEO of Win Without Pitching and the author of The Win Without Pitching Manifesto and of Pricing Creativity: A Guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour. Blair is also the cohost of the 2 Bobs Podcast and a well-known speaker based in Kaslo, British Columbia. Welcome, Blair.
BLAIR: Thank you, Rob. My pleasure to be here.
ROB: Fantastic to have you here. I feel like we have heard echoes of your Win Without Pitching message in several of our other CEO conversations with agency owners. So, your message is getting out there.
For those who don’t know you and what you do, why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about Win Without Pitching and what people need to know and think about.
BLAIR: I came out of the agency background. I worked in some of the largest ad agencies in the world and some of the smallest design firms, and then I formed a consulting practice which I called Win Without Pitching, which was helping creative firms win new business without giving their most valuable product—their thinking—away for free.
I launched Win Without Pitching in April of 2002, and at the very beginning of 2013 we pivoted—and I don’t use that word lightly; it’s an overused word—but we pivoted (and when I say “we,” I mean me) from a solo consulting practice. I felt like I’d maxed out the consulting model and I wanted to do something different. So, I turned Win Without Pitching into a training company, and there’s now eight of us.
We do training in various formats, essentially sales training for creative professionals—although we don’t throw the “S” word around a lot because creative professionals don’t like to hear the “S” word. But, since it’s just you and me talking, Rob, I’ll tell you what we really do is sales training for creative professionals.
ROB: Right. Whatever they want to call it, they still need to sell. I’m sure a lot of the details of this are covered in your books. We all start off as the “royal we,” as you mentioned, “we” being you. Then some other people come along, and then it’s a company.
Most agencies, I think, also follow that path and that arc. It’s one or two people or three, and, all of a sudden, they have these employees. But they don’t know what they don’t know, and they probably don’t realize how they’re inhibiting their own growth. What are they missing?
BLAIR: I think most creative professionals don’t get into this business—most creative people, whether you’re a designer or a writer or whatever your creative superpower is, you feel like you’re called to this business. You build a business around your calling. The business stuff doesn’t necessarily come naturally to you.
Now, some people come from the business side of the business, as I do, although I do see myself as a creative person as well. But, I think any creative person who’s building an enterprise around their skill, their calling, their superpower or whatever it is, they’ve got to go get those business skills. Some of those business skills come more naturally than others, and I think selling is one of the difficult ones.
As a creative person, selling is difficult because it’s so highly personal. Especially in the early days when all of the ideas are yours. You give birth to them yourself, and even as the firm grows, you’re still kind of the godfather or godmother of those ideas. So, you still take any type of rejection personally.
ROB: Your latest book is Pricing Creativity: A Guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour. That came out just this year?
BLAIR: Yeah, it came out in January of this year, January 2018.
ROB: I think that title, in and of itself, is attractive to a lot of people, and sometimes we put our expectations onto people we’re talking to, especially to clients. I think a lot of creative professionals would expect their clients want to know the hours and how much they’re billing for because they’re used to that.
How do you suggest that people get outside their head and start to not be so caught up in feeling like they’re meeting a client expectation to just do hours, and maybe you can charge a little bit more for some people than others?
BLAIR: Yeah, as you quite rightly point out, there are two different sets of barriers to moving from selling inputs of time and materials to selling based on value. There are the mental barriers that are in your own head, and then there are the perceived barriers (regardless of how real they are or are not) that you imagine the client is going to have for paying for value.
I’ll just say that there are different types of buyers. There are price buyers who want the lowest price no matter what, and they’ll give up whatever they have to give up to get that price.
Think of the people who fly on an airline. They’re not flying up front. They’re not paying 10x what others in the back of the plane are paying. They’re paying the cheapest price. They want the core service of transportation, and they will give up every other form of value—food, the ability to check luggage—they would give up oxygen if they had to. Some of your clients are like that. They want the absolute lowest price; they don’t really care about value.
You really want to build your agency around value buyers: those who really value what you do and are really interested in a return on investment. They’ll spend the money, as long as they see it as an investment, and there’s a reasonable expectation on their part that they’ll get a return on that investment. Some people are just afraid of high numbers.
So that’s a very real thing, and I would just encourage people to think of buyer types. If you really are in a situation where your clients want to pay for time and materials rather than value, then you’re probably dealing with the wrong types of clients. You might want to think about elevating your practice and your agency to a higher level where you’re going after better, more worthy, more sophisticated clients.
The other set of challenges are really just in your own head, and I think those are actually the biggest ones.
