Building your career as a creative pro with Cocktail Correspondent Col Gray

WATCH THIS EPISODE OF MWAH TV ABOUT BUILDING YOUR CAREER AS A CREATIVE PRO

To talk all about Building your career as a Creative Pro, I have the incredible Col Gray on the show this week as a Cocktail Correspondent.

I’ve just seen @pixelscol with @laurapcreative on #MwahTV! Great chat about the reality of working as a #creativepro. Click To Tweet

BUILDING YOUR CAREER AS A CREATIVE PRO

COL: On this episode of MwahTV, it’s me, Col Grey. I’m Laura’s cocktail correspondent on the show this week and we’re sharing some stories from our careers. I mean, we did the sums and Laura and I have a combined total experience of 35 years.

LAURA: Whoa. That is a long time. Let’s begin with a quick introduction to you then Col, for anybody who doesn’t know you yet.

MEET COL

COL: If you’re building a career as a creative pro and you’re curious about this industry, then stick around because Laura and I have some choice stories to tell you. I mean, I’ve got a few years on Laura.

I think this Gandalf length beard tells that story. So I’d been running my business, Pixels Ink for 16 years now and I also have a YouTube channel called Rock Your Brand, which has been running for five years, and Laura’s going to put a link to that here.

I cover all the things from brand, branding, brand identity and graphic design. So, if you like MwahTV, be sure to check it out.

LAURA: And don’t forget to tell everyone how we met as well Col.

BACK IN 2017

COL: Yeah, that’s a good story to get going. We actually met at a CMA event in Edinburgh, that’s the Content Marketing Academy, which was started by Chris Marr and I absolutely loved that event. In this particular year, I was one of the speakers and if I remember rightly Laura, you sent me a funny video for that and there was Buckfast involved. We totally hit it off that year and we even went clubbing later on at one of the evenings to one of my favourite rock club in Edinburgh called Opium.

LAURA: Oh yes, that’s right. And a quick tip for anybody actually who’s planning a night out in Edinburgh, make sure you wear flats. Leave the heels in the wardrobe back in the hotel. Trust me.

Now we could each sit here and tell you our long backstories, but I think, whilst that might be really interesting for us, it takes away from the aesthetic principles that I’m really striving for here with the cocktail correspondent segment on MwahTV. What do you think, Col?

COL: Aye totally. I’m not one to detract from solid aesthetic principles. I mean, one of my favourite parts of MwahTV is the cheesy cuts.

THE CHEESY CUTS

LAURA: Oh you mean these types of cuts?

COL: That’s right Laura. Now over to you.

LAURA: Back to you in the studio.

Sorry, we got a little bit distracted there.

So as I was saying, I really wanted to maintain my aesthetic principles with the cocktail correspondent segment, but I really want to make sure that you guys get all of the best bits of mine and Col’s 35 years combined experience.

INTRODUCING A DRINKING GAME

So I’ve invented a quick drinking game. In fact, I love it so much that I’ve decided it’s going to be a permanent evolution to the cocktail correspondent segment here on MwahTV.

To begin with this, I’ve posted you a little pack of cards in the post, haven’t I, Col?

Did you get them?

COL: Yeah, the cards arrived today, so let’s open them up and see what we’ve got here. Ah right, oh, that’s some sticky gum we’ve got on these cards. Right, okay, so, MwahTV.

Woo, I’m glad they’ve arrived. Now, it wouldn’t be a drinking game if we didn’t have a drink, so why don’t you go ahead and tell everyone at home, Col, which cocktail you’ve selected to pair with your cocktail correspondence.

THE COCKTAIL – A RUM PAINKILLER

COL: Well today Laura, I’ve mixed a Painkiller because I love dark rum and calories, whoa. Let me tell you how to make this.

TOOLS:

What you need is:

  • A tall high glass and an eco straw,
  • A cocktail shaker filled with fresh ice,
  • A nutmeg grater

AND THE INGREDIENTS:

  • 2 ounces of dark or navy rum,
  • 4 ounces of pineapple juice,
  • 1 ounce of orange juice,
  • 1 ounce cream of coconut,
  • pineapple wedge for garnish and
  • whole nutmeg, which you’ll grate later just for that spicy garnish on the top.

AND TO MIX:

And to mix it, you just pour in the rum, the pineapple juice, the orange juice, the cream of coconut into your shaker, give it all a really good shakeup, as a death metal blast beat on the drum.

Strain it into your iced hi-ball glass, grate some nutmeg on there, add your wedge of pineapple garnish, then serve and enjoy.

I love dark rums ’cause I’ve got a really sweet tooth and it totally scratches that itch.

