The Vendor vs. Partner Relationship


As the universe of the creative economy expands and becomes more globalized, designers, artists and creative entrepreneurs find themselves in a hyper competitive and oversaturated market. The new found appreciation for design thinking and strategy at the C suite of big businesses has created a virtual “gold rush” with scores of freelance creatives and agencies popping up everywhere seeking to get in on the new golden age of creative thinking.

This is all well and good for experienced and established creatives and/or agencies and studios, but as the actual production of design becomes more homogenous and accessible (think Canva and Squarespace) how can an emerging creative professional establish their value and create real return on investment for their potential clients?

This is the vendor/partner dilemma. I see a vendor as a creative that is simply asked to “produce” or visualize an already established idea or initiative (jr. designer, emerging freelancer etc.) while I see a partner as someone in the room with the decision makers, C suite members, and stakeholders working with them to create the best ideas and experiences for their business, product, or brand (creative director, consultant, strategist).

I assume that most of you want to transition from vendor to partner, I know I do and I will admit that I am still in the middle of that transition. I still LOVE to create and to make. I try to populate my instagram and dribbblefeeds with creative work as often as I can to feed the pure production side of what I love to do. However I do know to become a better designer, to grow into a creative director mindset, I have to continue to learn how think at a higher level for my work and for my clients. I want to earn the respect of my clients and in return create design work that can make a difference to them and to my growth as a designer.

Here are some things I am trying to do as part of this transitional journey from vendor to partner:

  1. Building & Maintaining a High Confidence Level: I believe that this is the foundation for a partner mentality in any creative profession. I am not as experienced as I want to be, but I have to believe that I can create real value for my client that goes beyond creating the visuals. Confidence also provides the ability to say no to certain projects and to respectfully but firmly push back on certain client suggestions. The impostor syndrome is still something I feel from time to time, but I work hard to shake it on a daily basis because if I don’t believe I can provide real strategy and thinking to my clients I simply won’t be able to.
  2. Listen: When you are in the on-boarding phase with a client, listen to what they have to say and actively try to discover potential problems and pain points they are experiencing. They are coming to you to find a real business solution to their real business problem, you can’t do that if you’re daydreaming about how you want their new logo or website to look when you should be listening and responding to what they really have to say and as result attempting to discover the real problems that they are hiring you to solve.
  3. Ask Questions: On that note ask questions, a lot of them, and ask questions that don’t always have to do with the budget. Again your job is to provide them solutions, budgets are important, we need to get paid for what we do, but I think other questions are just as important. Who is your target audience/users? What does your business origin story sound like? How do you want your users to feel when interacting with your brand/product? Those are just a few questions I can think of when conversing with a client, especially at the beginning of the project.
  4. Communicate your Value: How are you going to create value for the client? What is the real ROI you are providing? If you have the numbers and analytics then that’s great. It helps if you can tangibly show that value; but if you don’t then it’s even more important that you can properly articulate why a potential client should hire you at a partner level.
  5. Do good work: duh right? But it needs to be stated that at the end of all of this don’t forget to create great work. You need to show that you can translate your great ideas into great communicative assets. If you don’t have the clients yet, don’t be afraid to create great work for yourself. If you are just starting to get clients, don’t be afraid to go above and beyond a project brief if it makes sense for you and the client. In the end try to find a way to do the best work you can do.

Those are just a few ideas I think about when I try to position myself as a potential partner for clients I work with. If you still want to be a vendor that’s okay, like I said, I still enjoy that part of the creative process and I think it’s important for yourself and your clients to produce quality content. However, the vendor market is going to grow and become even more over saturated than it already is; real ideas and strategy could be the last great differentiator in the new creative economy.