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Breaking Down Doors: Promoting Yourself To Dream Clients

There’s a saying that the School of Visual Arts in New York City once used in its ads: “To be good is not enough when you dream of being great.” We all have dream clients that we would like to add to our portfolio, but either we don’t know how to reach them or have no idea how to even start. Promotion is not a big subject at art school, and I know way too many creatives who stare at the phone and wonder why it’s not ringing.

There are many ways to promote yourself, and as with any product, you have to target your audience as efficiently and as cost-effectively as possible. Let’s go over some problems and solutions.

Seek Out More Work Than You Can Handle Link

If you want people to know you and consider you a valuable contact, then you must promote yourself. If you look at your career as a business, then as with any business, you must promote it.

What is your brand? Let’s not confuse a logo with a brand. Your logo is the visual “name” by which people identify you—your brand is how people remember you as a business. Is your brand personal? Fun? Wicked? Sweet? Choose wisely because you could be married to your brand forever and ever. Use peers and non-creatives as a sounding board. I had a brand that creatives thought was cool but clients just didn’t get (which I’ll write about in another therapeutic article).

Prepare your brand for all digital and social networks before hitting people with promotions. Essentials these days are a website or blog, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Apps (if that’s your thing), business cards, stationary and envelopes—your business “front” as it were. Don’t scrimp, and inkjet print your own cards. If you can’t afford what you would spend in an afternoon at the pub for good business cards, then you might want to get a pony and dedicate the rest of your days to riding it.

“Welcome to Rainbow Pony World! Nowhere near Earth!”

Identify Top 100 People To Work With Link

You could crawl from small job to small job and make a fine career out of it… if riding ponies is your thing. But you dream of a certain caliber of work, so why not go after it?

Write a list of 100 people or companies you would like to work with. You might want to put a few people at one of those companies on your distribution list. How do you find those people? Start by researching the company. Go on LinkedIn and gather the titles of those people. If there’s not enough there, click on their profiles to see who they’re connected to, or use the “Also viewed” feature to stalk—er, hunt down the names you need. Use Google or a website such as Hoovers2 to get addresses and more information about the company.

Your city might have a book that list local companies, which could offer valuable information, as might the business section of your local paper. You have to hunt down names, network, steal, ask stray kids if their mom or dad works with designers, and take advantage of family connections (while still refusing to design that idea of your uncle’s that he’s been pushing at family dinners for years).

Don’t forget your own network. Your friends and fellow art school alumni are becoming art directors, creative directors and creative managers, and being on good terms and staying in touch with them is important.

At this point, I hope you’re at least keeping all of your contact information in a spreadsheet, because it can be uploaded to a variety of contact managers.

Get a good contact manager. Many programs are on the market, and even some native computer software will give you good contact management. Track how many times and when you have contacted someone, what they said, if you got work, if you got a referral, etc. When dealing with a client, you should be able to recall how you met, when you spoke and so on, so that they feel a bond, rather than feel like a target.

Some people prefer ACT as their contact manager. It’s good, but the comments following this article will no doubt suggest more management-oriented programs (after berating my negative comments about pony-riding).

Ready, Set… What Next? Link

What are you selling? What contact information do you have for your top 100? What promotional material can you send them? Are you ready for a follow-up if you do speak to someone? Are you ready for me to stop asking questions and get to it already?

“The Wright Brothers could never have flown if not for the drive and spirit of innovation among aliens.” (by Speider Schneider)

Even if you have print promotional material, there must be a digital component—something you can attach to an email or link to. Some people think you must have a website, and some think the WordPress platform is best… like, say, Smashing Magazine. Whatever the platform, you should have one. And please get a proper domain so that you’re not advertising; is so much nicer!

Also, avoid for your email address. While many single-person businesses use Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail and (snicker) CompuServe, don’t be one of them. For a few dollars, you could have a professional email address with your domain name, like

Have you accumulated a ton of email addresses? Here’s a fun fact from years of working in a business that depended on communications marketing statistics: only 15% of emails are opened. If you use a mass opt-out email service such as Constant Contact to reach prospects, your costs will go up as your ROI goes down even before hitting “Send.” Still, it can be effective for multiple mailings during a one-month period, which is the membership period of such services.