LAURA: Mm, mm, mm. You cannot beat that spicy rum undertone that goes with really well with the nutmeg shavings on the top. This one for me is like a little moment of tropical decadence.

So cheers me dears.

COL: Cheers me dears.

THE DRINKING GAME

LAURA: Okay, so the way that this is going to work is you have five different cards there.

On each of those five cards is five different types of a story or different lessons that you’ve learned along the way as a creative professional to date.

Every time you pick a card, you tell the tale with the lesson that you learned as a result of that tale, or if you decide you don’t really want to go into it that much, you can forfeit it and get me to answer the question about my career instead.

COL: Okay doke, got it.

Right, so the first card says,

“Being a fresh face in creative, what not to do.”

CARD NUMBER ONE

Oh, it’s going back a few years now for me to talk about where I was as a fresh creative, but one of the things that I find really probably hindered me in those early years from progressing and getting probably better clients, is pricing and one thing that I would say is that you should do from the start is charge something.

BUILDING YOUR CAREER AS A CREATIVE PRO LESSON 1: DON’T WORK FOR FREE

I see all the time people say that they’re doing stuff for free because they’re trying to build their portfolio, they’re trying to raise awareness of themselves so they can attract customers and clients, but by charging nothing, what you’re doing is you’re sending out a message that what you’re doing isn’t worth anything if you see what I mean, and so, I think it’s really important that it doesn’t matter what you charge.

It could be anything, just a nominal, minimal amount so that the person you’re doing the work for actually feels like they’re having to make a transaction, rather than you just doing something for nothing.

If you do something for nothing, then it’s going to get harder to charge later on.

COL’S LESSON FROM THIS

And even though I have said, charge whatever you want, charge minimal, I would say that you do need to really think about where you want to be and what level you want to be. Don’t do what I did and I had this habit of assuming how much money people had to spend and so I would arrange my pricing based on what I thought someone could afford.

I don’t know how much money someone has and so the best thing that you can do is for you to decide how much do I want to do this job and then you charge that amount. By doing that, you will then be able to set the precedent of how much your services cost and that makes it actually easier for you to level up your pricing as the years go by.

WHY BEGINING AT ZERO IS NOT A GOOD IDEA

If you start off on a free level, then you start charging very little, you’re going to build your early reputation on being really cheap, which then makes it hard to leap out of that reputation and charge more.

So, if I could go back myself, I would certainly be charging a lot more when I started to make it easier for me to level up as I go along. So hopefully, that answers that first question, Laura.

LAURA: Wow! Thank you so much for sharing that with us. Are you ready to do another one?

COL: You betcha Laura.

Okay, let’s go.

Here’s the next card.

Okay, so this card says,

Collaboration, complete nightmare or creative sparks?

CARD NUMBER TWO

Right, okay. The obvious thing would be talking about collaborating with other designers to help you get through projects. I personally think that’s an obvious one and I would say if you ever want to collaborate with another designer, what I found is that, yes, you want to collaborate with someone that’s good, but you really need to find someone that’s like-minded.

BUILDING YOUR CAREER AS A CREATIVE PRO LESSON 2: FIND FELLOW CREATIVES WHO ARE LIKE-MINDED

That makes working together so much easier, you have much more fun, fun is a key element for me when I’m working. You don’t want to be too stressed out because if you start working with someone who’s not like-minded, then you get personality clashes and one person takes the lead and it all gets a bit awkward.

So find someone whose work that you like, and then have a few conversations with them, see what they’re like, get to know them a bit before you make that commitment to working together and splitting the fee or however that works.

COL’S LESSON FROM THIS

For me though, collaboration is about collaborating with my clients.

I always want my clients to feel like they are part of the project. I know that some designers basically take the brief and will just go away and do everything and deliver the final thing to the client and say, here’s what I’ve done.

LEARNING WHO TO SAY NO TO

That’s fine, that works, that totally works and they’ll be some clients who want that. They just don’t want to be involved at all. And in saying that, when I speak to my clients, if I have a client, or they would be a lead at that point if a lead comes to me and wants to hire me for my services, and they don’t want to be involved, they just say, no, I’m too busy, I need you to just do this, then generally, I will probably say that client isn’t the right fit me for.

I do want the client to be involved, I’m not asking them to draw things, I’m not asking them to do too much homework, but they need to be involved and I want them to be interested.

BECAUSE YOU KNOW IT WILL FEEL LIKE THIS GOING AGAINST YOUR GUT

I’ve done so much work for clients who just weren’t interested, they saw design as something that was just needed to be done, it wasn’t a necessity, it wasn’t a part of their business plan and I felt like I wasn’t needed and it was a horrible feeling and so these days, I make sure that the clients I work with are as engaged in the project and as excited about the project as I am.

