Best Consulting Practices in the Creative Industries [Full Guide]

Thomas Brownlees

Thomas Brownlees

CEO and Founder,
440 Industries

Introduction

At 440 Industries we believe in creativity and in the power of passion. At the same time, however, we know that passion is not enough and in order to succeed in business, entrepreneurs and freelancers should be almost unreasonably persistent in the pursuit of their goals.

We are consultants. In time we developed a wonderful culture of assistance and teaching which we pour every day in our courses, classes, and talks. The purpose of this post is to share what we believe is the way towards building a solid consulting organization in the creative industries.

Artists and creatives are clients like no other and need to be understood if we wish to help them reach their goals. In our years of practice, we’ve assisted designers, musicians, and even tech startuppers focusing on what they know best while leaving the rest to us. We never had a meeting where we disclosed a magic formula. Business is very much like going to the gym, if you build the right habits and you become accountable towards yourself, great results are sure to come.  No shortcut will ever impact the long term success of a company, as much as consistency and attention to quality. 

In this post, we share some of our most heartfelt advice, when starting a consulting firm. We  believe that companies, in their initial stages should grow relying on nothing but the founder’s own character and expertise. 

For each of the topics addressed in this guide we shortlisted the most important ideas you should reflect upon as you design your career in consulting. We kept each section short and to-the-point in order to make this a time-effective reading which hopefully will inspire you and give you some thought-through advice on how to get started in this line of work. 

This post can be complemented by the blog section of our website 440industries.com, where we also provide a wide range of free articles on business in the creative industries to help creative professionals source high-quality information.

We decided to create this guide to assist fellow consultants in understanding what this profession entails and to share those values and attitudes that are dear to us. 

We hope you will enjoy the journey, and remember that our help is only an email away.

In this post we are going to discuss:

  1. Acquiring the Consulting Mindset
  2. Understanding the Value of a Consultant
  3. Clarifying What a Consultant Does
  4. Finding and Retaining Clients
  5. Understanding that Your Own Currency is Time
  6. Grow Your Consulting Firm By Attracting Talent
  7. Conclusions

1. Acquiring the Consulting Mindset

Our journey begins within ourselves. The first thing a consultant must do is acquiring the right mindset for this job. 

Before focusing on what a consultant is, we’d like to clarify what a consultant is not.

  • A consultant is not an employee. As consultants usually start this line of work after having worked as employees for other companies, it’s easy to fall back into the “employee” mindset.  An employee is bound by the borders of the organization that hired him. A consultant should have his own professional identity which may at times overlap, and may at times clash with the cultural dimensions of the companies he is working with. This is not only normal but to be expected. A consultant is often hired with the intent to bring into a conversation a third-party opinion, one which is not coming from the many Yes Men that a firm might have at its disposal. This does not mean, that a consultant is always controversial –  on the contrary, diplomacy is a great skill to have when working as guests in other people’s companies – but we should always feel free to speak our minds.

  • A consultant is not an entrepreneur. The professional freedom that consulting entails should still be taken in with a grain of salt. A consultant is not an entrepreneur. Our role is to provide informed and experience-based opinions. We are often asked to provide options regarding alternative courses of action, however, we cannot expect businesses to do as we say. For as much as we might understand a company, we cannot substitute ourselves to the decision-makers. In many cases, despite our best advice, a client will choose not to follow advice, and this is entirely within their powers. As for many other matters in life, our actions are not solely dictated by rationality. A consultant, therefore, should keep the ego in check. A single business decision will not make or break the future of a company. Moreover, once a problem has been solved a new one will knock on our door. In this sense, a consultant can be valued not only because of the solution he proposes to revolve an issue at hand but also because of the way he shows a firm how certain problems can be approached.