Sending a link gives the recipient a chore. In addition to everything else they have to do, they must now go through the super-human motion of clicking on your link and waiting for your website to load. As sad as that sounds, this is now the world we know.

Snail mail. Believe it or not, what’s old is new again. People use to rely on source books and mailings for promotion. In the digital age, mail has gotten lighter. Another frightening figure from the marketing statistics folks: 98% of all greeting cards are actually opened (the 2% is for envelopes with printed labels and metered postage). This approach will run you between 50¢ and $1.50 USD per card when all is said and done. You also have to do it every month, but no more than twice a month, or else it’s legally stalking, and your prospects will see it that way. But people love getting cards! I’m constantly told that my cards are up on bulletin boards at companies across the globe. Well worth the money, I say.

Some online printers deliver a good product, leaving you to stuff, address and stamp the envelopes. I use an on-demand printer that comes with a contact manager and allows me to create campaigns and then do bulk mailings using my handwriting font and signature and auto-name-insertion. A few clicks and my 100 cards go off within 24 hours, leaving me with plenty of pony-riding time. Oops!

“I send postcards from vacation spots. What fun for a prospective client!” (by Speider Schneider)

Print-on-demand websites are intuitive, and you can upload images for full-bleed jobs, if you so desire. The fonts on these websites are limited, and you cannot control kerning or leading. Best to create everything in Photoshop and upload it that way.

Advertising And PR… For Free Link

Blog. An audience that looks to you for information and entertainment makes for good prospects. Write about your design passion. A past article of mine drew a comment from a young man who was upset about the lack of understanding between a designer and developer. There’s a blog right there. With a good writing style or by linking to stories on the subject, this person could develop a great promotional tool and really serve his passion for development and respect for its practitioners.

You could turn trends, type, design, fun, foible or whatever you really love can into a really strong promotional channel.

Volunteer. Personally, I’ve long been fed up with volunteering, but you should give it a try because it does build character… along with anxiety issues (but that’s another story). Try a local art organization or art project. Getting out there helps you meet the people you need to be meeting. I know I’m being hard on volunteering, but I’ve put in more than my fair share of time. Your turn.

Write for something like that “Smooshing Magazine” everyone’s been talking about. Even the local paper needs articles on the design of the new town hall or coverage of the next art event. Get your name out there.

Advertising And PR… But Not So Free Link

Try Google Ads and the like. Michael Muratore, owner of Store445, which represents illustrators and photographers, is the most plugged-in person I know. His work with global companies and a variety of digital sources and tools force me to defer to his knowledge on the subject:

I’ve been a Google power user for about five years now. As an agency catering to artists and advertising agencies, we can get hundreds of emails a day. The more I used Google for my business, the more beta invitations I received. I use so many Google services on a day-to-day basis that it’s a bit mind-boggling: Gmail, Voice, Docs, Analytics, Webmaster Tools… I could go on. However, in seven years of business, we have never bought Google Ads. One day, another invitation from Google arrived: “$100 in free AdWords advertising if you connect your Analytics account to a new AdWords account.” A hundred bucks? Sold!

It’s brilliant, actually. One hundred dollars is the perfect amount to get started, figure out how it works and experiment a little. Of course, when it’s all dialed in, it’s time to add more money.

The real epiphany for me came when I started managing campaigns by region. I started with the five regions that generated the most business for us: New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago and Phoenix. With region-based campaigns, I could see where our ads were most successful, based both on clicks and inquiries. As the campaign progresses and as our budget changes, so does our AdWords buying. When money is tight, the campaigns that produce the fewest results can be shut off easily, leaving the best performers a greater portion of the budget. Usually, this means New York and LA, because our most popular artists are in fashion and music.

We use this same regional system when advertising our Facebook page.