So, for me, collaboration is about working with clients who really value what you do, I value their time, and together, we can create the best possible outcome for them.

LAURA: Ooh, that is incredible. I’m going to have a little sip of my Painkiller. You take your time to pick your next card.

COL: Okay, so onto the next card.

Right, so this next card just says,

Burn out as a creative entrepreneur.

CARD NUMBER THREE

Now I’m going to tell a tale about this, Laura and I want you to tell your tale about this as well because this is a really important topic. I suppose it’s a bit like when they’re sharing their scars on Jaws when they’re on the boat and they’re all telling their stories. So, I’ll kick-off and then after I’ve finished, we’ll hear from you.

LAURA: I love that idea. Really good idea, Col, let’s run with that. You tell your bit first though to get started.

BUILDING YOUR CAREER AS A CREATIVE PRO LESSON 3: HOW BURNOUT FEELS

COL: Burnout obviously happens when you are working all the hours, burning the candle at both ends and I think definitely in the creative industry, we all do that. We are all people-pleasers and we will bend over backwards to make sure that the client is happy and we give them the best thing that we can.

We put our heart and soul into everything that we do and it can be torturous when the client just doesn’t get it and they’re asking for changes and making you amend things and it can get really, really tiring.

When I’m feeling really burnt out, I just get so tired and I lose all motivation. I lose all creativity, spark, everything just goes meh and ugh, it’s just horrible, it’s not the best feeling ever. What happens is projects start to pile up, you leave things to the last minute. You don’t feel like you’re doing your best work, even though the work is probably still good, you’re just not really feeling it. Then you’re not presenting your best self to your clients. You’re probably not great to be around for the family.

I get grumpy, maybe a bit more grumpy than usual. Burnout’s a terrible thing for anyone and we’re all under a lot of pressure to be doing all the social media stuff as well as running your business and providing great content.

COL’S LESSON FROM THIS

It is just overwhelming. I still suffer from it, I’m not immune to it, but I’m getting better at making sure I give myself time, downtime and it doesn’t have to be a lot. It could be just half a day every week, or a full day every couple of weeks.

Ideally, you want to try and claim your weekends back.

Do try to get into a Monday to Friday, it’s even harder when you work from home because you have no set office hours. You’d just be like well, I’ll do work now, or not work now. When I feel like I’m about to burn out, I just go, right, you know what? I’m taking this half-day. No one’s going to die and if you’ve got good clients, they will be understanding, and you just say, I’m not available that day. I’m just going to chill out, I’m just going to do what I want.

Work will be there, I know there’s a temptation if you’re creative and especially if you’re a freelancer, that you need to be working all the time to bring the work in and bring the work in but from my experience, as long as you’ve given yourself the time to recover and be fresh-minded and creative, then you’re going to be able to create the content and the designs that will attract new clients and it will come in, so be kind to yourself.

Laura, I’d love to hear from you. What’re your experiences of burnout?

LAURA TALKING ABOUT HER EXPERIENCES OF BURNOUT

LAURA: Oh, thanks for asking. I’ve actually got a few different stories about this topic, to be perfectly honest with you. And it’s definitely something I’ve managed to get myself embroiled in over the last nine years as a creative entrepreneur.

I’m going to give you the headlines, so these are the headlines of all of my different Jaws-like scars.

And this can be summarised in the following list. Are you ready? Okay, let’s have a drink, this is a little bit scary to share.

  • I now know that when I’m about to hit ultimate burnout, I’m probably going to get quite a serious case of laryngitis. So I lose my voice, that’s happened to me a number of times in the last nine years and it’s always a good two weeks, maybe three, completely out of work because I literally can’t get any words out.
  • I developed sudden adult-onset asthma a few years into running my business and that actually resulted in two weeks in hospital and now I have asthma for the rest of my life.
  • After I was recovering from the news that I had asthma now, I also developed a very rare brain condition called Idiopathic Intracranial Hypertension, which’s abbreviated to IIH. Thank the stars, this is in remission, but it is something that affects a lot of other health issues and it’s something that I’m going to have to deal with and manage for the rest of my life.

LAURA’S LESSON FROM THIS

I think a lot of people don’t realise that a lot of truly professional creatives are ultra-aware and very sensitive to the stereotype that creatives are lazy, never make deadlines and never really get a good job done.

