Why some creative people can't sell


It's taken me a while, but I recently came to the realisation as to what ‘core business’ is for a design/ creative agency business.

For years we've danced around the subject and for years we've gone on a merry-go-round conversation where we begin and end with the same agreement.

An agreement that sees us all acknowledging one of two things — that creative people can't write and creative people can't sell.

Both ideas are widely agreed upon as norms and I'm sure, mostly incorrect because I know many creative people who can do both very well.

I do believe though, when speaking to students, graduates and most aspiring and emerging Designers, that 'selling' is something they believe they don't do.

So, in my search for what is 'core business' in this thing of ours we call the business of creativity, I’ve come to understand that this one thing is selling.

It's not visual design or design thinking. It's not UI, UX design or anything else.

I believe (and I'm sure some may disagree) that the core business of our business is to use the skills we have as creative leaders to build our own products, our own brands and our own businesses. This is skill number one — core business.

Building ideas and putting them into the world, persuading people to use them, buy them or share them. Convincing people to digest their information and that the information is relevant and meaningful to them.
It's not motion design or illustration. It's not art direction of product design.

Core business is the design of our own businesses.

It's the one thing we all get wrong and the one thing that creates all manner of issues.

Building our own products, designing our own businesses, building our own brands is selling.
And selling is the one thing the has most creative people running for cover once it's spoken of in meeting.

Selling is seen as sleazy and as ‘something someone else does’. 

And my poor darling Designer, if you’re thinking this and remain oblivious to selling; I urge you to go and read my truth about redundancy.

Try this for an experiment this week:

  1. In your regular weekly meeting with your design teams, say this: "can we talk about sales?"

  2. Watch the faces of the people in the meeting.

  3. Listen to the questions.

Can you smell the fear?

I don't research these weekly articles too much — as my goal is to share one idea simply and succinctly with you on a regular basis, I tend to write them quickly. And I believe I do this well as I look back on two years of weekly articles.


This week I looked at a range of design degrees as research for this piece and this is what I found:

  • Not one degree had sales or marketing as a core subject

  • Not one degree had product development as a core subject

  • Not one degree used words such as 'entrepreneur', ‘product’ or 'business' in its positioning

Granted my research was a sprint not a marathon — but I'm lead to believe that this is the reason that we see so many ill-prepared graduates enter our industry each year.

Starry-eyed and bewildered at time-sheets and hourly rates. At sales and marketing.

Which leads to more mature creative people who lack the fundamental skill to sell — an entrepreneurial mind and a belief in what they’re selling.

When I speak of sales — I'm not referring to the Glengarry Glen Ross type of sales (as brilliant as that movie and theatrical play are).  

I'm referring to the entrepreneurial type of sales. 

The type that:

  • sells ideas to a boardroom full of people

  • builds brands that resonate with the right people

  • designs customer experiences that actually work

  • looks for problems and builds a product to fill the gap and solve the problem

  • isn't afraid to fail

  • knows what a pipeline is

  • understands the importance of revenue and profit

  • understands the difference between design and art

And most of all, the type of person that believes in what they're selling. Not the bullshit-rose-coloured-glasses type of belief. True belief. 

The live-and-breathe type of belief in what you're selling. The type that is both beautifully designed and effective. Like Dirt, Tiller, Aesop and Finde — all made by creative people who know how to sell and know how to craft in equal measure.

So, why aren't some creative people good at selling?

Because they don't believe in what they're selling.

They aren't able to use their skills to create something they can believe in because they were never taught to do this. They were never shown that they could be anything else than be 'in service to clients.'

Although, hand-on-mouse they swear that they do believe. That they do, live and breath the work they do.

But when pushed. 

When the spot light is shone on them.

When the boardroom door slams shut and 15 people are starring them down, asking for validation, measurability and effectiveness.

They're a quivering mess. But it's not their fault.

They're just going through the motions because that's what they've been taught to do.