A conversation between Emily Cohen and The Canvas
Please share a bit about how you got to where you are.
I was raised to be an artist. I went to art classes, I went to art school, I then transferred to be a design major where I became a designer for about three years and really wasn't good at it. I was at a career moment of “What am I going to do?” I started to ask my clients and friends in the industry, “What should I do, because I love design, I just don't want to be a designer?” I was repeatedly told that I am really good at just kicking people's butts.
When I started my career, there was no business of design. There was only the business of agencies. Agencies had account managers and project managers, but creative, design driven firms didn't have project managers. So I went to five different firms in a week: “Hey, I can talk to your clients, I can write, I can negotiate, I can run your team.” Basically, I just created a job—literally got five job offers in a week. I took the highest paying offer, and I grew that studio from five people to about 35 to 40 when I left.
After leaving I had friends in the industry and so people started spreading the word: “Hey, there's this woman who really loves design and knows business, and can write,” and so I got clients that way.
How have the problems your clients face today evolved since you formed your consultancy?
When I first started, what we were doing was an art form. And there were a bunch of creative people who started a business who knew nothing about business. There was a moment in time where people started realizing: “Hey, this is a business, but I have no skills in this, somebody else should do that.” I think the industry is currently in need of more business-minded people, like operational directors, project managers, account managers—I actually call them producers. Because the world has gotten more complicated. Digital requires a lot more management than print and branding. Then there is signage and wayfinding; half the work is in the management of the project. I think the scale, type, and pace of creative firms today require an operational side that never existed when I first started my career.
Then professionally for me, my business started evolving, too. I'm much more strategic with providing real guidance: What's the vision of the firm? Where are they now? Where do they need to go? How did they get there? The changes can be rooted in a range of challenges from staffing, organizational structures, positioning on how to gain new business, market your firm, manage your clients, manage your team, etcetera.
Who is your ideal client?
For the most part, I work with creative forward design firms, not with large scale agencies that are driven by bottom line only. That means graphic design across all fields like packaging, signage, digital, print, branding and experiential. Since the book, I have expanded into industrial design and landscape designers. I work with firms that have been in business for at least three years, and who have at least two employees, though not with firms that are over 100 people. When the firm is too large, I think there's too much politics and a lack of change and lack of risk.
What are some green flags and even red flags when determining whether a client is a good fit?
Green flag: risk takers. People that are really willing to take risks are ideal for me, as opposed to people that are change averse, or stubborn, or are difficult to work with, because they're not open to new ideas and open to new ways of thinking. I love people who are smart and who challenge me, because I think we always get to a better place. Honestly, they have to align with me politically; I can't work with crazy people that are doing evil things to the world. So I choose them based on their ethics and values, which are a little harder to tell, but usually I can.
Can you briefly walk us through your process?
I have a bunch of questions I ask prospective clients. Most of my clients I know in some way already; very rarely do they come in purely cold. I usually look at whether the work is evolving the industry, is the practice putting out good work. Then I write a proposal. The way we work together is different for each of my clients. It usually starts off with a full day business retreat, where we do a whole discovery session, review every single document they've developed, proposals, contracts, P&L’s, and find out about their team. After some discovery we then identify pain points we need to work on. We spend a day and a half working through a lot of challenges, and then we work together on an ongoing basis after that.
Is there a challenge that rises to the top for most clients?
The biggest one is positioning. A lot of firms allow referral-based business and inbound business to shape their direction. What happens is that those connections dictate what kind of work you do and who you work for. One of the greatest challenges for most of my clients is for them to realize that's not healthy. Second is around specialization: Who are we? What makes us different? What industries do we go after? What kind of services do we provide? Specialization and positioning are more important than ever. So I would say that is how to do new business. You know, how to go after clients you want. The third bucket that I work a lot on is staffing and organizational structure. During COVID, it was about scaling back, and now it's about growing the team and what that looks like.
So what's next?
Now I have a partnership. I have a second person on my team who happens to be my daughter. She's been working with me for years, but now it's official. She has different skills than me. She's much more tactical and project focused. So I think that's going to make a big difference in terms of how many clients I can take on, what kinds of clients I can take on, and what bigger problems I can take on.
Industry wise, I think we're dividing into two types, and I think eventually we'll be fully divided: There are strategic firms—firms that are just high level thinkers, strategists, design thinkers, thinking big picture; and then there are the executional firms that are just making stuff. Largely, most firms are making stuff and then sometimes doing strategy. I think it's very hard to do both and so I'm trying to get the industry to realize that there will be strategic firms and there will be execution firms.
If there was a brand or institution you could collaborate with who would it be?
I'd like to get more of a global world view of what's going on in other locations, like I have with clients in Canada and Israel, because there are different things that are going on across the globe that I think we're all being impacted by.