WHAT THIS MEANS

And when you’re ultra-sensitive to that particular stereotype, I think it’s really easy to over-promise. You want to be the one creative professional who completely shatters that stereotype once and for all. But when you over-promise, over and over again, or at multiple different times to different sets of people, you paint yourself into a corner and I don’t know about you, but this is definitely the case for me if I’ve said I’m going to do something, it’s going to happen, whether that means I don’t sleep, whether that means I have to cancel major family events, I make sure that I meet that promise because I’m ultra-aware of this creative professional stereotype.

AND THEN CAUSES

And the result of that, of course, is that over time, this starts to have health repercussions like the ones I’ve just listed. Each one of the medical events I’ve just listed out there has been quite a significant wake-up call for me to listen to my body and go back to putting my health first.

But if I’m 100% honest with you right now, now that I’ve had a few sips of Painkiller, this is something that I know I’m going to continually have to work on. It’s a challenge I’m going to face over and over again. I am much better at planning my time, I am slowly getting better at trying not to kill myself to meet crazy demands and I really want to master the art of underpromising and over-delivering, instead of the other way round.

Col, you are one of the biggest people pleasers I know and I think it takes one to know one, right?

So tell us, do you think you handle burnout triggers a bit better than me?

COL ON PEOPLE PLEASING

COL: Oh, how do I sort out my people-pleasing?

It is one of my biggest downfalls. I do want to please everyone. But what I have to do these days, thanks to some mentorship that I’ve had from a few coaches, I need to switch on the business side of my brain, which is a side that doesn’t switch on very often.

When I get to a point where I start to maybe get a little bit stressed about a proposal or a client has asked me for a deadline which I feel is maybe just not workable and is going to really not be good for the outcome of the project or my health, then I switch on my business brain and say,

“right, is this helping me move my business forward and is it a good business decision, not just for me, but is it going to help my clients business? And if the answer is no, then I just have to say, no.”

By consciously going, I’m in business mode, it helps me from just bringing in the people-pleasing, ‘yes man’, type thing. I don’t do that anymore, I just go, right, this is a business decision, so let’s be logical and fair and make the right choice here. When I’m in people-pleasing mode if I say no, I feel guilty. It’s like, “oh, I’m letting them down. I’m not doing what they need”.

But if you think about it as a business, you are helping them because by saying no, you’re not delivering an underprepared, under finished project where you’re giving less than you should.

ON KEEPING THIS FEATURED ON MWAH TV

I think you should really keep that burn out question for all future cocktail correspondence, Laura, because I think it’s a really important issue.

It’s really interesting to find out how everyone else experiences that and I do think it will also help all of us, especially creatives again, with imposter syndrome, to know that we’re not alone and that we’re all dealing with the same problems, but we can find out from others how they deal with it and we can maybe implement that ourselves to combat burn out, future burn out, so that we are more relaxed and enjoying ourselves in our chosen sector in the creative industry.

Let’s move on to the next question that you sent me and see what we’ve got.

BUILDING YOUR CAREER AS A CREATIVE PRO LESSON 4: GIVING NEWBIES A LEG UP

Okay, so, this next one is,

Giving newbies a leg up.

CARD NUMBER FOUR

LAURA: And because you chose to have me tell one of my tales, you have to tell your tale about this one, so fire away.

COL: The design industry as a whole is seen in a different way from, let’s say, an architect, and I’m talking graphic design here.

It’s often seen as a throw-away thing and it’s not valued as much as some of the other creative industries and a lot of the time it’s a race to the bottom on price. You have got sites like 99designs and Fiverr. Now I’m not going to rail on those, I think they serve a purpose, but for me as a brand designer, a logo designer, brand identity, those sites are really damaging to logo design as a niche, I suppose, in the design world.

Logo design takes a lot of effort, takes a lot of research and a lot of preparation and when you see people offering it for a fiver, 10 quid, 50 quid, even 100, it doesn’t do our industry justice.

THERE WILL ALWAYS BE THE BARGAIN HUNTERS

Now you’re always going to have people who won’t want to pay much and that’s fine, that’s how it works, but what I wanted to do was, in terms of giving newbies a leg up, now if I had people come in as an intern, I can do that on a one-to-one basis.

HOW COL WANTS TO HELP NEWBIES ON A MUCH BIGGER SCALE

I needed a way. I wanted to maybe try to reach out in a wider way, help as many people as possible from my experiences and I suppose my YouTube channel is a way of doing that.

Now I actually started my YouTube channel to help business owners, new business owners, and existing business owners with their brand, but it very quickly became apparent that there was a lot of younger designers, I say younger designers, there are many people who get into design who are not young, so let’s say young in their career as designers, were following my channel and taking part and asking me questions.