Of course, it’s not just about regions. Different artists in the group have sets of keywords specific to their media and markets. When they want to promote a series of new works, we simply turn a campaign on for them to drive traffic directly to their new portfolio. We can have campaigns using general keywords to bring people to a landing page that features several artists. For those wanting to explore a variety of illustration styles, for example, they would land here:; if they were looking for something specific, like fashion editorial photography, then they would land right on the artist’s page.

Costs vary with campaign, clicks and keywords. Because we’re paying by the click, we need to ensure that we’re not getting bad traffic. We use negative keywords to try to eliminate the irrelevant traffic (words like “schools,” “lessons” and “royalty-free”). We keep a base budget of $3.00 a day for a set of general keywords in our best regions. Three dollars is not much, and some keywords are very expensive to get on the front page. “Logo design” often fetches $10 per click. Having a variety of campaigns helps. I can easily adjust a particular campaign’s budget if an artist wants to spend the money on traffic.

A weekly graph comparing overall traffic to AdWords traffic.

Bottom line? The AdWords campaigns bring the website’s unique views from a usual 500 to 700 a month to over 1,000. When we get a call or email, I always try to find out their source. An active campaign can bring in three to five calls a month for $50 to $100 in ad spending.

The Most Difficult Thing For A Creative: Telemarketing Link

Cold calling is the hardest thing for anyone to do. If I hadn’t worked in telemarketing as one of my various jobs to put myself through art school, I would dread cold calls. Cold calling, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is calling someone you don’t know to sell them something. Sounds easy, right? It is. They are just people like you and me. They need freelancers, and you’re a freelancer. If they don’t need a freelancer, let them tell you so. I’ve been after a client for three years; they’re in my top five of 100 names. I call and leave messages; I email images; I mail greeting cards with images and sales pitches. Why do I keep doing it? Because the prospect hasn’t told me to stop and go away. It’s sales, not dating.

The trick to telemarketing is to work from easy scripts:

Hello, Mr. Jones. My name is also Jones, and I’m a Web-developing, graphic-designing photographer. I’d like to set up an appointment at your convenience to show you my work. May I set up an appointment with you this week?

Mr. Jones will then either tell you that he is not interested, or ask you to call him the following week or set up an appointment right then and there.

Maybe you’ll have to leave a message for Mr. Jones. “Hello, Mr. Jones. This is Mr. Senoj. My number is 123-4567. Please call me at your convenience.”

Don’t tell him why you are calling or you’ll never, ever get to speak with him. Haven’t hear back? Call back. After a while, it becomes a guilty pleasure because you’ll wonder what they’re thinking.

Look at it this way: the client I keep trying to reach probably has a great story about this persistent person who calls, emails and sends cards. I wonder if anyone has ever said, “Why don’t you just talk to the guy?”

Another telemarketing ploy is called objection-response, and telemarketers make three responses before they stop asking. Have a script or two for that, too. Here’s some classic objection-responses:

Objection: “I don’t have time to meet.”
Response: “It will only take 15 minutes, and I’ll even bring coffee.”

Objection: “I really don’t have the time.”
Response: “May I drop off a packet of my services and keep you on my mailing list?”
(They’ll agree just to get rid of you. Take advantage of this by getting more information: “I don’t have your current email. Would you update me on that?”)

Objection: “I have all the freelancers I need right now.”
Response: “I really appreciate your loyalty to your regular freelancers, which makes me want to work with you even more. I understand and wouldn’t want to displace anyone, but people move on, and more work than your current pool can handle might come in. I’d like to stay in touch and see what the future holds, if you don’t mind?”

Don’t forget a thank-you note. A lot is at steak. (by Speider Schneider)

Out of desperation, I once told a person who had uttered those words of rejection to me that the entire pool of freelancers had choked to death. When he stopped laughing, he made an appointment and became a pretty good client. I don’t recommend this approach, though.

Think of any objection you might hear, and prepare a response of a sentence or two, printed out in large type in front of you. It really helps.

By the way, the best way to get rid of a telemarketer is to tell them either that you already have the product or that there is no way you could possibly use it. They will apologize, hang up and never call you again.