  • A consultant is not a psychologist. Human relations are always at the foundation of business, and interpersonal skills (as we’ll discuss in the next paragraph) are very important to build successful business relationships. Having said this, it’s important to think about the role of the consultant as an active role. A consultant’s worth is based on the results he\she is able to bring to client, and as such our commitment should be towards pushing a firm to action. This is something we should remind ourselves when we find ourselves swamped into endless meetings discussing everything and nothing at the same time. We should be respectful of the processes each company may have in place to define strategies and shared perspectives, on the other, the more time we spend talking the more we are diluting the value of our time. In this sense, it’s necessary for us to strive to maintain a goal-oriented approach to achieve two separate goals: better serving our clients and keeping our schedule uncluttered.
Understanding the Business Model Canvas

2. Understanding the Value of a Consultant

Let’s look at the different professional dimensions that a consultant brings to the table to explain the value of a consultant.

  • A Consultant’s Personality. There is no going around this one. In most business cultures (if not in all of them) relationships matter. At the end of the day, we spend more time at work than at home with our family, and this is why we like to work with people we like. This does not mean, that there are always the premises to create a friendly relationship, but in our experience if we don’t establish a degree of empathy with our clients, we don’t see our business relationship going very far.  You can be great at what you do, but before you do your job, you need people skills to connect with your client. We think that teachers and trainers have a natural advantage when they work as consultants. Teachers are trained to immediately develop an accurate sense of the audience when they enter the classroom and understand the ‘tone of voice’ they wish to employ to communicate effectively their message.

  • A Consultant’s Business Skills. The personality test has been passed, the next stage is showing validation and authority in our field of operation. This can happen in many ways: because of our reputation, because of our achievements in the field, because of our expertise. We are not only paid to know, but we are also paid because we can provide actionable advice. If we were only providing information, we would be teachers, as consultants, we need to go the extra mile and help our clients navigate uncertainty and put a client in a position to act on the grounds of the most relevant and useful data available.

A consultant, however, should avoid being omniscient or too generalist. As you start your profession, picking only a few areas of specialization is the best approach to recruit your first clients. In the end, just like with SEO (search engine optimization) we want to be the first-to-mind result when a potential client needs help to solve a problem, and this is much more likely to happen when we pick a niche as opposed to a whole industry.

  • A Consultant’s Business Network. Let’s stress again the idea that we are not supposed to know everything. In many cases, a consultant is somebody who can provide connections. At 440 Industries we often limit our area of action to those business problems we know how to solve effectively, but we also like to provide referrals to other professionals who have established authorities and reputation on other matters. In the end, our goal is to help our clients, and providing connections is a different, yet very effective way to solve a problem.

We use the “pyramid” model, as it reminds us of the iceberg metaphor. Much of what we do is actually beneath the sea level, whereas our personalities is what most people see day to day.

business model

3. Clarifying What a Consultant Does

A consultant is many things, according to the niche you pick and the field you work in, your job can almost be unique. As you embark on this career you’ll find for yourself the wonderful diversity that this line of work provides. In our experience, we’ve seen that even if clients may vary greatly, you can create a consulting format which is likely to fit with most of the project you may be following.

Let’s see in the bullet points below what simple steps you can foresee in a consulting relationship, so that you can create a structured approach to your profession.

  • Step 1. A consultant is a listener. As many say, entrepreneurship can cause loneliness. An entrepreneur holds the weight of a firm on his\her shoulders. Undeniably, a consultant is a third-party professional, which in many cases in order to identify a particular course of action is required to share the burden and the risks of running a business. In our opinion, this is something which in many instances is unavoidable, but it’s also necessary to keep the right distance from a client, as our role is to promote decision-making, and in many cases, talking about it is the perfect substitute to acting on a problem.

  • Step 2. A consultant assists in setting the right perspective on a problem. In this case, by providing examples and by delving into your business experience, you can usually try to create examples and points references to compare the problem at hand with similar ones experienced by other firms. This is done to show how, each problem can find a way towards its solution, and that we’re not alone in the fight. Sometimes to allow the firm to act we need to get it to perceive an issue in the right perspective. This might require simplification and this is why many companies run analytics in this stage to create charts and visual representations in order to fully assess a problem and evaluate what options are available.