ROB: You mentioned the buyer types. Is that pretty dialed in? If you’re trying to change a buyer’s perspective, is that mostly just shouting at the wind? Or is there hope sometimes?
BLAIR: I’ve never really given much thought to the idea of changing somebody’s buyer type because I think the job is to uncover what type of buyer they are and then treat them appropriately. I always say that you wouldn’t build a business of consultative services of any kind around price buyers, but you might sell excess capacity to price buyers from time to time—again, when you have excess capacity and you’re willing to do something for cheap because you’ve got people in the studio who are sitting on their hands.
But you would make sure you strip out all the extra forms of value. If you go back to the airline analogy, you might have 300 people on an airplane who have paid 200 different prices for those different seats. Those different people value different things. The price buyer at the back of the plane would give up oxygen. The person at the front of the plane not only wants oxygen, they want beautiful flight attendants, they want legroom, they want status, they want access to the lounge, all of these things.
A big mistake that many agencies make is they’ll let their clients pay different prices—which is actually a good thing—but they let everybody fly first class. This is a metaphor that I stole from Ron Baker and a couple of his pricing books, but I think it’s so true in the agency world.
One of the things we need to get our heads around is when we’re selling to price buyers, it’s okay to deliver a service at a cheaper price for a price buyer if you have excess capacity and you want to fill that excess capacity. But you don’t want that price buyer to annoy you or your people or nag you to death.
So you would strip out the extra forms of value, which might actually include things like account management. It almost certainly includes terms, the ability to pay over time, so they would pay upfront. They certainly wouldn’t get access to the senior people in the firm, not the principals, maybe not even strategists of any kind. They might have a limited number of hours that they could get for project management or account management, or maybe none at all. So when you are selling things to those price buyers, you strip things out.
It’s not likely that you’re going to turn a price buyer into a value buyer. You want to discern whether or not somebody is willing to pay more money to get to the outcome they’re looking for, or they’re just so price sensitive they can’t really see to the outcome.
ROB: If you go to let’s say a hundred different agency websites, sometimes you would swear they do a hundred completely different things before actually getting under the covers and figuring out that they’re all doing paid search and so on and so forth.
I think everybody—at least a lot of people realize at some level that they should try and differentiate as a way of driving value. What’s the difference, in your experience, between effective differentiation and just, dare I say, noise and nonsense?
BLAIR: Differentiation, we can use different words for it. It’s actually the bulk of the components of what we in the creative firm business call positioning, and what others in other business categories, maybe even consulting, would call strategy. Strategy, positioning, differentiating the firm. Let’s just put all of those things together under the same banner.
If we use the term that you used, differentiation, a big mistake that creative firms make when it comes to differentiation—because it doesn’t come natural for a creative personality to differentiate his or her firm. Creativity is essentially the ability to see, the ability to bring a novel perspective to a problem you haven’t previously solved. Therefore, creative people have this natural tendency to build businesses that allow them to solve problems they haven’t previously solved.
Their own personal need for variety is directly at odds with their business’s need for focus. When they get their head around the fact that “I don’t differentiate. I have all of these competitors, I have all of these price pressures. I need to specialize,” the first mistake they make is they treat it as an exercise of language rather than an exercise of discipline and courage and walking away from things.
You’ll see a branding agency say—and I haven’t heard this in a while, but I used to get this question all the time—“What’s the next term for branding? Branding is overdone. What word should I use to mean branding, but to sound different?” That’s exactly the wrong question. Especially writers, if writing is your superpower, when you start to think about the positioning of your firm or differentiating your firm, you just start to spin a story.
But what you really need to do is narrow your focus so that you benefit from solving the same types of problems over and over again. You need to give up all kinds of stuff—not all of the things, but many, many things that you’ve long reserved the right to do in your business and say, I’m no longer going to chase or even do these things. I’m going to focus on X for Y, this discipline for this market.
And that’s all we’re going to do, except for some of the odd outlier stuff that comes to us from time to time, and we’re not going to talk about that. We’re just going to take it for the money and do it. But we’re going to focus on this very narrow space. That narrow space can be expressed as X for Y: discipline for market.
ROB: Are there certain types of services that you’ve seen that are harder to position for value?
BLAIR: Crowded ones, if everybody’s doing it.
Branding is a great example. I’ve encountered a lot of creative firms who say they specialize in branding. I say a creative firm that specializes in branding is like a fish that specializes in swimming. It’s not a specialism. It’s the cost of entry, because every other creative firm on the planet—even if they don’t say, “We do branding,” if you said to them, “Do you do branding, too?”, everybody would say. “Yeah.” So that’s an overstated one.