Not Such Crazy Ideas Link

Find a mentor. Some established professionals believe they owe it to the next generation to mentor them into replacing them. We teach and write, and then you take our jobs and spit on us as we crawl for safety. You young punks! Still, we do it because it is in the natural order of things to pass on our experience to the next generation, however ungrateful it is.

Socrates had something to say about this:

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.

Plato had Socrates, and you should be able to find someone who takes you under their wing and introduces you to people and teaches you wonderful things. Ask a teacher for a referral, or just write someone an old-fashioned letter asking if they would be your mentor. You won’t look strange, and your good manners will be appreciated, even if the person is unable to mentor you. A referral could hook you up with a terrific mentor, too.

Do work that really impresses. A friend of mine once said that if you ever take on a $200 job that should pay $2,000, do $2,000 worth of work and it will lead to a real $2,000 job. He also told me that he paid $2,000 for his house, so don’t take these amounts at face value. But his point is valid. A great job, whatever the pay, might lead to a spectacular portfolio piece.

A wild imagination can come up with some crazy ideas, but think twice before acting on them. Thankfully, my infamous “time bomb” promotional piece, touting “Dynamite service with explosive results,” died long before I mailed the first package, or else I’d have faced bomb scare charges and might have been writing this from prison. Be creative, but be sensible. Think of your aim: to be at the front of someone’s mind when they have a job to assign. Could you send a toy that sits on their desk or a calendar they keep handy? There are some great possibilities.

Keep moving forward! Sales is the hardest thing to do. You get a burst of energy, make all your calls and then get depressed when people aren’t beating down your door. It’s natural. Keep up your task of calling, emailing or whatever you do on a regular basis. Do something fun to break the mood, surprise your prospect, and don’t take rejection personally. A rejection today could be a job tomorrow and a repeat client further on. Just keep moving forward with the sucky part of the creative business.


Footnotes Link

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Speider Schneider is a former member of The Usual Gang of Idiots at MAD Magazine, “among other professional embarrassments and failures.” He currently writes for local newspapers, blogs and other web content and has designed products for Disney/Pixar, Warner Bros., Harley-Davidson, ESPN, Mattel, DC and Marvel Comics, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon among other notable companies. Speider is a former member of the board for the Graphic Artists Guild, co-chair of the GAG Professional Practices Committee and a former board member of the Society of Illustrators. He also continues to speak at art schools across the United States on business and professional practices and telling frightening stories that make students question their career choice (just kidding).

  1. 1

    Nice article, very inspiring. ;-)

  2. 2

    So what is the Print-On-Demand company that you use? Also, who’s a good online company for making creative business cards on the cheap?

    • 3

      Let me check on the Smashing rules about posting the URL for these companies (might be a competitor for a Smashing advertiser). I’ll get back to you.

  3. 4

    Off-topic– I like your new avatar, Speider. I think it’d be even better if it were a seven-legged spider…

    • 5

      I LOVE his site! I have to check if he still has his “communications with a bad client.” Hilarious!

  4. 6

    Great article! :-)

  5. 7

    I would like to know the print company also! Thanks!

  6. 9

    Interesting article, although I think a dose of reality is also necessary, especially for freelancers. Sorry if this seems like I’m raining on the parade, but I will try to offer a few alternatives as well :)

    Depending on what your dream client is, the sad truth is that many large companies are not going to trust large projects to individual freelancers. It’s too risky and even smaller agencies have trouble landing these big clients. Bigger agencies that can provide design and development often win out. Supplying only one or the other requires a lot of communication. Having worked on both sides (where we’ve done only design or only development), I can say that this way of working is frustrating for all parties involved, especially the client.

    So what’s a freelancer to do? I think the best solution is to focus your attention to larger agencies rather than to clients directly. Nike is a great example. The majority of their online work (in the US at least) is handled by R/GA. In this case, it makes more sense to try and get an “in” with R/GA rather than attempting to go directly through Nike. Note that this does not necessarily mean that you need to work full-time for an agency—many of them will hire freelancers from time to time, and that’s where you fit in!

    • 10

      Normally and generally, I would agree, and I think my success is due to my reputation in a specific field that allows me to approach corporate entities (and having names of people there helps). But if you have the same work that the corporation produces, such as toy packaging design, then why not treat Hasbro as a dream client?