  • Step 3. Provide Options. For as much as we would like to think otherwise, no statistical model is capable of predicting the future. This is why we often say that the only option we have is to make decisions on the grounds the most relevant evidence we can have available. As you decide how to approach the solution to a problem for your client you should never come to a meeting with a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. We advise leveraging the ‘IKEA Effect’ and allow the client to become an active part of the solution by choosing a course of action which better reflects the firm’s culture and stakeholder interest.

  • Step 4. Setting a Road Map. As you now get to work to implement the solution agreed with your client, it’s useful to set a roadmap detailing what you will do, and when it will be done by. Creating a detailed description of operations is also necessary for pricing. As you set the price for your services, having a clear and defined list of tasks falling within your realm of responsibility will allow you room for negotiation. As we mentioned before, in order to price your services fairly you should not dilute the value of your time.

  • Step 5. Following Up. Once the project has been concluded, it’s a good practice to follow up with your client and see whether the actions undertaken have been able to produce results. This is something we recommend doing for a variety of reasons: first and foremost it shows seriousness and commitment to the quality of the work you delivered. Also, by keeping in touch with former clients you have a chance to reignite the relationship, and after one successful project, you may have new opportunities to re-engage the client and upselling your services.

Now that hopefully, we’ve clarified what is the mindset of a consultant and what you can do to help your clients, we can move on to discuss how to manage your most valuable resource: your time. Consulting is often charged by the hour, and this by itself shows how economically valuable your time is. In the next section of this book, we’ll address this topic and give you a few ideas on how to set a productive and profitable schedule. 

Negotiating Across Cultures

4. Finding and Retaining Clients

Where do you find your first client? Well, there are many ways to find clients for your work depending on the type of service you want to provide. In the following list, we’ll break down some of the most effective strategies we’ve adopted to recruit new consulting clients. In this section, we touch upon 4 different approaches to finding and retaining consulting clients. 

  • Creating a digital relationship and converting it into a real-life consultancy. The days where you could get paid only to sit in a meeting and tell people what to do are over. Now consulting works differently, as the most effective forms of lead generations are inbound. By inbound we mean, that the client comes to you, and you do not go to the client. This, however, does not mean that you are only required to put up your website and wait for a phone call, but quite the opposite. What you should be doing is creating a pyramid of services designed to create a long-term relationship with your client. You can’t expect a client to establish a paying relationship with you with no proof of your professional abilities, and therefore you need to guide a potential client through a variety of meaningful and memorable interactions that will in time transform a lead into a client. This is what in marketing is done through a sales funnel: a process of “intent conversion”: from visitor to customer.  In order to initiate this process of conversion however, it’s necessary to provide validation, and this is done by creating free content that is genuinely designed to help your potential clients. This can be done with a blog, or with other forms of communication, such as video, or engaging social media feeds. Creating free content will allow your prospective clients, to gain trust in you and consider acquiring a paid service. Initially, however, we cannot expect them to make a leap of faith and buy expensive or committing services. It’s much better to start with inexpensive purchases to get them above the hesitation of processing a payment. Your first service could be a fixed-priced consultation or even the purchase of an informational product like an ebook. What matters here is not profit, but creating a relationship that in time can help you convert higher-paying clients who will want to engage in larger, more expensive projects with you. We report below an example of how, in time customers who have bought from you once, if satisfied are happy to buy from you again.

     

  • Being part of the environment. The digital way, however, is not the only way to go. Another valuable perspective in attracting clients is by being part of the environment where your potential clients can be found. This “environment” could be schools, cultural associations, social circles and so forth. Again, by being physically present in certain spaces you’re increasing your chances of actually finding new opportunities. MBAs and executive education are a clear example of the value of a network. By attending a prestigious business course you’re not only learning valuable lessons but you’re also rubbing elbows with many individuals in the position of providing you with professional opportunities.