Digital marketing is now too broad. You need to get niched in digital marketing or go digital marketing for a certain market. That marketing can be vertical, or it can be demographic.
ROB: We had a guest that did digital marketing for building supplies.
BLAIR: Yeah, I might know that person. I actually know a few firms in that space, and it seems to be a really lucrative space.
ROB: This was Venveo, I think, up in Virginia. Virginia Tech area, Blacksburg.
In branding, one of the better agencies I know here in Atlanta that has significant pricing power, you go to their website—I’m looking at it right now—and it says, “We are . . .” and it lists some things. It says, “We aren’t . . .” and it list some things. It says, “Here’s what we do.” I know companies that have raised a million dollars that have gone and spent $50,000 with these folks on branding. So, they’re getting a message across there.
But then I wonder, if you’re dealing in ecommerce—and maybe it’s not a money buyer, but for someone in ecommerce, part of their ads are going to be specifically still looking at return on ad spends.
BLAIR: Yeah, ecommerce is a great space where it’s all ROI. Ecommerce, CRO, a lot of online marketing. The great thing about all marketing moving online is the ability to measure has just become so tight, so specific. It’s really brought accountability back to marketing. If you’re in any space where you can prove success, you have a significant advantage.
ROB: So, you wrote your first book. When after that book did you start to feel—what were the signs that you had another book gestating in your brain that needed to come out?
BLAIR: That’s such a great question. I’m so grateful that you asked it, because it hasn’t come up before. I wrote the first book, The Win Without Pitching Manifesto, in 2010. I wrote it before that. I don’t remember, it was this painful blur. I’ve discarded it from my memory, writing that book. People ask, “How did you write that book?” I don’t know. As soon as the book is done, it’s like I have amnesia. All I remember is it was really painful.
So that came out in 2010, and it was quietly successful. It’s a niche book. I refer to it as the “Yes, you can” book. You can read it in 2-½ hours, put it down and be inspired that there’s a new way of going about building your business and getting new clients.
That came out in 2010. Then my second book, Pricing Creativity: A Guide to Profit Beyond the Billable Hour came out in 2018—eight years.
I was 8 years into my consulting practice when The Manifesto came out, and I felt this incredible pressure right from about Year 3 to publish a book. I’m so glad that I waited, because I’m still 8 years after my first book came out, I’m still very proud of it. There’s nothing about it that I would change. Which shocks me. The various book ideas that I had before that, if I would’ve published any of them, I know I wouldn’t feel the same way I feel about this book.
I will answer your question—8 years later, sales continued to rise by about 70-75% every year over the last 3 years. Sales momentum on this book that is 8 years old is building. It’s just gone into its fifth printing, and every printing we print more of them. We just reprinted last year, so sales are going strong.
But the second book, as a content creator, as somebody who has an idea of writing a book, if you think the pressure to write your first book is big, that ain’t nothing. Until you publish your first book, the pressure to write—I can’t speak for everybody else, but the pressure I felt that I put on myself to write a second book was immense. I never thought it would be on pricing, but there’s a story of how we got there. I realized that I knew nothing about pricing.
I started saying publicly that that book would come out in May of 2016, and it came out in January of 2018. I don’t remember how I wrote it or how long I wrote it. I remember feeling years of pressure—once I committed to publishing it—years of pressure to get it right.
It’s such a painful process to write a book. I imagine it’s like giving birth. In the end, all you see is the baby and you don’t remember the pain.
ROB: Right. Congratulations on both of those. It’s certainly fantastic to have a book that actually grows up, like a child a little bit, and continues growing rather than attenuating. Do you have anything rattling around in your mind to fill out a trilogy of books, or is the pain still too eminent from getting this last book out?
BLAIR: I promised myself I wouldn’t say too much publicly about the next book project. It’s not well defined right now. I’m in the research phase. But I will say here what it is. The next book project is I want to write the world’s best-selling book on selling. I’m currently looking at the best-selling books on selling and asking, why are these books bestsellers?
ROB: What has been selling well? I think there’s your historically popular sales books and there’s some more emerging ones. What has struck you as resonant and durable?
BLAIR: I have to say is I have to reconcile this, because I have a problem. The best-selling ones are not the ones that I think have had the biggest impact, the ones that have really, deeply influenced people. Again, I’m still in the research phase.