RESPONDING TO A DEMAND

It was great to know that my content on my channel was helping my industry and by that, what I mean is, if I can help give people who are early in their design career more confidence to charge more, to stand up for themselves more, show them how to attract better clients, how to promote themselves, then overall, that’ll hopefully make the design industry improve.

I know that there are other designers out there on YouTube and who have podcasts, blog writing, who are also doing the same. I’m not in a vacuum, I’m not doing this on my own, there are other designers out there, more experienced designers like me, who are trying to help younger designers get that leg up and get a good start in their career, learn from the mistakes that we all made.

I mean a regular comment I get on my YouTube channel is that people are learning more from my videos than they learned when they were at school or college.

So, there must be something there that’s worthwhile and I just want to say that I am just about to start doing actual mentoring for younger designers because I feel that part of my purpose is to teach. I love teaching, I love delivering workshops and so I’ve decided to make a conscious effort to make teaching a part of my business, a service offering that I give.

So, hopefully, that answers that question for you, Laura?

BUILDING YOUR CAREER AS A CREATIVE PRO LESSON 5: JUST GOING FOR IT AS A CREATIVE

LAURA: You are sharing so many helpful lessons today. Thank you so much for this. Why don’t we go straight into your last card?

COL: Yep. I am ready on this one, Laura.

This is it, the final card.

Dun, dun, dun.

What does it say?

Just going for it as an independent creative professional.

CARD NUMBER FIVE

I suppose one of my biggest regrets, if I have one, about my design career is leaving it so long to go out on my own and start my own business and be in charge of myself and what I do.

For some people, they just have no inclination to be a freelancer and they would rather be an employee and that’s great and I would actually recommend that even if you’re self-taught.

IF YOU ARE SELF-TAUGHT

If you’re self-taught or you are fresh out of college, art college, art school, whatever, I would highly recommend that you try to get a job inside a design studio. This will really help you in building your career as a Creative Pro.

You will learn a tonne.

You will learn so much from working as part of a team and learning from people in that agency who’ve got more years on you and can pass down the knowledge, compared to just going out there on your own and fumbling around and trying to figure out business and marketing yourself and all of that stuff, it’s really difficult. I did work in a few studios before I went solo, but I probably could have gone solo a lot quicker than I did. But if you are just want to freelance, just go for it. I know it’s scary, especially if you’re maybe in a job right now and you’ve got that monthly income coming in and it’s set and you’re like, I know how much money I’ve got, one of the things about going freelance is, woo, it can be a bumpy ride.

ON THE MONEY SIDE OF THINGS

Some months you make good money, other months you don’t make any money, so you have to make sure you keep money saved to wither that. You do want to try to bring some things in to even that out, whether that’s affiliate income, some passive income, it might even be as you start freelancing, you might need to get a part-time job just in a supermarket or something, just to bring in a fixed amount of money to take the pressure off of the bells a little bit so that you’re not panicking too much and it will be scary, and to be honest, you might try it and it might not work.

But it might just not work because you’re not ready at that point, so don’t let it derail you from ever starting your own business or from ever going freelance, just take a step back, maybe another job again, whether that’s in design or like I say, a job anywhere just to bring some money in, work on your portfolio.

MAKE YOUR OWN WEBSITE WHILE BUILDING YOUR CAREER AS A CREATIVE PRO

One of the things I will say is to build your own website. If you’re promoting all of your stuff on Behance or Pinterest or any of the other portfolio sites, they can change at any time or they could disappear at any time. They may just decide, we don’t want that anymore and they’ll pull it offline.

You need your own website because that way you are in control. So make sure that you build your own website with your portfolio, saying what you do, what your skills are and case studies, testimonials, and that will really, really, really help you.

THEN EMAIL LIST

And on the back of starting your own website, also start to build an email list. Any inquiries you get, you’ll maybe start a little newsletter or create a lead magnet, a useful piece of information about design, top tips for clients who have a new business and gather email addresses because that will become very, very valuable and it lets you communicate directly to people who have been interested in a service that you offer.

I think that covers that last question about building your career as a creative pro for me, Laura.

LAURA: I am incredibly grateful that you’ve taken the time to do a little bit of creative jamming with me so that we’ve evolved this segment a little bit. It really does help to bounce ideas off each other. I’ve been your host, Laura Pearman.

COL: And I’ve been your cocktail correspondent, Col Gray.

If you’re interested in brand, branding, brand identity for your business, or maybe you’re a designer who’s interested in learning more about that, why not join hundreds of other brand rockers and join my monthly bulletin email, which is called, Rock Your Brand, and you can join that at rockyourbrand.co.uk.

LAURA: Thank you for sharing so much about building your career as a creative pro Col. Mwah.

COL: Mwah.

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