In business, we say that a client interacts with a brand at least 7 times before making a purchase. In this case, by attending the right environment, your brand will be interacting often with potential clients and as a result, it will be more likely to get hired. In this sense, it’s also worth noting, that creating a service package for your consulting services is a way to better explain to your prospects what the process of hiring you will entail. Consulting is often seen as simple business advice, and at times it may be hard to understand why a client should pay to have a “conversation”. In this sense, designing consulting packages is an effective way to break down the services associated with your business, and make the client more aware of what you are offering. 

  • A Consultant is there in good times and bad times. If you want to really establish valuable professional connections, you can’t always be sitting on the sidelines. A consultant needs to be at the front of the battlefield. As we’ve discussed, this does not happen by substituting yourself to the entrepreneur but by sharing some of the risks with him\her. In these cases, a consultant connects with a client, not only because of the expertise brought to the meeting but also because of the unquestionable display of faith and investment in the cause.

How does this play out? Well, if a company is dealing with times of crisis, a consultant wishing to go the extra mile is going to only charge for the expenses met in order to assist the client, postponing payment only when the day is saved and the situation presents a brighter outlook. This is a risky strategy, but we always advise betting some of our time on these projects, not only because they help us reach out to fellow businessmen but also because they represent a high-reward scenario when they do come to fruition. These clients, as we’ll see in the next section fall within the 3rd quadrant of our money\time management graph.

  • The Client is the Hero. A great way to attract clients? By checking your ego at the door and creating client-centered storytelling. In consulting we sometimes have to deal with the reputation of having encumbering egos. This makes it hard to work with us, because the quality of our service may resent from our own sense of righteousness. A great way to attract clients is to celebrate customer-heroes and success stories in order to make our company speak about the success of our community rather than our self-glorification. If we communicate communal values effectively, we’ll reap many benefits as we’ll get not only to attract businesses but also to attract talented individuals. It’s also worth considering that  because of your work and passion, there is no way your personal impact and contribution to your client’s success can be outshined by any other factor, so your role as a leader is to provide valuable exposure to all the other individuals who are part of your community and who risk not being mentioned when success knocks on your door.

As you are likely to find yourself with many opportunities to assist and guide companies through times of hardship, where will you find the time to keep up with such important tasks? In the next section, we’ll discuss time management skills to help you make the best of your time.

5. Understanding that Your Own Currency is Time

When we hold our classes with new freelancers and consultants we often see people on the brink of exhaustion. We all know that starting your own business or let alone managing your profession independently is a challenge, but in many cases, this can impact our health with no real benefit on any other level. 
We suggest approaching time strategically, by protecting the times of the day which bring us the most value. Below we list a few ideas on how this can be done.

  • Specific Actions in Specific Times. As we look at the calendar, we are drawn into a simple but terrible mistake: thinking that time slots during the day are interchangeable. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In order to manage our time effectively, it’s necessary to start from ourselves and from identifying those times of the day which allow us to do our best work. If you realize that you are able to produce your best work at a particular time of the day, then you know that that’s the time you need to set aside. That time is invaluable and you need to protect it. But that’s no it. Other times need to be set aside too, in order to accomplish certain tasks which tend to interfere with our most productive hours. An example? Set two time slots a day in which you are going to respond to non-urgent emails. This will not only avoid interruptions to your creative and professional flows but will also educate your correspondence that you are not wasting your time in endless email loops. Ideally, in time you will educate them to write during times of the day when you are more likely to answer.  Another example? Set meeting times in slots in the day which prevent them from taking up too much of your time. Setting a meeting at 11.00 am will, for instance, allow you to work productively in the morning, and to cap the length of the meeting to two hours max, thanks to a conveniently placed lunch break.