I’ve committed to writing something that’s going to sell to a broader audience and sell well, but at the same time, I need to be proud of this book. There’s something about the world of sales where I don’t think the best books on selling are the ones that sell the best. So I’ve got to reconcile that gap somehow.
ROB: It’s interesting. There’s so many models out there. It’s at the point now where I do see agencies reading Predictable Revenue and saying, should I hire a sales development representative? That’s one of those books that seems to have some legs to it. I’m not sure whether every idea from software is something that someone else needs to apply to their industry.
BLAIR: That’s one of the challenges, because the best-selling book of current times on selling is Jeffrey Gitomer’s book The Little Red Book of Selling. But somebody in the creative firm space would never read that. Not never, but it’s highly unlikely that somebody would a) pick up that book and buy it, b) read it, c) get a lot from it.
That’s one of the challenges if you want to write a broader best-selling book on selling. It has to apply to people beyond those who just sell consultative services.
I’m of the mind that as we become an increasingly specialized world, many people are selling—no matter what it is that you’re selling, you’re selling some form of expertise or empowerment or transition. I fundamentally believe that no matter what you’re selling, you are actually selling to people, to the buyer, a better version of themselves. That requires some consultative skills, except in the most transactional sales.
I was just having a conversation earlier today with somebody who was trained by—I forget the name of the company, but it was Mahan Khalsa. He had founded the company. I think one of the best books ever written on selling is his book, Let’s Get Real or Let’s Not Play. But if you can hunt down a copy of that book, you realize it was his stuff that somebody else cobbled together, I think. It never really made it into proper book format. I listened to the audiobook; there’s different versions of it out there.
But I think if that book had been packaged properly, it might have gone on to become one of the best-selling books of sales of all time.
ROB: Interesting. I just pulled that up on Amazon, which actually brings me to an interesting question. It looks to me like Pricing Creativity is not on Amazon.
BLAIR: It’s not, and thank you for pointing that out. You can only buy Pricing Creativity at pricingcreativity.com. The reason is—well, I’ll give you the fake reason and then I’ll give you the real reason. You can figure out the real reason.
The fake reason, since it’s just you and I talking, Rob—it’s not really a fake reason, but I’m writing this book and I realize, this is a subject, pricing, where you deliver incredible value. If you can help somebody on pricing, they instantly make so much more money. The economic impact of this book, I expected it to be profound.
I thought, I want to write the first pricing book that is priced based on the principles in the book. For me to do that, I need to be able to control the pricing, so I need to be able to sell it myself. If you go to pricingcreativity.com, you’ll see there are three versions of the book. There’s a $320 version which comes in three different formats, there’s a $199 version that comes in two formats, or you can just buy the eBook for $100.
What I wanted people to do is buy the book, read it, and then go back and look at that page and see how many of the pricing principles in the book were used in pricing this book. It also comes with a full money back guarantee, no matter what version you buy. If, for any reason, you don’t think you got value out of it, send it back to us and we’ll send you your money back in a full refund. That’s another principle in the book.
I couldn’t control pricing—in fact, my first book is published by a friend of mine, but it’s sold through Amazon. It drives me nuts that Amazon discounts the price off the list price. I got over it years ago, but I still would like to be able to control the price of my products. When you hand it over to publishers and mainstream booksellers, you hand over all that control.
ROB: Got it. You also don’t mind having an email list of your customers?
BLAIR: Yeah, I don’t mind at all. [laughs]
ROB: Totally fair. What’s a particular example that people could listen to and learn from of taking a business that was operating very hourly from a billing perspective and transforming it? What’s a big swing from where they were pricing on hours and not doing so hot with that to the transition of how they realized to position their value and made a big difference in their own business outcomes?
BLAIR: I haven’t told this story in a few months and I’ve just come off a long vacation, so I’m going to try to remember the numbers. There’s a great story even before the book came out. We run a training program for creative firms, and there was a firm out of California that signed up for our training program.
It was odd right from the beginning; the CEO wasn’t really involved. They were a couple weeks in and they fired everybody who was involved in new business. I didn’t think they were getting any success out of the program.
They went through the core curriculum and then they went away. Then I started to get these notes from the principal of the firm. “Man, we learned a ton from you. We’re killing it.” I thought, yeah, that’s nice, but I didn’t really believe them. I didn’t ask for the numbers, I didn’t know what he meant by “killing it.”
Then at some point they were having an annual offsite. He wanted me to come out and speak, and I quoted a ridiculous number and he said, “Okay.” I thought, oh, business must be good. So I came out and did a little talk to his team in the morning, and then they were spending the afternoon together.
