If you started your working life with one creative focus, and are now being asked to take photos, design mockups, manage social media strategies, record and edit video and perhaps even write code for websites, you are becoming what I call a “creative hyphenate.” A designer-director. A manager-editor.
It makes sense how you got to this point. Your clients were proud of your work and familiar with your process, so it was comfortable for them to ask you to take on… well, everything. And you may even be happy to do it because technology has made the tools of the industry more accessible than ever before. This accessibility makes crossing over into other fields appear easier, therefore clients make requests and creative hyphenates figure it’s as simple as learning new tools. Not to mention the financial incentive – the more work you can take on, the more you can theoretically pocket or invest back in your business.
Roles that used to be separate are now overlapping, as print blends with digital, still photography blurs into video and social media cuts through everything. Many believe their future depends on their ability to do it all, just to get new work. However, while it’s certainly beneficial to learn more about the industry as a whole, you could just as easily become a master of nothing.
I was a graphic designer and I swore I’d stay in my lane — eventually our breed thinks they can shoulder the marketing role, but not me — I knew better. Yet here I was, the founder of a Midwest graphic design agency being asked by the CEO of a new, well-funded company, to fulfill that very request.
After some masterful arm bending, I said yes.
Over the next year, I began to discover what switching to a more inclusive marketing strategy role meant. What started as a simple design relationship had changed into a more strategic role where I was now responsible for video production, directing, story boarding, producing and the overall marketing plan. It was exciting, for sure. But it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns.
Much of the time the learning process was awful. I lost clients due to my inability to effectively manage others. I lost focus and let important stuff fall through the cracks. Some friends stopped referring business to me, thinking I was honing in on their business (we are still friends, don’t worry). And many of the clients I was pursuing had trouble understanding what I actually brought to the table. Through these hard lessons, I realized that as appealing as it sounds to take on every aspect of the marketing business, there were so many blind spots that I missed that got into the way of my success.
There’s nothing wrong with growing and expanding — you should certainly aim that way. But becoming a creative hyphenate leads to a shocking loss of focus, a confused market and, in many cases, scaring off the business you were going after to begin with. I call it creative hyphenate hell because you won’t see these three traps coming and, once you realize you’re stuck in them, it’s too late – you’ve already been thrown off your game.
Trap 1: You will lose focus
Unlike your car’s transmission, your brain can’t just switch gears without losing momentum. Not only are creative hyphenates doing this daily, but sometimes multiple times an hour. Because it can take a good 15 minutes (or more) for your brain to get back into flow, this means you are wasting precious time by multi-tasking and forcing yourself to work longer hours. It’s mental quicksand: The more you struggle to accomplish, the quicker you sink.
This loss of focus costs you in other areas as well. The thinner you spread yourself, the worse you are at each individual skill. Attempts at perfection and obsession over the details, which is how you made a name for yourself initially, become neglected. This loss of focus means there is no time or energy to imagine, create, and let your brain wander. When the ideas dry up, you turn into a machine, not a creator.
Trap 2: You will confuse the market
Let’s face it, companies like to categorize vendors into specific market boxes and there is no box for the incredible, do-it-all creative guru. Perhaps, you are known as the designer who also does some video, if you’re lucky, but that’s about it. And, if a company can’t put you in one box, you likely cease to exist in any.
Creative hyphenates constantly see the symptoms of this. You may believe if you offer it all, your client will use it all, but that doesn’t actually happen. Why? Because each of your clients knows you for something else entirely and contracts you for that specific skill.
Trap 3: You will scare off allies and business
For years, companies have relied on strategic allies with non-competing brands in industries that compliment their own, to build up both businesses. Hoteliers buddy up to event planners and architects buddy up to developers. But what happens when you do it all? You are suddenly in competition with everyone.
Competing with everyone means that former allies will now recommend other agencies that are complementary to them, guaranteeing revenue keeps coming in their door and not yours. Creative hyphenates are an island, viewed as isolationist — and they are treated that way. And what happens if you’re a great graphic designer who takes on web development, and you turn out to be subpar at web development? Then you will lose the web development job and create an inevitable friction between yourself and the client who took away part of your income stream and might not see you as perfect at they once did.
In my case, I learned I’m not a marketing strategy pro. I’m a marketing strategy pro exclusively for companies in the fields of high tech medicine, military, aerospace, and advanced manufacturing. In an unexpected turn of events, by narrowing your focus, you can become more attractive. Less than a month after rebranding myself into this niche, I got a request from one of my biggest clients to date that turned into a recurring job with a monthly retainer, for exactly the kinds of service I offer. Now, in the rare cases where I need to fulfill objectives outside of my wheelhouse, I outsource the heavy lifting to experts in that respective field.
Neither you nor I are the unicorn that can pull off the impossible. Indeed, some executives may claim to have found that one individual that “does it all.” But when their own team starts asking questions, they realize this elusive creative mastermind is merely a budget decision wrapped in denial. This “do it all-er” is only entrusted with cheap projects and their time is rarely respected.
Finding your niche, clarifying any market confusion and being transparent in your weakness will allow you to focus, create and get back to what you truly love doing. And when you get back to doing something you love, word spreads like wildfire.