     

  • Design your workflow and optimize it.  You should think of yourself as a company producing information. As such, you should look at the way you produce value through the so-called value chain. This is a model which has been created to describe the operational workflows in manufacturing companies, but it can be stretched to describe the way intellectual processes work too. By thinking about your work holistically you will realize that your workflow comprises a variety of stages, which aside from doing your business research also involves promoting your activity and finding new clients. You will need to make time for all of these different sets of activities in your day if you want to grow your business in time. If this perspective seems daunting, don’t worry. In many cases as consultants, your marketing can simply consist in a simple form of documentation and reporting of your work, which will only require you to share on social media (such as LinkedIn) some of the most interesting and relevant results of your activity, for the benefit of your followers.
  • Set time for yourself, you need to remind yourself what you are working for. Consulting is such a personal and all-encompassing occupation that at times we need to take some time off work to actually work on our own personal development. This can be done, by saving up time to spend with our families, but also by investing in our own passions to become more interesting people. Moreover, becoming a high-league consultant requires time, and we’re only going to commit to a long-term project if our life does not resent too heavily from it. Our personal life may initially resent from our decision to start a new career, but our friends and families should not resent too much from our professional decisions.

  • Price as an investment, not as an expense. For a consultant getting paid a fair amount is very important, not only to allow you to grow your company but also to keep up the motivation necessary to commit to our work and to our clients. As you think about pricing, the general rule of thumb is to price by the hour. Pricing by the hour is not always the most accurate way to charge, as it conveys the idea that the longer you take to complete a job, the more you will get paid. At the same time, however, pricing by the hour allows for flexibility and is an established industry practice. Each of us needs to come to terms with how much we think our time is worth and then price accordingly, however the perspective we advise to pursue is not in terms of how much to charge, but in terms of how you present your work. It’s necessary that you represent your work as an investment and not as an expense. The difference may be subtle but it is fundamental. If you give away the perception that your work a “necessary expense” then even changing 1 single euro will be problematic. You are depicting yourself as a necessary evil at best, and this is not where you want to be. As business consultants, we need to make our clients understand that our contribution to their companies is an opportunity for investment. In an investment, even if you spend a lot of money you always have the expectation of getting a return. If you are investing, you are likely to regret “not spending more” if the returns end up being substantial. In this sense, you can show how your work will benefit the company and lead to better business performance.
  • At the end of each year, draw a line. In consulting, the ultimate way to save time is investing it into the right clients. This is why at the end of each year you need to look at your client portfolio and represent each account graphically.  On the x-axis, you need to show the amount of money that account is making you, on the y-axis the amount of time\resources\headaches that the same account is causing you. If you do this, you’ll visually see what clients are taking up too much of your time undeservingly.  Accounts on quadrant 2 are the best you can get, as they pay you well with little effort. Accounts on quadrants 1 and 3 tend not to provide the perfect balance between time and money but still have their upsides, which are worth considering. Accounts on quadrant 4 are not only taking advantage of your time, but they are not allowing you to make time for more deserving clients. At the end of the year, when it comes to quadrant 4 you have two options: either raise your fees or get rid of them
crowdsourcing crowdfunding

6. Grow Your Consulting Firm By Attracting Talent

As you start managing your clients effectively, you will need to grow your consulting firm. To do so you need talent. In business, we’re all trying to attract talent, some employers are better than others at doing it. Here are our pointers to develop an employer branding strategy that will make it easier to find people willing to invest their time in your company.

  • Define your core values. As your activity expands you will see that in time, looking back it will be possible to reconnect the dots and identify the elements which are at the core of how you run your business. These values are important because they represent the DNA of your firm, and should become a guiding light when faced with strategic, managerial and operational decisions. It’s not a bad idea to write them down and to draft a mission and values statement for your consulting firm. These values represent the philosophical principles which inspire the way you grow your business and you should reflect upon them often. Not only that, as we’ll see in the following points these values, if echoed by your actions as an employee will impact how you are going to attract talent to your company, by signaling to like-minded individuals what are the values your firm stands by.