As he walked me out, he said, “I want to tell you what you’ve done for us.” I’m going to struggle to recall these numbers. They were a 10 or 15 person firm. He said—I think it was a $2.5 million firm at 4% profit margin. “We went to $3.5 million at 40%, and this year we’ll be at $5 million at 40% profit margin.”
I looked at him and I said, “How? From where I sat, you guys weren’t all that engaged. You didn’t get a whole lot out of the training program.” He said, “It was just a small number of things. Number one, we narrowed our focus. We actually went through that exercise of differentiation.” I said, “Yeah, I would give you just a passing grade on that.” He said, “The other thing is we took two of your pricing rules. Now every proposal has three options with a high anchor.”
And that’s it. That’s how they went from, essentially, I think like $80,000 in profit to $2.5 million in profit. With a company of the same size. Just imagine that, going from $80 grand in profit to $2.5 million in profit in 2 years, based on following two of the six rules in the book.
There are principles, there are rules, and there are tips, but those are just two of the rules. Always deliver options and anchor high. They did those two things and profit goes from barely acceptable to quite lucrative.
ROB: And if someone goes to the site for the book, your top end is $320 for a book.
BLAIR: Yeah. I’ve had people say, “Why do you call it a book? It’s not a book. It’s an entire system.”
I’m actually pretty comfortable paying a lot of money for books, because I remember reading one of Alan Weiss’s books, Million Dollar Consulting, when I was early in my consulting practice. He had a statement in there, one sentence, that transformed the trajectory of my business. For years I thought, what is the value of that sentence? If I had hired a consultant and paid them $20,000 and they just told me that, that would’ve been good value. But I paid $20 for that book.
I had a book years ago, at the beginning of my practice, that was self-published that was $1,000 a copy. People would buy it on my website, I would print it off and send it to them. A thousand bucks a copy. And I had no qualms about it.
So $320 for a book that is going to make the average firm tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars? I don’t have a problem with it.
I have heard from a few price buyers who are just adamant, “I will not pay $100 for an eBook no matter how good it is, no matter what’s in there.” I think, well, that’s fine. That’s your prerogative. I’m not sure why you’re emailing me to tell me that. [laughs] I can make some guesses about the success of your firm based on your inability to look past price and see value.
It’s fully guaranteed. If you don’t make at least $100, or whatever, if you’re not happy with what you make, then I’ll refund your money. But some people can’t see past that. Yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s cheap—if I’d called it something other than a book, then $320 would look cheap.
ROB: Right. It’s a very reasonable point. At the end of the day, unless you’re reading Harry Potter for pleasure, if you’re reading a book for business and you’re going to spend the time to do it, why would you spend that time if you didn’t think it was going to make you a good bit more than another $100? One way or another, it all flows back. Even if you’re going to make your team happier, whatever it is. Reading a business book should make you more than $100 bucks.
BLAIR: Yeah. If you’re reading a business book and you don’t make more than $100 bucks from it, something’s wrong. I think I say this on the website: my expectation is almost everybody reading this book should be able to increase their profit by 50%. In the typical creative firm, that means a price increase across the board of 10%.
A 10% price increase. Some of your listeners are thinking, “Well, I can’t get”—yeah, some clients might pay that, some might not. The key is to change the way you price. When you change the way you price, you’ll see that a 10% price increase, on average across the board, is really, really easy to do.
I’ve just been inundated with six stories—I had another phone call this morning, and I get emails most weeks from people sharing numbers with me. The stories of transformation and the amount of money people are making, it’s been really fulfilling to me as the author to hear these stories. It’s fantastic.
ROB: That’s excellent. Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned from these engagements into the world. When someone wants to reach you, let’s wrap up the places they should reach you when they want to get in touch with you.
BLAIR: I can be found most of the time at winwithoutpitching.com. If you’re interested in Pricing Creativity, go to pricingcreativity.com. That will redirect to a page on Win Without Pitching. I’m Blair Enns on Twitter and also on LinkedIn. Those are really the only two social media platforms that I’m using.
I do a lot of speaking around the world, a lot in Europe and Australia as well as North America. Sometimes we publish those things on our website and sometimes I’m just tweeting them. Always happy to hear from people.
ROB: That’s great. We will get those links into the show notes. Thank you for coming on the podcast and sharing some of the rules, some of the knowledge, and something that makes me curious to read more into the books as well.
BLAIR: Thanks, Rob. I really enjoyed it.
ROB: Pleasure to have you, Blair. Thank you.
ROB: Bye bye.
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