The funnel and the machine

I toyed with titling this article 'Let's talk about sales' and opted for something else because if I've learned one thing since I stepped into my first design job in 1990, it's that the design industry and the word 'sales' just don't mix very well.

In my experience, I've witnessed many a confused and apathetic Designer when it comes to sales.

One of the many questions I ask of design educators is why design graduates aren't taught about sales in their studies. A fair question it seems when they play a crucial role in the development of most clients' sales pipelines.

I can also ask other disciplines the same question. I've known my fair share of "marketing professionals" and "digital strategists" who would run away screaming at the 'S word'.

But, let's take a step back for a moment.

The Machine

Something we often forget is that we are part of the machine. The machine that we fight so hard against. 

A battle, we fight with our ideals, our beliefs, values and the need to fulfil our very own creative integrity.

One of the most influential pieces of writing in my early career — and granted, regular readers will agree that I've mentioned many influential pieces of writing — was The First Things First Manifesto, written in 1963.

Side note: I wasn't born when it was written.

A manifesto co-created by the design community to ensure that the work they do, the work they compete with one another to win and the work they initiate, is ethical, responsible and respectful of a better world.

Although, when you look at the reality of the industry we're in, it sounds like a truck-load of bullshit, doesn't it?

What I saw in this (and I don't see in the creative industries today) is a collective will to say No, and an admittance that they are part of the problem.

No moral high ground. No ivory tower.

What I read in this manifesto almost 20 years ago is that if you're part of the problem, stop whinging about it and get on with doing your part to fix it. And if what you're 'doing' isn't working, change it up and keep trying.

I wonder sometimes when a young Designer/Strategist/Account Manager/Project Manager sits opposite me in a job interview or mentoring capacity, filled with optimism of 'doing great creative and strategic work', if they realise that they are part of the machine?

I wonder sometimes if they understand that the work they do is going to help someone sell something? And if they believe in what that business is selling as much as the people who are selling it. Because after all isn't it a reflection on them as well? 

I wonder if they realise that the work they do will help someone influence someone else. And if they too are also willing to be influenced in the same way?

I battled with these questions for a long time. Having studied Design, Advertising and Marketing, I had a foot in all three camps and understood the levers that were pulled by business owners to then drive marketing departments to brief advertising and design businesses in certain ways.

I then look at most Designers inability to grasp their role within the machine and I wonder where it all went wrong.

Wasn't communication design called Commercial Art at one point in time? When did we get all romantic about the 'art' and forget about the 'commercial'?

Needless to say, I love the 'art' of what we do — I also love the commerce, which is why I choose to be in the profession I'm in.

No conflict. I'm clear on it.

The Funnel

I sat on the council of The Australian Graphic Design Association for many years (7) and acted as state president for one of those years. I must say, that sounds fancier than it actually was. The meetings weren't too organised, we volunteered our time for little, if any return and my presidency was not unlike Steven Bradbury's win at the 2002 Winter Olympics. This association acts as a representative body for Designers in Australia — much like AIGA in the USA and other national representative associations.

I've also had tenures on the boards of State-based government innovation initiatives and other industry associations.

I remember my first year on one of these councils, surrounded by design practitioners I had admired from afar for a long time. Men and Women whose careers I followed as a young professional and whose work I held as benchmark examples of the calibre of work I wanted to do in my career.

When I'm in a new group scenario, I'm the type of person who sits quietly and observes, listens and takes key pieces of information in. I try to understand and empathise with each individual and most of all, I try to understand the dynamic of the group I've just joined.

It wasn't too long before I realised that these people saw Design and generally speaking, the business of creativity, very differently to me.

In one of those early meetings, one industry leader in the group said that 'you guys do the commercial work, while the rest of us do the real design work.'

I laughed it off. A little embarrassed.

I felt he was indirectly, referring to me. 

OK. I tried to look cool and agreed. But deep down, I was thinking ... 'what the fuck are you talking about ... "REAL Design Work?"

When I scanned the group I slowly realised the differences between us. 

  • They would consistently win industry awards. I couldn't even afford to enter awards, let alone win one.
  • They worked predominantly with small business, hospitality, fashion and cultural organisations. At the time, I worked with B2B service businesses, corporates, finance and .... Ok you're yawning.
  • They knew they names of cool creative studios around the world. And regularly name-dropped people at (insert amazing culture institution here). I barely knew the names of the people in the meeting I was in.

The differences were vast.

The perception that 'creativity for money' was selling out, was thick and strong. 

This was made clear to me in those early years.

At the University where I studied advertising and marketing, the design students were seen as the precious creative types (black skivvies, black-rimmed glasses) and belonged to the 'Faculty of Design'. Whereas my fellow advertising students were in the 'Faculty of Communication' and the marketing students were in the 'Faculty of Business' — to mix with 'the other half' was unheard of. We kept to out selves, and the design students were on the other side of the campus. 

It was like we had sold out because we used our creativity for commerce and they were pure.

No fucking wonder half the industry was and probably still is confused.

And it's no wonder that some design graduates have a vision of a career that allows them a pure expression of their abilities — forgoing any notion that their work is part of a sales funnel. 

  • Helping an organisation reach a customer, convert a customer or learn from a customer.
  • Helping a business generate a lead, nurture a lead or convert a lead into a warm or hot prospect. 
  • Helping any organisation move someone from one stage of the buyer's journey to another.

This is simple sales funnel stuff and if you're a designer of any type, you need to know that your work must be an equal blend of creativity and commerce.

If I can't convince you — Michael Beirut famously said that 'there is no art in design'.

So to grasp the sales funnel and it's basic stages:

  • Awareness
  • Consideration
  • Purchase
  • Post-Purchase

Different organisations have different takes on this, some even get quite complex. But in its simplest form that's it. There are different business needs in each stage and different modes of communication, personality, experience and tone of voice that need to be considered.

So, if you're a Strategist, Marketer or Designer — the next time you're briefed on a job by Executive and it isn't clear to you, ask this:

"Which part of the sales funnel am I designing for?"