  • Company culture is everything. The atmosphere you breathe in the workplace is an essential component of your employer branding strategy. As a boss, this atmosphere will depend mostly on you, and on the way you behave at the workplace. Culture will be an expression of what behaviors are rewarded and what behaviors are punished or thrown-upon. Your ability to create an environment of passion, focus and dedication is what will make you a good or a bad boss. All in all, people follow leadership, and talented individuals will are likely to look for a good boss, before looking for a good company. This puts all the weight of recruitment on your shoulders and on your leadership skills. A good boss empowers his\hers employees and allows them room to grow and to pursue their professional goals, within or outside of your company.

  • You work for your employees. As a result of this new human resources management trends, bosses now work for their employees, not the other way around. What this means is that if you look after the needs of your staff, then your staff will pay you back by looking after your business and your clients. In this sense, you are required to support the people working for you and to consider human resources management as one of the most important aspects of your job. If you want to grow your business, ultimately you need to learn how to delegate power and decision making, otherwise, your firm will never scale. This might seem difficult at times, but the truth is that being a good boss, requires a lot of learning just as employees need to learn a lot about your company to become good at what they do. All in all, to deal with the paradigm-shifting changes brought by new working generations good bosses need to learn how to interpret the new phenomena affecting the way new generations work and embrace the change.

  • Talent follows learning. New generations look at the financial compensation a job provides, but what really makes a position interesting for them is the opportunity for learning. If you want to attract talented individuals you need to make your firm a ‘learning organization’. This requires you to think about your staff as human capital, which requires continuous investment in order to be brought to its full potential. You need to be not only a boss, but also a teacher and a mentor, as the opportunity for learning does not only come from the academic environment, but also from your own experience. As  you find the time to mentor your staff, you will also see how much you can learn from them, and this is what will make your dedication to your company especially valuable.

  • Each of us sees happiness differently. To close on a more philosophical note, as you manage your company, remember that each of us will see happiness differently. Your company should allow all of its professional community to experience work in their own way, still respecting the values and boundaries set by your firm, but also expressing their own values as individuals. Keeping an inclusive approach will always make your organization something you love, and something people will love working for.

7. Conclusions

In this post, we set ourselves the objective to illustrate and clarify some of the best advice we give our students and fellow consultants during our courses and training at 440 Industries. In a time where entrepreneurship is glorified, we wanted to show that each of us can find in consulting a productive and exciting way to start a meaningful career and gain exposure to a wide variety of individuals, businesses, and organizations. 

Consulting is a profession of trust and is very relationship-based. As a result, the first years of your activity might be especially hard, as developing your network takes a very long time. It’s very much like growing your vegetable garden: it requires you to do a lot of work before you can eventually reap the benefits of your efforts. However, don’t be mistaken, this is also an advantage on your behalf. The relationships that you will have forged, will stand the test of time, and will also be a threshold to entry for any new competitor.  This is why consulting is such a rewarding profession, it allows you to develop a profound connection to your clients and to your company, developing long term assets which are entirely your own. In this perspective then, there is no time to waste, as opportunities to start your own consulting firm are available to you every day.

We hope you enjoyed the experience of reading this book, and we look forward to providing more content to assist you to pursuing the career you desire.

Remember that in business, those who succeed are not the lucky, nor the most talented. Those who ultimately succeed are those who are persistent and patient in the pursuit of their ambition. 

Suggestions for Further Readings

Web Sources for Further Reasearch

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Best Consulting Practices in the Creative Industries [Full Guide] Consulting in the creative industries requires a wide set of skills which have a lot to do with your own character and mindset.
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Thomas Brownlees

Thomas Brownlees

I am an Anglo-Italian business lecturer and consultant based in Florence, Italy. In 2017 I started 440 Industries, an education and training company focused on fashion, music, and technology. Our mission is to help students, entrepreneurs and managers in overcoming the challenges of starting, developing and scaling their business in the creative industries. When there's a will, there's a way!

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