      I have broken into corporations as a single freelancer but it took persistence and patience. Don’t make your entire list of 100 unreachable but dare to dream.

  7. 11

    You were like a cherry blossom to me today , thank you!

  8. 13

    I had been unemployed for nearly three months. I was feeling desperate. At an interview – and after the portfolio song-and-dance – the marketing director asked in a very stern voice, “Why should I hire you?” I replied, “Because I have a gun in my pocket and I’m not afraid to use it!” The guy nearly fell out of his chair laughing. I’ve been employed at this company for nearly fourteen years, now.

    • 14

      It was a 50-50 chance, as is all daring and different approaches. It still might not work out after 14 years or do they search you when you enter the office? ;)

    • 15

      @Tim — Cool :P Can i used your phrase for my future interview.. lol

    • 16

      Creative Inside

      November 26, 2010 11:12 am

      Not so sure we can use that in this day and age lol. But that is a attention grabber…

  9. 17

    Thank you for the advices. Very useful on these harsh times.

  10. 19

    Welly, well, well, Mr. Schneider! Nicely put. Perhaps you’d be interested in a promo piece I’m currently embroiled in:

    “When you care enough to promote the very best”

    • 20

      LOVE IT! There is truly life outside the corporate cult compound. ;)

    • 21

      Chris Nierhaus

      October 4, 2010 9:12 am

      Nice, Kevin! Brandlabs resides here in Rochester, MI right? I’m a freelancer who lives up the street :-)


  11. 22

    Best advices I have seen so far especially the objection-response part. Thanks for this post.

    • 23

      It’s selling, not dating…well, maybe they aren’t that different. The way I present myself is to make my 30 second speech, ask for some type of contact that will put me into their mind as a viable resource (mail, email, samples, a meeting or all of the above). It gives me a yes or two because of the options.

      I admit it is impossible to get anyone on the phone these days. Leaving a voicemail, which also could use a script, is common. My voicemail sometimes loses a message if I spaz and hit 9 instead of #. It doesn’t happen often — just to the really important messages. Most of the time the person drones on slowly and doesn’t quite get to the point but speeds up the part where they leave their phone number. The speed that only dolphins can hear.

      As in life, moderation, sense and respect for the other person can’t go…too wrong.

  12. 24

    I like what you have to say about the Google incentives and AdWords, but I don’t agree with your bit on telemarketing. I think cold calls are fine from time to time, but what you’re proposing is to nag the hell out of potential clients until they finally, dreadfully ask for your help…or scream at you to shut up and get out of their voicemail/email/etc.

    These are people you are trying to work with in the future….annoying them doesn’t help your cause.

    • 25

      a client doesn’t have to scream at you to shut up. i have to handle cold callers in my job from time to time and in most cases a confident “no” will do wonders, if you don’t have a need for something. that is accepted very positive most of the time. i understand everyone who calls (/mails or wathever he does) again, if i never said “no, sorry”..

    • 26

      Telemarketing is a VERY tough thing to do, but creatives are selling service to business people and not magazines to people sitting at home, so it is a legitimate and necessary business tool. Yes, no one wants the, “but Mr. Schneider, if you take this…” for the third time. Certainly calling to follow up after sending promotional material is acceptable and a good business practice.

      As alluded to in the article, if you don’t tell me “no” then why would I stop reaching out to you? There is stalking and bothering (I’ve had my share and it is extremely annoying — like people who say, “well, I’ll call you every week to see if there’s any work for me” or people who demand I see them in person, rather than a portfolio drop off or online submission) and there is business. Always lean towards conservative contact and await either a “no” or a “here’s a project.”

    • 27

      Trust me… If you leave a message or send a cold email, they will not even remember your name 30 seconds after they’ve deleted it.

      I read a book on cold calling recently, where a salesperson talked about unexpectedly getting the person she had been trying to reach on the phone and having a total brain meltdown. She babbled incoherently for a minute, and then hung up. Called the same guy next month, and he didn’t recognize her.

