The Starving Artist Strategy

I attended an advertising industry event in Hollywood last night. An incongruous juxtaposition for a business a long way away from the glamorous days of Mad Men.

We frequently work with companies that sell creativity. Their success depends on balancing art and commerce. A recipe that requires sensitive scales. Too much of the first. You’re brilliant but broke. Too much of the second. You’re irrelevant. Or unsatisfied. Or both.

Creative companies that have been around for any length of time are rarely run by the artists. If they’re talented, they don’t have time. And the insecurity that often drives great creativity is a bad foundation from which to negotiate fair payment.

Insecurity makes most of us act in a way that works against our self interest. And does much to undermine the inherent value of whatever we produce. A confident salesman sells more than the nervous one. Even if the merchandise is inferior. And though great work can speak for itself, it does better in the spotlight offered by the assured than in the shadows of self doubt.

When what you sell is subjective, the value is defined not only by the market but by how  well you frame the market’s perception. Exclusivity and aspiration are perceptions first and last.

I have watched, for some time, the systematic commoditization of many creative services. The failure of those industries to first value what they do, and then to present that value cogently and powerfully to their respective markets results always in the same conditions. Reduced prices. Lower margins. And the perceptions of product parity.

When individual companies then accept - or worse, establish - short-term business practices aimed only at bolstering revenue and profitability, they add their own high pressured hoses to the erosion.

Shooting themselves would be faster and less painful. But the net result is the same. And accompanied always by the complaints of company owners that the conditions in which they work are unfair.

As a business strategy, playing the victim creates neither sympathy nor success. And ignores the responsibility inherent in every industry that sells subjectivity.

The need first to take responsibility for how your customers perceive your value.

Which means establishing business practices that inherently command respect.

That requires confidence. A trait in short supply at the moment. But one that returns quickly with small victories.

The alternative is to sell cheap, pray hard and prepare for poverty.

It’s a strategy known as The Starving Artist.

Practiced by people who want everyone else to value their work more than they do.