      Unless you actually enter a conversation with someone and make an actual connection, you won’t occupy more than a second or two of their attention.

  13. 28

    Maybe I’m a grumpy old man at the age of 31, but I cannot stand people who don’t take ‘no’ as an answer.

    I give them 1 more chance to make a mistake by keep pursuing, and after than, they get the bad side of me, but not before I clarify “who is this?” so that I can tell as many people as I know “Don’t do business with this guy, he relies on harassment and doesn’t respect the wishes of the people he solicits.”

    Then again, the vast majority can’t get their introduction line out to me before I’ve hung up on them.

    I don’t care if you’re cold calling, actually HAVE gotten my contact information legally or not, but no where do I appreciate this; and like spam, I can’t fathom that the method even could pull in half of a half of a half of a percent of business.

    Pre-canned responses and lines aggravate me to no end. Comcast’s online chat has this “feature”. If the rep doesn’t respond in X seconds, you get “I appreciate you holding while I get this information for you. Did you know that you can find many answers to your questions in our FAQ at ? We hope you find what you’re looking for!”

    ….HONESTLY….cut the insincerity and just DEAL with the problem! Everything else is lip service.

    I’m usually a sociable person, but something about telemarketing irks me to no end.

    • 29

      Ah, but how do you feel when YOU are trying to reach someone on the phone for a simple business (not Comcast or such products) call and you can’t have a professional conversation?

      People use to be surprised that I always answered my phone, which was rare or non-existent for a creative director or art director. It didn’t take long for me to avoid doing that. Most people have no idea how to speak professionally on the phone.

      Be polite, don’t stalk and know when to take a “no.” On the flip side, to paraphrase business author, Harvey McKay, “when you turn someone away, ask yourself if you want them working for your competitor.”

      It’s easy to blurt out a “no” and harder to consider what the future might hold with this person.

      • 30

        I don’t cold call. If I have already worked with the client and call to converse, it’s never to push for more business. I respect what business my clients have give me, and if they are happy, they’ll do more business with me or get me more business (which I always thank them by cash)

  14. 31

    I’d have to disagree with the cold calling. I think this could be very detrimental to your brand by annoying people with cold calling as they’ll remember you as ‘that annoying guy from ‘Blah blah’ agency who rang me out of the blue’.

    • 32

      It’s a delicate balance of professionalism. I would have to say 90% of creatives don’t know how to sell like an account executive, which is what a freelancer must be for their own business.

  15. 33

    Good article. I’m trying to build up my client base at the moment and need some tips for making contact with clients. I also agree with Kevin Sweeney. Sometimes it can be easier to get in the side door by offering services to bigger agencies that work with big clients. Be careful of ending up in breach of contract though!

  16. 34

    “By the way, the best way to get rid of a telemarketer is to tell them either that you already have the product or that there is no way you could possibly use it”

    hehe i always tell them i have the product or a similar one and that i dont even use it or like it!

    • 35

      I tell the local paper that I’m blind and need a braille version. They haven’t called me in two years.

  17. 36

    This is a great article – I’ve been a freelancer for 6 years, and have tried most of what you have written about. Most of my work now comes from word-of-mouth, however my favourite clients in the past have been ones that I have cold-emailed* because the company meant something to me. I guess you could say these are my dream jobs. I have remained passionate about their business over the years, and they always call on me when they need something creative. It’s win-win.

    When I first started out, I did a few free jobs for friends, but mostly I designed for “fake” businesses then used these in my portfolio to promote myself.

    *Cold-emailing is great, as you can send links and samples of your work, then follow up with a phone call in a couple of days time.

  18. 38

    Sean McCambridge

    September 29, 2010 4:20 pm

    That was great! Everyone needs to hear this kind of advice now and again. Especially me! lol. Really, thanks for sharing your thoughts and for the entertaining style. :)

    • 39

      I have to remind myself, too. It’s not easy and one can suddenly let days, weeks and months slip by without following up.


  19. 40

    Some great tips here…..Thanks for sharing.

  20. 41

    You give them cash? I lost you there.


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